The Sponsor Monster
I crack the conversation at breakfast: I want to write an article about how the sponsorship model has changed since the beginning of airsports. I remark that I imagine it's going to be a long one -- a book, maybe.
My laid-back, easy-going, lassaiz-faire partner (who is, coincidentally, sponsored) almost immediately dusts off and sharpens his little-used claws. Why? Who's going to want to talk about it? What's my problem?
This is a touchy subject.
Sponsorship, after all, is becoming -- has become? -- a necessary evil. If you're entirely self-funded (and haven't burst forth from fountains of preexistent wealth), you're going to hit a glass ceiling somewhere. No matter what your level of talent, you're unlikely to command any spotlight time in the Airsports Circus without outside support. Sure, you can throw drogues or point cameras at shrieking tandem passengers. But there's no question that you can do a lot more when you look like a floating Nascar -- and it seems like everyone "serious" is gunning hard for those logos. There's an implicit promise in those colorful little patches: the latitude to finally bin your ragged-out gear; to go on the event circuit; to join the big leagues.
It's not just skydiving, of course. The windy tube is an even-better example. If you're not the lucky recipient of sponsored minutes, you'll probably burn a full workweek throwing meat around (with a few short demos thrown in) before you get the chance to work on your own stuff. Then, of course, there's BASE jumping. A sport that used to be about jumping situation-ally inappropriate gear and hoping for the best is now highly technical, multi-disciplinary, thronging with new talent and all about the suit upgrade. Full-timing BASE pretty much requires a full lifestyle reboot (and perhaps a cross-continental move). Head-to-toe black and yellow sure doesn't hurt -- a color combination that occasionally comes with a staff packer and access to sky scraping diving boards.
There is, of course, an inconvenient truth at play here: tiling yourself with logos like a mangled game of Connect Four won't put food on the table. Those insignia don't, in and of themselves, represent a living (unless you’re one of the handful of athletes gumming the teat of full-on government funding). Most of them represent gear discounts; free gadgets; a few bucks shaved off each jump ticket; a vetting of your coaching value; a recursive validation you can enjoy whenever you look at your suit, or your canopy, or your Facebook feed. Go 'head and throw 'em all on the table like you're playing Sponsorship: The Gathering, but you're still gonna need a day job. And even then -- as Clif Bar so famously demonstrated -- no sponsorship arrangement is forever.
And what price support?
"It forces noncompetitive people to be competitive," sighed a household-name friend of mine over drinks. "It makes totally normal, grounded people look and act like #$%&*@ glory hounds." And if you complain, of course, you're an ass: after all, you made it. Why are you whining? Aren't you smoking cigars and eating caviar among the cosseted elite?
There is lots to ponder, here. How does a high-benefit sponsorship change an athlete's relationship to these sports*? How does it change athletes' relationships with each other? How does outside support change the sport itself? And that, of course, begs the question: how many fatalities could be connected to upping the stakes for a sponsor?
Legendary MotoGP winner Valentino Rossi said it best, I think, when he was asked why he didn't switch out his beloved number 46 for the 1. It's the champion's right and privilege to do so, and he turned it down win after win after win. "The number one," he said through a sideways smile, "is very heavy on the front of the bike."
* Interesting follow-on reading: a 2010 study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton on what scientists call the "overjustification effect."
Nice article Annette. I have been thinking about many of these issues for some time now, and have observed some of the problems they create, but you have put them in writing in an interesting way, and have introduced a few others.
One thing that I would like to point out is that no one is holding a gun to anyone's head to be a sponsored or professional skydiver or BASE jumper. There are other ways of making a living, thereby allowing your sport to remain fun, (and perhaps safer.)
No Fear . . .
At an early 1990s Bridge Day in West Virginia I was kind of shocked to see the first inroads of corporate tentacles into the sport of BASE jumping. Among the booths set up in a Fayetteville
school gymnasium by a fledgling BASE equipment industry there is a new non-BASE related company called "No Fear" hawking their popular line of t-shirts. Most old school BASE jumpers who were there, including me, saw this as a sacrilege. They tried to give away a few shirts for free just to get the ball rolling. But when someone tried handing me one I said, "Get me one that says, "Big Fear," and I'll wear it. I wanted to say more, but it would have been pointless. These were just kids who answered an advert to come work for some "dynamic" new company.
BASE jumping was still very much an underground activity in those days, and there was no graphical internet and certainly no YouTube. And except for Bridge Day we were still being chased in the middle of the night by cops and security guards. Or so we thought. The next day two BASE jumpers were handcuffed and arrested on the bridge for outstanding (BASE related) warrants. Believe me, if "Anonymous" masks were available in those days many jumpers would have been wearing them as BASE was still very much a combination of parachuting and bank robbery. But that wasn't my main beef with No Fear.
Nobody owns BASE jumping. You can't rent it, bottle it, or sell it. Each of us during our active years as BASE jumpers are merely stewards of a pretty spectacular human endeavor. And it's a legacy stretching back to the 15th century when crude but effective parachutes are being jumped from tall stone towers in Europe. These devices were marketed as a way to escape the fires that often engulfed these towers which were filled with straw furnishings and where flaming torches provided the lighting at night.
In more modern times like the 1980s and 1990s that legacy was bolstered by every BASE jumper who broke a leg (or worse) trying to learn something new from a piece of gear or a new technique. And those lessons were passed around the BASE community mostly by word of mouth. There was email in those days and internet bulletin boards were starting to appear but not many BASE jumpers were computer savvy enough to be using them. The very first email I sent was in about 1986 and it was to another BASE jumper.
Our legacy includes many things which also means talking about Carl Boenish. And in the thirty years I've been writing about BASE jumping I seldom fail to mention him. I know many of the younger jumpers roll their eyes but in my way it's how I was paying Carl Boenish back for all he did for us.
So it was in that frame of mind I stood there in front of that No Fear t-shirt booth and wondered, is this right? Is it something we should embrace or reject? What would Carl think if still alive? But this is almost ten years after he died and there were plenty of BASE jumpers on the scene who didn't care much for history and/or didn't worry about where BASE jumping was going. And I understood that way of thought. To many of them BASE jumping was just another cool thing you could do with parachutes and nothing more. So it was inevitable that corporate sponsors, for good or ill, would come into our world eventually.
There's an old adage in advertising. You don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. And in a world going bonkers for extreme sports we had the sizzle. But we could stave it off for a while and that was the consensus of the staff manning Bridge Day that year. No Fear was just using us and the sport of BASE jumping for money. And it seemed dirty. So we fired the bridge day organizer who took it upon himself to allow them in. And that was his first and last year in that position.
Now here we are all these years later so let's look back at how things turned out. (This is fun, isn't it?)
BASE jumping isn't the sport it used to be, but neither is skydiving or anything else for that matter. And except for a few bumps, like when Redbull callously took axes to way more than a few trees at an exit point to get better film in the can, it hasn't hurt us as much as helped us. And we knew a long time ago that BASE jumping would never grow and progress if it remained underground. So it that regard its helped a lot. It used to be if you wanted to organize a BASE jump with permission you had to first explain what BASE jumping was, and that's no longer the case.
I know Redbull, and other companies like them, use BASE jumping to sell their swill to teenagers, and I felt some joy when No Fear went bankrupt but in the end, I think it worked out for both these corporate entities and BASE jumping as one hand washes the other.
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