Tips from the pros and what you need to know in your journey to becoming a sponsored athlete

I’ve been an athlete all my life. But the decade I enjoyed as a professional climber, and the five years I directed the athlete team for the climbing/mountain biking brand, Five Ten, were some of the most educational and fulfilling. Being a sponsored climber and athlete director taught me that there’s more to being a professional than competing at a high level or putting up a first ascent. In addition to talent, training, perseverance and a bit of luck, skills like communication, marketing, public relations and being a good role model all come into play.

As a professional or “sponsored” climber, I was able to travel the world. In addition to getting paid to practice a sport I loved, I got to share a rope with some of the world’s best rock and ice climbers at the time including Jeff Lowe, Ron Kauk, Patrick Edlinger, Dean Potter, Alex Lowe and many others.

I learned valuable lessons about myself, like how to handle both success and defeat. Winning a competition is a heady experience, as is success on a coveted climb or boulder problem. But I learned a lot more about myself when I didn’t win or succeed. That’s when you have to dig deep and reflect on why you’re in the sport in the first place. Is it love of sport, or something else?  Maintaining that balance and perspective can be a complicated calculus.

jt homes base jumper red bull wingsuit pilot stuntman sponsored athlete
JT Holmes is an extreme sport athlete. He’s a long-time big mountain skier, B.A.S.E. jumper, wingsuit pilot and movie stuntman (to name just a few of his career accomplishments).
Tip: “Gain reference points of your value. Do right by the companies that support you by performing on every word of your agreement.”
Red Bull

The best part of being sponsored was getting paid to do what I loved. Sure, there were days when I didn’t want to train, but most of the time, it felt like being a student and getting paid to go out for recess.

Eventually, I decided that I had other interests than just climbing hard; I segued from being a sponsored athlete to doing more consulting work with outdoor brands. Five Ten, my biggest sponsor at the time, wanted to keep me with the company, so I developed a public relations program for them. Back then, most outdoor companies didn’t have a PR or communications director; so in many ways, the job itself was an adventure.

When I took over as the brand’s athlete director, one of the first things I did was start a series of “Athlete Summits.” I’d always recognized the benefit of education and realized that many athletes put college on the backburner so they can focus on sports. These professional development seminars helped with team building, but they also gave athletes tools to become better at their jobs. We would spend time with the brand’s designers and sales staff so that athletes could have more fluidity when talking about specific products. There was always a presentation on brand history, key technologies, and of course, performance advantages of specific models. This is important because in many ways, athletes are the front line for the sales team. They are the “boots on the ground.”

The second component of the Athlete Summit was providing athletes with professional development. At one Summit, Jimmy Chin (now the academy-award winning photographer for the movie Free Solo), gave a seminar on how athletes could better work with photographers. Lynn Hill led a seminar on how to interact with sponsors and put the “professional” into professional athlete. Dean Potter talked about staying true to yourself while also meeting the marketing expectations required by a brand. But perhaps my favorite lecture was given by Sally Jewell, then CEO of REI, who would go on to be Secretary of the Interior under President Obama. Sally talked about how athletes could and should “give back” by getting involved with local, national and global environmental efforts. Sally spoke about athletes being role models and using their fame to encourage others to make the world a better place. These presentations gave our athletes tools to become more effective ambassadors.

meredith edwards sponsored athlete running scenic
Meredith Edwards is an elite ultra runner with podium finishes at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc TDS race, the Javelina Jundred 100K and the Flagstaff Skyrace 55K.
Tip: “I made the mistake of not believing in myself more when it came to contracts. I was always scared I was asking for too much when really I was asking for what I was worth and deserved. As a female in the industry it’s hard. It’s not as equal as I would like to see it, but some of that is because I was scared to ask for my full value. I know I’m not the only female who has done this or feel that way. We need to be proud and stand our ground.”
Jeremy Liebherr

At Five Ten, I’d work with a variety of levels of ambassadors. There were those who received a monthly paycheck. Others were on performance-based bonus systems, others received gear and could apply for travel stipends if they had an intriguing proposal. But out of the thousands of applications I fielded each year, only a fraction were a good fit for the various teams.

So, how did I make the choices as to who would get free gear, who would get a stipend or salary, and who we’d have to say no to? Here are a few ideas on what it takes to be a professional athlete, why brands select one athlete over another and how athletes can step up to ensure fruitful, long-term partnerships.

Always believe in the brands you support

In any community or industry, but especially those as small as mountain biking and climbing, people pay attention. To be effective, you have to use the products you are touting, and believe in the brands you represent. This means that it’s not just about money. Athletes who jump from brand to brand according to who will pay top dollar lose credibility fast.

jon cardwell rock climber sponsored athlete professional climber
Jon Cardwell has multiple 9a (5.14d) ascents under his belt and spends his time exploring and developing new climbing areas in places like South America, Turkey, Europe and China.
Tip: “Probably the most important component in becoming sponsored, is once your achievements have been recognized, maintain a genuine respect and love for climbing. It is, after all, what got you there in the first place. Never lose track of what’s most important. People will notice.”
Cameron Maier
Always speak the truth

In sports, like life, you are only as good as your word. Self-promotion can be a slippery slope as there’s a fine line between telling one’s story and bragging. Many athletes make the misstep of making implausible claims. Before you claim a “first” or being the “best,” make sure you understand the history of your sport. If you always stick to the facts when reporting your achievements, you’ll earn respect from your community and beyond.

Play to your own skill set

Every person has strengths that go beyond sport. Some athletes look particularly good on camera, others have that magical ability to connect with the public. Others are good writers and can bring their worlds alive through words. Know your strengths. When you are negotiating with a brand about sponsorship, make sure you’ve done your homework in analyzing what you can and like to do.

jason schlarb ultra runner sponsored athlete
Ultra runner Jason Schlarb has many racing accomplishments in his career, including a win at Hardrock 100.
Tip: “There can only be a few “best” athletes in most experiential sports, especially in trail running. Personality and involvement, will often edge out raw talent in the modern world of experiential professional athletics today.”
Meredith Edwards
Know the brands you work with

Whether you are pitching a brand about a potential partnership or already working as a sponsored athlete, make sure you do your homework. Spend time learning the history of the brand you are approaching. Know the names of the key players and key products. If you work with a brand, you are part of a team, so understanding everything about the team makes you a more valuable player.

Sponsorship is a two-way street

To evoke President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote, it’s not just about what the brand can do for you, but what you can do for the brand. Being a sponsored athlete is more than just getting a check in return for a specific expertise or performance. Individuals who are true professionals realize that there’s more to the job than just staying fit and winning competitions.

NANCY PRICHARD BOUCHARD has worked for Five Ten for the past 30 years. An avid climber, skier, stand-up paddle boarder and former X-Games competitor, Bouchard holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Colorado. In addition to writing for Adventure Pro, Bouchard contributes to Men’s Journal, Outside and The Ski Journal.