Spreading The Gospel

How social media is redefining success for sponsored athletes

Pro skier, pro instagrammer. Dash Longe, absorbed in the vortex of his phone. PHOTO: Mark Fisher

Pro skier, pro instagrammer. Dash Longe, absorbed in the vortex that is his phone. PHOTO: Mark Fisher

WORDS: Michael Harrison

On his third day in La Parva, Chile, pro skier Todd Ligare was on the hunt for a Wi-Fi hotspot. He had to post a photo of his trip to Instagram. "I need to go pop off a ‘gram," says Ligare, excusing himself from a condo crammed with eight skiers. "I was told it was 160 stairs from our place to the best Wi-Fi. The best signal to poach was from the ticket offices, which of course were closed at night, but the signal was strong if you stood outside the front door."

Ligare made the trek to that hotspot multiple times on his trip. Fellow travel mate and pro skier Julian Carr was quick to ridicule him, but Ligare had a solid defense. "In at least one case, Julian gave me his phone, so I could 'drop a gram' for him too."

@juliancarr hiking in the #andes #eotc. PHOTO: Todd Ligare

@juliancarr hiking in the #andes #eotc. PHOTO: Todd Ligare, @toddligare

Ligare and Carr are both far from serial abusers of social media, but they use platforms like Instagram to regularly showcase their action on the snow. Both have amassed thousands of followers along the way, much to the delight of sponsors who see their products featured in the photos and their brand hashtagged in the caption.

The truth of today's digital age is that many brands measure the success of an athlete's sponsorship by how much site traffic they generate. The pressure is on for athletes to engage and promote their sponsors using social media. In fact, their sponsorship may be dependent upon you clicking that hyperlink.

"Athletes that are doing a good job with social media are only that much more attractive to potential sponsors," says Jonny Atencio, Backcountry.com sports marketing manager.

In the past, there was no way to measure the connection between athlete sponsorship and the return on investment, but social media has changed that, enabling brands to follow new metrics and evaluate how well athletes are translating their sponsorships into sales.

Backycountry.com uses a third-party analytics service to track traffic and sales generated from athletes. The athletes are able to see how many people are clicking through their links and making purchases. "Our analytics platform to track this type of engagement is bomber," says Atencio. "We can track what sort of traffic athletes are driving to our site, conversion, direct revenue—really any metric you can dream of, we can get."


On one side of the sponsorship equation are the brands fronting the trips and the gear. In exchange, Atencio is unabashedly candid about the social media expectations for his athletes. For Backcountry.com, success as a sponsored athlete goes far beyond the helmet sticker—Atencio expects athletes to get involved with the website and produce a quantifiable return on investment. And social media plays a big part in how athletes connect fans to products.

Atencio has not parted ways with an athlete due strictly to poor performance on social media or ROI analytics, but he says he has dropped athletes for underachieving on their obligations to the Backcountry.com community, which entails answering questions, uploading media of their gear in use, or writing reviews. "We are fairly easy going about this," says Atencio, "but sometimes athletes are too busy to do these things—they have all been amicable breakups."

Atomic takes a similar approach toward requiring athlete engagement in social media. "We have just recently started including this in contracts, without any kickback from the athletes," says Atomic brand manager Kathryn Smith. "Generally they are happy to help our brand."

While Atomic agrees that social media-competent athletes are valuable to sponsors, the company says it's more important that athletes bleed Atomic by simply identifying with the brand. Convey that passion to fans via social media, and an athlete becomes a valuable partner. Atomic athletes like Chris Benchetler and Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, both of whom have a distinct artistic style and have creative liberties in product creation, take personal pride in Atomic and go on to endorse it genuinely through social media, says Atomic alpine manager Jake Strassburger.

"I am a certified powder hound. @icelantic_skis @discreteclothing @gopro" PHOTO: Julian Carr, @juliancarr

“I am a certified powder hound. @icelantic_skis @discreteclothing @gopro” PHOTO: Julian Carr, @juliancarr

Beyond an obligation to post Instagram photos and tweet, some athletes are working under an incentive-based contract. Contracts with Backcountry.com are confidential, but Atencio acknowledged that he encourages his athletes to join an affiliate marketing program that pays athletes a commission on any sales they generate directly.

As a Backcountry.com sponsored athlete, Carr is pleased with the opportunity a social media-based sales commission provides. Savvy athletes can use it to generate additional income. Although, he says it can encourage athletes to post too often. As a sponsored athlete and a business owner (Carr is the founder of Discrete Headwear), he thinks brands would be annoyed by such behavior. He says it's inauthentic. For Discrete athletes, if Carr sees them tag too often, he will send them an email. There's a certain tact to it, he says.

"If you're following a rider you respect and from time to time they tastefully throw out a tag to a company you don't know about, maybe you'll make a purchase from that company down the road," says Carr.

With all this in mind, Carr says he still doesn't think it is fair for brands to measure an athlete's success through social media. He cites Rachael Burks, who is rarely on Instagram, does not have a Facebook page, and yet she consistently ranks among the top five female skiers in readers polls.

"Some athletes are insanely impactful and don't use social media," he says. "It can be a measuring stick for success but it's not imperative."