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Facing Uphill Struggle for Sponsors, U.S. Skiers Lead a Crowdfunding Trend

posted Dec 24, 2014, 12:37 AM by J Shaw   [ updated Dec 24, 2014, 12:38 AM ]
Keri Herman is one of the best female freestyle skiers in the world. She is ranked No. 1 in slopestyle and fifth over all in the Association of Freeskiing Professionals. At 32, she believes that she is still in the prime of her career.

Despite her strong results, she has found it difficult to retain her corporate sponsors, which she says are more interested in courting “cute little 15-year-olds” than in funding the top-ranked skiers. Faced with not knowing how she would pay her rent, let alone compete around the world, she started acrowdfunding campaign to try to keep her skiing career alive.

“I’ve been near the top of the sport for 10 years, but when I turned 30, my sponsors started to drop me,” Herman said this month from Breckenridge, Colo., where she won the Dew Tour slopestyle event. “I’m forced to give away all this swag I got in Sochi to contributors. I want to keep this stuff, but I’d rather keep skiing, so it’s like, ‘I guess I don’t need my Team USA hat.’ ”

A group of crowdfunding websites for athletes has started in recent years, including Rally Me, Pledge Sports, and Make a Champ. Thousands of athletes have used such sites to pay for their training, coaching, equipment, travel expenses and more, with varying degrees of success.

But last year, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association became the first national sports federation to establish a formal partnership with a crowdfunding site, Rally Me. More than 100 hopefuls for the Sochi Olympics raised money on the site; 28 made it to the Games, and five earned medals.

Other United States national teams took note, and in the last two months a number of them, including USA Cycling, U.S. Speedskating, USA Bobsled and Skeleton, USA Fencing, USA Archery, and USA Canoe and Kayak have established partnerships with Rally Me.

“It’s a tough discussion we have to have with our athletes, to tell them, ‘You qualified for the team, but you still have to contribute to your own career,’ ” said Luke Bodensteiner, the executive vice president for athletics at the ski and snowboard association.

In recent years, Bodensteiner said, the association has changed how it spends its annual budget of $12 million to $14 million on its 185 national team members, prioritizing coaching, sports science and training facilities over travel expenses. Only the elite skiers on the men’s and women’s alpine teams have 100 percent of their expenses covered.

The association estimated that its skiers and snowboarders had to cover about $2.5 million of their own expenses in 2014. They raised about $565,000 via Rally Me, and the remainder came from fund-raisers, parents, friends and the athletes themselves.

Bodensteiner acknowledged that the association’s inability to fully support all of its athletes could be interpreted negatively, but he maintained that it was providing its skiers and snowboarders with a valuable tool in showing them how to create successful crowdfunding campaigns.

Bill Kerig, a retired professional skier who founded Rally Me, said athletes were given video scripts to make it easier for them to make their appeals.

In most cases, the majority of donors to sports-related crowdfunding campaigns are people who have some connection to the athletes. The exceptions have typically involved athletes whose campaigns have garnered news media attention. Lindsey Van, the American ski jumper who led a decade-long fight to make women’s ski jumping an Olympic sport, raised more than $23,000 as Rally Me’s first athlete.

Emily Scott, an American speedskater, raised only $190 in two months during a 2013 campaign on Go Fund Me, a general-interest crowdfunding site. But her haul soared to more than $60,000 after USA Today published an article detailing how she went on food stamps after U.S. Speedskating cut her training subsidy. (U.S. Speedskating now has a partnership with Rally Me.)

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