Ski racing is a notoriously expensive sport. Aside from all of the hard work, time, and energy, an athlete musters in order to “make it” they must also be able to take on the expenses that come along the way. That being said, is there any real money to be made in the sport, once athletes climb their way to the top?
In a sport where athletes compete on an individual basis, there is no base salary. Their financial status and security depend on their capacity to win, and their capacity to market their brand (aka themselves), as a business. In ski racing, athlete funding can come from resources outside of themselves, through avenues such as team funding and/or donations. But the real money in alpine racing, as with most sports, comes from endorsements, sponsorships, and an athlete’s marketing value – unless you’re Mikaela Shiffrin or Marcel Hirscher and can rake in the prize money.
Ski racing is one of the few sports where prize money is essentially the same across genders. Exact numbers fluctuate depending on the venue. By the FIS’ standard, a minimum of 120,000 CHF must be distributed to the top 30 finishers by the race organizers. If over 120,000 CHF race organizers must decide individually how to allocate athletes winnings. Standard distribution tends to award 45,000 Swiss francs (CHF) to the winner, which equates to roughly 45,956 U.S. dollars (USD), depending on the day. A second-place finish typically warrants a 20,000 CHF check, third a 10,000 CHF check, and the numbers continue to decrease, shutting down at 200 CHF for the 30th finisher. Athletes also have the opportunity to earn prize money at World Championships, as of 2011.
A win at venues such as the notorious Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel, earns a higher payout, mainly because this stop is a big money maker, as it is consistently ranked as the highest attended series on the circuit. For example, 21-year-old Clement Noel’s slalom win won him 84,360 CHF, Hirscher’s second-place finish earned him 42,180 CHF.
Shiffrin’s highest pay-out came with her 14th win of the season when she beat out Germany’s Christina Geiger in the Stockholm City Event. That win made her 55,000 CHF, her biggest individual race check of the season. In total, the 24-year-old accumulated 886,387 CHF in prize money, about $903,700 for 17 wins.
Tack on another 114,000 CHF (her winnings at World Championships in Are, Sweden), and the American became the first-ever athlete on the FIS World Cup circuit to earn more than 1,000,000 CHF in prize money after a single season. She made 1.6 times as much prize money as Hirscher, the men’s overall crystal globe winner, who walked away from the season with 565,111 CHF of earnings solely from regular-season World Cup races, approximately $576,000 dollars.
Of course, Shiffrin is a rare breed. Not many alpine athletes can cross over into multiple disciplines and contest for the win every single race, but she can.
“I think the reason I have out-earned the men is because there are no men that are skiing in all events,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “So by skiing in every discipline, I have that many more opportunities to win more money.”
After having the winningest season in World Cup history, Shiffrin still did not break into Forbe’s top-15 highest-paid female athletes of 2019, even with her endorsements from sponsors such as Barilla and Longines.
Even Hirscher’s winnings are a bit of a stretch for the average competitor. Both athletes are at the top of their sport, making little to no room for their competitors at the top of the podium. Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova, the runner-up in the prize money standings, earned 428,195.50 CHF’s at the end of the 2019 season, almost half of Shiffrin’s earnings. Italy’s Dominik Paris total of 382,710 CHF earned him the second-place slot in the prize money standings behind Hirscher, a closer margin, but still far off the mark from the Austrian technical powerhouse.
In comparison to other individual sports, skiing is not the most lucrative. Lindsey Vonn, one of the few athletes who has been able to capitalize on skiing financially by both winning and strategically marketing her brand, has said that her path to financial success would have been worse off if it weren’t for the encouragement of her father to market herself from a young age.
“If you’re not in the top 5 or 10 in the world, you’re struggling to not have to get a second job,” Vonn told Maverick Carter in her episode of Kneading Dough, a financial short series hosted by Chase’s Uninterrupted in 2018. “This isn’t like tennis or golf, there are no six-figure checks coming our way.”
At the end of the day, ski racers must cover a multitude of expenses for amenities required to be successful in their sport, such as training, equipment, travel, a technician team, etc. Prize money is also taxed according to the law of the country of the race organizer, and then again by the United States if the athlete is an American.
Cross-country, another method to break into the world of professional skiing, is even less lucrative. Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo, the number one male earner on the FIS World Cup circuit in 2019, made a total of 207’500 CHF by the end of the season, around $212,000.
Snowboarders, mogul skiers, and aerialists, amongst other Olympic winter sports, hardly earn anything from FIS. Their income is derived from winning individual competitions, such as the X-Games, or the Dew Tour if it’s available to them. During the FIS Freestyle and Freeski World Championships, held in Park City this past February, a total of $750,000+ in prize money was awarded around 29 competitions in 13 events.
Prize money is dependent on the governing body overseeing the sport. For example, the International Skating Union (ISU) awards it’s athlete’s $64,000 for a win at the World Figure Skating Championships as individual competitors, up to $90,000 as a pair. This prize money allotment is decided during the ISU conferences each year, recorded, and then publicly released. Even juniors have the opportunity to win prize money.
Although there are opportunities to earn in the winter sports, making money in individual sports is best done outside of the winter season, through games such as golf or tennis, even badminton. In fact, 12 of Forbe’s top 15 highest-paid female athletes are tennis players. Even badminton can be considered one of the higher paid individual sports. P.V. Sindhu earned a total of about $500,000 within 2019, not including a myriad of endorsements that landed her the 13th spot in the top 15 highest-paid female athletes. Males can expect higher average pay in both individual and team sports. In 2019, 15 women hit the $5 million dollar mark in earnings from prize money, salaries, bonuses, endorsements, and appearance fees, whereas roughly 1,300 male athletes will hit that mark this year, according to Forbes. The U.S. Women’s National Team star, Alex Morgan, was the only team sport athlete to break into the mix (due to the volume of her endorsements).
Breakout tennis star, 21-year-old Naomi Osaka, raked in $8.3 million in prize money over the last 12 months, almost double that of Serena Williams. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic has earned just short of $16 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. Brooks Koepka currently leads the official money standings of the PGA Golf Tour for men at $9,684,000 million. Jin Young Ko leads for the women at $2,281,131.
It’s safe to say that if you’re looking to “make bank” in the winter sports arena, alpine ski racing seems to be the way to go, as alpine races are the highest, consistently paid events on the FIS World Cup circuit. Just don’t expect to contest with Shiffrin for the honor of breaking the glass ceiling and earning over one million Swiss Francs in prize money. There’s a reason why she is the only ski racer to have accomplished the feat thus far.