Saturday I took off from Nashville with a group of friends from Arkansas, Memphis, and Cookeville for a trip to Cheoah and Tallulah... After deciding to play musical boats lap after lap it seemed like the perfect day to try out a line I've been thinking about for a while, the infamous Left to Middle line on Bear Creek Rapid.
(photo by Jordan Byrum)
It's been done before, though not by many, but I had never SEEN it done myself. Believe it or not, that does make a difference, and after looking at it from the river left side, I decided that it was definitely the time to go for it. I gave the thumbs up and waited for the cameras... Huge success or epic fail, we wanted video either way... It went so well in the Zen I had to do it again in the Villain... good times!
So you want to be sponsored? (a long but necessary read)
I decided this would make an interesting post for a variety of reasons, and I've been putting it off for a while. I receive almost weekly messages from other paddlers asking me how to go about getting sponsored. Kids today want to be cool, get sponsored and just paddle all the time, but there are a lot of misconceptions about sponsorship that even the general public could benefit from. Ever wondered what it takes? The purpose here is to explain what goes into sponsorship from the athlete's perspective nearly every outdoor sport.
Why do people want to get sponsored?
First, it seems like a lot of kids (and grown-ups) want to get sponsored to validate their skills... it sure isn't for the money (there's not much of that around). An example of this is on Hookit.com, a social media marketing site for hooking up athletes with sponsors... specifically with there first sponsors... most are happy with a 30% discount and then tell all their friends they're sponsored. The companies on the other hand, post up their pro team (sometimes) and then "sponsor" 400 kids with 30% discount deals, still making money and using the desire to get sponsored to sell product. Corran Addison was awesome at that when he started Riot Kayaks. It was one of his bigger marketing strategies, geared specifically toward teens through women in bikinis and a surf style persona with flashy sponsors. Second, there is the illusion that once you get good enough, sponsors will just give you free boats and travel and life will be good. It just doesn't happen that way in reality. The same misconception holds that sponsorship is given purely on the merit of skill and paddling experience.
The Bottom line is that getting sponsored purely on the merit of skill is not likely to happen beyond occasional industry/pro deals (discounts). While skill is important, there's always someone better. World class boaters are everywhere these days and good boaters are a dime a dozen and it's much easier to get good now than it has ever been. At the same time manufacturers have less money than they did 10 years ago and typically make less on products than before. This means sponsors are looking more for good marketers with industry insight and a versatile skill set who happen to be great boaters, than for just great boaters who want to model free stuff and run the goods. Personality, approachability, skill, and marketing savvy, are typical qualities sought by major manufacturers. Keep in mind that less than 20% of the sport is whitewater and an even tinier portion of that is extreme whitewater and hardcore freestyle, maybe 10% of the whitewater portion (I'm no math major but I think that's 2%... which is pretty generous). For a company to survive they have to reach out primarily to the other 80% which is the touring/rec industry to make enough money to stay on top. Sponsorship is an accessory budget which is important from a marketing perspective, but the first to be cut from a business perspective.
So what do sponsors want?
With that knowledge sponsors are looking for the following:
> Marketing savvy, including the ability to work with dealers, create new markets, promote to current markets, and market ones-self via shameless self promotion for the sake of sales...
> Constant communication, staying in touch with each sponsor at all times (yes, you have to do all the work) and explaining how you benefitted the company today... updates are important
> Marketing insight, knowing the paddling industry deep enough to know how to get a manufacturer deeper into the paddlesports industry... this helps with larger brands.
> High quality, High Resolution Photos and HD video for use in marketing & promotions- athlete branding in all photos, videos, and exposure, showing logos and gear- cross marketing exposurevia their logos in other sponsors ads-
> Media Exposure as free advertising for them (yes you do all the work again)
> Dealer visits, where you educate dealers on the product, perform clinics, and work with dealers to promote increased sales.
> Social Media updates for web content - this means blogging regularly on and keeping up with... drum roll... 10 different blogs... AT THE LEAST
> Web content (stories/writeups/etc...) for their websites... you have 10 sponsors you have to update 10 websites.
> Gear testing and feedback (actual R&D work is fun, but more work than it sounds)
> product assignments, getting specific shots of specific gear for specific ads
...and the least keeps going but you've got the idea...
In Return, you MIGHT Get:
> free gear
> financial aid on paddling trips (that you have to mix with a full tour of dealer visits)
> Industry deals on other product
> Paid entry fees
> money for exposure, if you really make it, through Media Incentive Contracts, etc...
> additional exposure, development, or project opportunities.
Did I mention you're taxed on your sponsored income??? keep up with those travel expenses!
So I'm no Tao, no Tyler Bradt, and no Eric Jackson, how do I make money?
well there are a lot of ways but these are what I've found to be the best...
1. Selling photos to magazines - they're picky and it takes a LOT of work for $50-$300 a photo
2. Media incentive contracts... created with some sponsors where they pay based on where and how often their logo shows up in my personal exposure. It's also based on the circulation of the media it is in.
3. clinics...great to split $$$ with a dealer for a clinic in their name
4. Some sponsors will pay for a dealer visit (sales clinic), but it hardly covers gas. It's a great way to travel across the country though.
What I like to do is sell a photo to a magazine with good logos showing up, then cash in on media incentives, then send in the exposure to all my other sponsors who then send gear or other help in return... this way one photo is worth quite a bit more than it would be if you just sold it. Did I mention magazines only want exclusives? Unless it's a world record descent... they don't want to publish a photo used somewhere else. If you're lucky, you'll break even and get some awesome opportunities out of the deal. If you're really good, you can make a little $$$ but you'd make more as a teacher with 3 months off to paddle and every holiday If you're Tao or EJ you might get 6 figures... but how many boaters out there are THAT good? and how many have THAT marketing savvy... How many can start their own kayaking company? Personally, I LOVE to boat all the time, but I also love teaching.
If you want to get sponsored, there is no magic formula, but here are 5 steps you can take to get in:
1. paddle as much as you can, in as many different places as you can. Variety yields experience and versatility... but think beyond that. As you travel around - NETWORK!
2. Get in touch with your local retailers. You may even want to work at one for a while. You can develop a feel for sales, sales strategy, and learn more about industry product and the outdoor sports industry in general.
3. Practice filming and photography as often as possible. Document trips with friends and develop the skills and framework to not only get the shot, but also to learn how to edit and share effectively.
4. When you're ready, teach lots of free clinics. Teaching is a great way to fine tune skill, AND teaching is a skill in and of itself. It's absolutely necessary and vital to have when you start traveling around teaching clinics for retailers.
5. last but certainly not least, train, train, and train some more. The more mental and physical discipline, strength, stamina, and balance you can build, the better the athlete you will become.
Hopefully this will help paddlers understand what it really means to be sponsored and what really goes into sponsorship.
Although its only a class IV creek, it's been called the Green Narrow's redneck cousin. Regardless of skill level, Johnnies finds a way to make it near the top of every paddlers hit list, and they always return year after year.
If you ever wanted to run Johnnies Creek or if you just miss it, you'll enjoy this little vid.
Every rapid is included with some rescues thrown in for good measure...
One of my favorite runs in the Southeast, Big Creek always leaves me with "the biggest smile I've EVER had"... every time. The smokies just have a way about them that serves up some of the best whitewater in the southeast. I'm not sure if it's the crisp air or the round, smooth boulders. Maybe it's the emerald water and friendly crowd. Regardless, I always feel like I've come back home. Unfortunately, in my excitement I forgot to turn the camera on a few times and I didn't capture all the goods. What I DID capture were some good times, great friends, and HUGE smiles... hopefully enough to get my point across.... Big Creek is a truly special place.