In football, baseball and basketball, pro salaries are as common a topic of discussion as great plays or crushing defeats. When a rookie is signed to the majors right out of college, the details of his contract are often public knowledge, subject to dissection by the sports media and fans on message boards. But in the snowboard industry, salaries are a seemingly taboo subject. It’s all about the fun, right bro?
The hesitance to discuss cash is actually for several reasons, the biggest being that there is no “global snowboard federation” setting the rates for what snowboarders get paid. The majority of a rider’s money comes strictly from sponsorships and endorsement deals, negotiated by agents or in many cases, the riders themselves. How much a rider makes based on several factors, least of which is ability, and most of which is based on social media reach, editorial coverage, competition results and the willingness to play the game (being where you need to, when you need to, and doing it without bitching, at that.)
In researching this story, I reached out to marketers, team managers and agents I received a lot of similar responses amounting to, “I really don’t think I should say…” Even the pros themselves are hesitant to share just how much they are netting, either because they think they’re worth more, don’t want to seem like they’re bragging, or don’t want to bum out a teammate who may be making less. The “bro factor” plays a huge role in who gets paid at all, and so staying away from money-related drama is just good business.
But the biggest reason that snowboard salaries are somewhat hush hush is simply that they are so widely varied. The riders you see in contests and videos could be making anywhere from a few thousand, to several hundred thousand dollars a year, with the top guys bringing in seven figures. A lot of pros though, are lucky to make it through their career without going into debt or working a second job during the summer.
How do snowboarders make money?
Ozzy Henning, Mike Gray, Zak Hale and Madison Blackley, slightly richer after this year’s HDHR
The snowboard industry is divided into several segments. Video/editorial pros can either focus on backcountry or street and create content, which helps promote their sponsors through various channels. Contest pros can make money by winning contests and getting editorial coverage, (though unless you’re a consistent top 3 finisher, it will often cost more to travel to the contest than you actually win.) It’s also possible to make a career based on resort riding and web edits, although the most valuable and successful riders do some combination of all of the above.
The snowboard landscape is split into regions, with the Europe/Asia/Africa market existing as an almost entirely separate entity from the North American one. Within Europe, the market is again divided, equally as much by language as it is by country, as the majority of European snowboarders ride almost exclusively on holiday, meaning they travel rather than living by a resort. This makes the “regional” pro, which is a necessity for brands in the US, less of a factor when looking at European marketing.
Brands, no matter how core or corporate use snowboarders the same way – as giant walking billboards. Accordingly, the amount of space the brand occupies designates how much a rider should be paid for their services. Outerwear, which is the highest visibility, is typically the highest paying sponsor, while hardgoods, optics, gloves, helmets, streetwear and headwear make up the rest of the pie. Non-endemic sponsors (those that don’t make anything to do with snowboarding, ie energy drinks, beef jerky, head phones) also purchase real estate in the form of sticker placement, appearances, and of course oh-so-valuable social media shout outs.
What is a snowboarder worth?
Contest riders historically are paid the most because they get the most media exposure. Winning a gold medal in the Olympics is not only a stunning endorsement for the equipment you ride, but you’re likely to be mentioned in every media outlet, appear on late night TV, and even get talked about on the National Nightly News – which may not sell actual snowboards, but for a mainstream brand translates to a lot of value. In general, for any type of brand, editorial coverage is valued at a premium of about 4 times that of advertising. Basically, having a third party say you’re great is always going to be more valuable than paid placement telling people the same thing.
For an actual snowboard brand, sponsoring athletes is just one piece of the marketing puzzle, and brands divide their budgets between athletes, advertising, content-creation, events and more, making the answer to the question even less cut and dry. Within the industry, much of the snowboard media is “pay to play” meaning the mags and sites will not feature a brand unless they are advertising. So brands not only have to pay a rider a salary and cover their travel expenses, but then pay to get them featured in a video (buy ins to pro movies can be upwards of $20,000 which pays for all the expenses that go into making a video such as travel, equipment and filmer salaries – although this system has crumbled in recent years), and then buy an ad in the magazine so the magazine will then feature their riders at all. And all of this is done with about 10% of of their gross revenue, however this number varies depending on the brands strategic business plans, and could be as little as 3-4%.
The Great Recession
Never fear, according to a bunch of crap people are trying to sell on the Internet, money doesn’t matter.
Now the bad news. Snowboarding’s death/slump/recession has hit professional snowboarding especially hard and salaries have been contracting steadily over the past couple seasons. Some of this can be blamed on the departure of Nike from the industry. The footwear giant was paying riders way more than those riders could possibly sell in snowboard product – as the multi-billion dollar brand had a lot more available money to pay its athletes to serve as brand ambassadors and not just tools to sell boots. Six figure contracts were common, (although not the norm), and though they’re honoring those contracts (some with over a year left to go) that’s a big chunk of money that is no longer being pumped into the snowboard economy. Add in a couple awful winters and a sluggish global economy and there’s not a lot of money floating around at the moment for professional snowboarders.
That said, the idea of getting paid to snowboard at all is still a relatively new one. When the first generation of snowboarders began to gain market share in the ski industry, most people were just excited to get free stuff and never dreamed of getting paid at all. It is only in recent years with the proliferation of coaches and academies that kids (ok, their parents) now see snowboarding as a viable career option at all. And while riders in the 90s seemed to be raking it in, the reality is there are a lot more people getting paid to snowboard now than ever before.
So while the exact numbers in the bank accounts of professional snowboarders may never be common knowledge, some people are getting paid, and others are getting by. Snowboard super agent Circe Wallace summed it up best. “There are maybe 5 guys making 7 figures plus. Everyone else is fighting for what’s left over.”