Since the 2017-2018 season ended and the 2018-19 U.S. Alpine Ski Team has been named, there has been a great deal of discussion around topics like the lack of young talent coming up through the pipeline, transparency, culture, funding, cutting athletes from the men’s World Cup slalom team and beyond. It was the talk of the town at U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress in May. Buzz words have been buzzing and a lot of constructive conversation has happened as a result – discussions that have led to actions like U.S. Ski & Snowboard publishing financial information pertaining to athlete costs and benefits to athletes, and more.
What the community may not know is that athletes play a huge role in funding their own professional careers, in tandem with the organization. I know firsthand, because I work closely with athletes and the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Foundation team to make some of the organization’s fundraising events a reality. The amount of hustle this team displays as they plan events and the equal amount of passion athletes bring to these events to share with potential donors is palpable. For athletes, it’s a way to connect with those who are extremely passionate about the sport of ski racing and our athletes as humans.
Sure, professional basketball, football baseball and hockey players have obligations and appearances, but the big difference with Olympic sports like alpine ski racing is that there’s not a multi-million dollar industry surrounding it. According to Forbes, the sports market in North America (focused on MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL) is expected to reach 73.5 billion by 2019, due in large part to increased revenue derived from media rights deals ($20.6 billion). Along with that, add ticket sales and game attendance, sponsorship and licensed merchandise, and beyond. In the sport of alpine ski racing, we can’t even begin to compare. You know that whole David and Goliath analogy? We’re like a miniature version of David and we don’t have a single stone to cast at Goliath.
Add to that zero government funding, and the situation is quite challenging. U.S. Ski & Snowboard athletes rely on donor and sponsor dollars to fund their professional sports careers, while athletes from European nations often receive government funding. As such, the whole “Best in the World” vision former CEO & President Bill Marolt coined back in the day must have seemed even more of a stretch…until it actually became a reality.
That reality was made possible, not only by a lot of belief in some extremely talented outlier athletes (featuring a really strong ’84 birth year) but also a strong cast of supporters, a fundraising team at U.S. Ski & Snowboard who understood the importance of fostering relationships, and athletes that understood the importance of connecting with the community and giving back to the people who, as Mikaela Shiffrin put it, “actually really do care.”
So, what do these fundraisers look like and how do and athletes get involved? Fundraisers can focus on the Gold Pass program in a small, intimate setting hosted by a donor in New York City the night before the New York Gold Medal Gala, raising money at our ski balls, or – at times – even a tad unconventional, with a regional reception featuring break dancing (“breaking” as the cool kids call it), hosted by a passionate break dancing and ski racing fan and Burke Mountain Academy alumni named Steve Graham.
Recently, in West Philadelphia (no, I’m not going to quote the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air intro right here, but now it’s definitely in my head – you too?), a #ONETEAM squad of U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s finest, including Olympic champion and alumna Dianne Roff, two-time Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin, Olympians Liz Stephen, Breezy Johnson, Tommy Biesemeyer and Ryan Cochran-Siegle, World Junior downhill champion Alice Merryweather, and three-time national champion Nina O’Brien. Tiger Shaw, who grew up ski racing with Graham in Vermont, also joined the crew.
“We were very happy to host a U.S. Ski & Snowboarding event at our farm in the Western Suburbs of Philadelphia, connecting the Philadelphia community with the athletes of the U.S. Ski Team, and connecting the athletes with professional break dancers from New York City and Philly who compete on the Pro Breaking Tour,” shared Graham. “Four of the national team skiers learned some breaking moves from the pros, and they did awesome – they were Mikaela, Liz, Tommy (even with his Achilles injury) and Ryan.”
Although “A Team” athletes are fully funded, B, C and D Team athletes are only partially funded. During the 2018 season, athletes at the B Team level were able to offset all team fees by hosting – in large part thanks to Randy Viola and his brother Charley – their own B Team fundraiser at Yama Sushi in Vail, Colorado during the week of the Copper Mountain prep period camp, as well as engaging passionate donors and applying for grants offered by U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “B Team” athlete Biesemeyer has tasted top 10 on the World Cup and shown promise, but has also been plagued by injury. Biesemeyer knows, all too well, the importance of connecting with the community and spreading awareness about the lack of government funding for him and his teammates.
“With no government funding comes huge responsibility for U.S. Ski & Snowboard,” notes Biesemeyer, “and part of that responsibility are the athletes working as a team to share our passion and dreams with supporters. What makes these events difficult as an athlete is the fact you are asking for money, which is never an easy thing to do, although it is events like these that provide a foundation for our team to build the best environments to succeed.”
To give you an idea of what kind of money we’re talking about through these regional receptions, U.S. Ski & Snowboard has raised anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 and they’ve been instrumental in introducing new supporters to the team. However, the value is really in long term relationships built with people that care deeply about the sport, and/or the humans doing the sport.
The focus of the recent Steve Graham event was purely awareness, and the cool thing is that U.S. Ski & Snowboard supporters like Graham act as ambassadors, introducing the organization and athletes to their networks in hopes of bringing new supporters on board. Shiffrin, who often makes appearances at such events, shared the importance of authentically connecting with potential supporters, and echoed teammate Biesemeyer in the challenge associated with asking for money.
“The thing that hits home for most people is when you say, ‘You’re a big part of making our dreams a reality’ and just being honest about that and up front,” reflected Shiffrin. “Saying things like ‘We’re here trying to raise money, and the fact that we don’t have support from the government makes it a really crucial piece of our reality, but at the same time – just being here and being able to meet you face to face and knowing that you support us either emotionally in whatever way you can, or with funding’ is hugely important.
Bode [Miller] used to say that he skied for the inspiration of the sport, to feel inspired himself, and to inspire others. It’s totally true. The biggest compliment I could ever receive is when people say, ‘You inspire me so much…to do whatever…not necessarily just to be skiers, but inspiring to them in general.’ That’s the gift donors give to us, as part of these fundraisers. The best way you can get that as an athlete is to go to that and be involved – I think it’s important that athletes attend in order for potential donors to get a heart-to-heart, face-to-face connection and understand us as humans, and what we do/why we’re so passionate about it – and want to support us.”
Cochran-Siegle, of the famed “Skiing Cochran” and son to gold medalist Barbara Ann, acknowledges that donors enjoy meeting top athletes like Olympic gold medalists Shiffrin and Ted Ligety – who help bring in a majority of the funding from a marketing standpoint – but also believes in the importance of representation of the broader team to give potential donors a holistic understanding of the depth in personalities. He also is thankful for the personal growth networking events such as these provide.
“The more money we can raise from generous donors, the less of a financial burden we have to take on ourselves prior to the start of our seasons,” reflected Cochran-Siegle, who has persevered through a Lateral Meniscus and Osteochondral allograft transplant in 2015 and just came off his most successful season, grabbing 11th, 14th and 23rd in the giant slalom, super-G and downhill, respectively, at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. “I believe strongly that the more support we have and feel at the beginning of the season directly correlates to our performance and ability to achieve success going forward. If that means having to attend a few more fundraisers and gatherings throughout the year to achieve that, then so be it as long as we continue to progress and move forward.”
Don’t be fooled by the eloquence and sophistication emanating from these athletes. It’s not an easy feat. Often managing personal sponsor obligations, autograph signings, media, along with U.S. Ski & Snowboard sponsor appearances, trustee dinners, and ski balls – on top of their on- and off-hill athletic program – can be hectic. Trust me, I know. It’s more than a full-time job. It’s a labor of love. Multi-million dollar contracts like Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry’s five-year $201 million seem like pure lunacy in our small ski world.
The difference with the ski community, though, is just that: it is a community. Once you’re in, you’re in. It’s special. We want to see our sport survive and thrive. Ski racing is not basketball. It’s not easily accessible. It’s expensive. I get that.
I quite often think about what it’d be like to meet sports heroes like Curry or the Cav’s LeBron James…or any of the guys from – my pick for the Stanley Cup – the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Here’s the conclusion I almost always arrive at – “nah, I’m good”. I started skiing at three years old, racing at seven years old, and I’ve had the honor of working amongst some of my biggest childhood heroes in sport: Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso and beyond. There’s magic in this community. U.S. Ski & Snowboard athletes understand that magic and the importance of sharing it with any and all who will listen.
After all, their livelihood depends on it.