Raising the Bar
How a unique sports bar subscription service is boosting ski racers and nonprofits alike through Play Hard Give Back
The next time somebody calls your brilliant idea completely nuts, point to Sun Valley’s Spencer Brendel — who’s turning nuts into a brilliant new business.
In a nutshell, Play Hard Give Back raises funds for athletes and connects them to more than 25 social and environmental causes through a subscription-based delivery service of energy bars and trail mix.
The light bulb went off for Brendel as he was road-tripping down the California coast with his dad, Jeff, in 2012. The next year, he presented the premise behind Play Hard Give Back (PHGB) as his senior project at St. Thomas University in Minnesota. Brendel’s professor was so impressed, she became his first official backer. Next up was landing a Wild Gift entrepreneurial grant in Idaho to get the company up and rolling.
Just three years after that road trip, PHGB now sponsors more than 40 elite athletes, including U.S. alpine skiers Travis Ganong, Marco Sullivan, Hailey Duke, Erik Fisher and Tanner Farrow.
So how does it work? You begin by choosing an athlete, learn about their mission and cause, and then you pick your “level” of subscription. A subscription, which can either be a one-time purchase or a monthly delivery, includes your choice of trail mix and sports bars. The money donated is broken down into three areas, with 25 percent of the donation going to the athlete, another 25 percent going to the cause, and the remaining 50 percent going back to PHGB to keep the cycle spinning.
“Our thought process was that the pro athletes, at least in the ski industry, don’t make enough money to be able to give back, as well as having busy schedules — they don’t have time,” said Brendel. “So we wanted to build a platform to be able to allow these athletes to be able to give back by doing something cool, engaging with their fans; and they provide a healthy product. It’s a win-win situation for pretty much everyone involved.”
Shortly after PHGB launched, Brendel connected with Ganong, who chose the Shane McConkey Foundation as his cause. “It’s great to have a platform that lets us go do our sport — train hard, play hard, race hard — and give back at the end of the day,” he told The New York Times.
Brendel was an athlete himself, playing college hockey for St. Thomas University and understanding firsthand the expenses of pursuing a sports dream. Why not, he thought, one-up the practice of fundraising through door-to-door sales of candy and coupon books and offer healthy snacks, plus the added incentive of giving back to a good cause?
“We are essentially just a marketplace for these athletes to be able to host their profile page,” Brendel said. “They direct their family, their friends, their fans, via social media, email or word of mouth, by telling them to buy snacks from their personal page, and in doing so they get to support them on a monthly basis.”
Duke, another Sun-Valley-based athlete, chose the nonprofit SheJumps as her cause. “It can be pretty daunting from an athlete’s point of view, to fundraise, be the athlete and give back at the same time,” she said. “They did a great job helping connect all three. Whenever I needed their help I was able to walk in, sit down and tell them what I needed. Everything from honing in my story, to ideas on how to give back to the community, they were ready to help.
PHGB recently finished a successful Kickstarter campaign to keep the company — based in a small Sun Valley space nicknamed the Landing Pad — moving forward.
Ryan Rosmarin joined PHGB after walking by the Landing Pad on his way home from lunch, immediately drawn to the mission. He was soon on board to oversee financials through a new Excel program — and lend a hand in making the mix, labeling bags and beyond. “By the nature of a small company,” he said, “we all do everything.”
PHGB also works with three youth sports organizations (reaching 400 kids), which can use the model much like Girl Scouts do with cookies. But instead of selling Samoas, they can sell a healthy product and at the same time learn the importance of giving back.
“With the youth athletes it’s less about the money going back to the nonprofits,” said Rosmarin, explaining that the ratio is split 90/10, instead of 50/50, “but hopefully the mindset that it instills.”
PHGB has also expanded into hotels, providing trail mix and energy bars for lobbies, cafés, turndown gifts and mini bars. The hotel then takes the same business model to give a portion of the proceeds to an athlete or team of their choice and a charity.
“These big orders, that is where we see the impact — thousands of dollars going back to the athletes and causes,” said Brendel. “It’s a really cool opportunity for the hotel to brand themselves saying, ‘Hey we’re giving back to a local athlete through the sale of a healthy product.’ That’s definitely where we are heading. We’re pretty excited about that business model.”
But for the Brendels and Rosmarin, PHGB is much less about products and pricing and much more community, the movement and the culture of, yes, playing hard and giving back.
“The bottom line is that we want to be a brand that helps align athletes with nonprofits,” said Rosmarin, “and finding a way to do that and help athletes be more than athletes, supporting them in whatever way they need support; that’s what we are striving to do.”