Glory, Glory. The Intangible Value of a Burning Star, by Sam Smoothy
We live in an unprecedented age of media saturation. A deeply ingrained visual feast we gluttons gorge on daily. Constantly bombarded with the next biggest thing, we swipe our way through a lifetime of media in a single day. Where once you knew every pro skier’s name and signature move, now the chalice of talent truly hath runneth over. But what of the next generation, raised on this incendiary diet setting a trajectory straight for the heart of the sun?
There is currently an undeniable explosion of young talent. Wildly capable children with full grown mountain appetites, raised fat and sassy by fantastical scenes of glory. There are a number of factors influencing this volcanic eruption. The global network of junior competitions, coaches and programmes, all constructed to ensure a faster and safer progression to previously unattainable heights. This flood of ski media also creates an easier understanding of what’s physically necessary to achieve greatness.
The Young Turks want it all but will they be largely be left in a disillusioned puddle on the après-ski floor? Do they truly understand the industry they’re signing on to? And is space being made for them?
I have been peddling mine and my sponsors’ wares for nearly 20 years. From glorious victories to crushing defeats, and onto the swirling currents of celluloid dream creation. A life and ‘career’ beyond my most ambitious childhood fantasies has been lived largely thanks to an earnest working ethic, a solid understanding of my various abilities, their limitations and their relative values. Mentors and strong relations with team managers has been crucial in developing the life I’m immensely proud of and thankful for.
But all that glistens isn’t golden-hour pow and I’m deeply uneasy about the legacy I have had a small part in creating. Not everyone can win.
All About the Benjamins
A pro skier by definition is a marketing tool. Paid and leveraged by companies to inspire product sales. There’s the obvious need to be a high-flying blower of minds, but you need to understand the game too. Finding ways to provide value for your sponsors is paramount to long-term success. Being God’s gift on snow is no longer enough, unless you truly are the chosen one who waltzes on frozen water. From creating photo and film assets for distribution, first descents and podiums, to product R&D, you have to be creative in ways to create and hold an edge. Even the unfashionable act of placing pen on paper can help build your brand and therefore your value.
Understanding your relative dollar value though is incredibly difficult. For those outside the competition realm, finding their place in the haphazard hierarchy of pro skiing is largely based on numerous intangible factors. It is unsurprising but disappointing how inherently uncool discussing contract dollars and clauses with your peers is in a painfully image-conscious sport like skiing. Without a rough understanding of what your competitors are making, your vague attempts at gauging your own value becomes more like a drunken shot in the dark. Then add in the concerning trend of the rise in nondisclosure clauses in professional skier contracts, a cruel undertow for those fresh fish taking their first dip in the murky pools. For how can you talk dollars and cents with a mouth covered in duct tape?
Evolving Beyond the Ropes
With that increase in the depth of talent comes a perceived decrease in seller’s value, leaving some athletes loath to negotiate for a fair price for fear of being sidelined by someone willing for dirty deeds done cheap. But sidelined they may well still be, for without a trusting relationship with their team manager they are always just one bad season away from the gutter. Nobody is irreplaceable.
Conversely an increase in a more professional approach to the craft also sees veterans like myself able to keep our aching bodies churning out the turns for longer than before. Signing onto the trendy transition to the more lethal yet lower impact realm of ski mountaineering can further prolong an athlete’s shelf life. The veterans fan base has strangely aged at a similar rate to the grey-haired gun for hire, and now has their own disposable income in the crosshairs causing some companies to see value in maintaining these contracts well into middle age. Which further exacerbates the team managers’ budget migraine when trying to acquire the rights to shoe, cloth or blow up the latest and greatest inflatable Junior Come Lately.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
My hometown Wanaka has produced more pro skiers per capita than any town I know. But for every one who ‘made it’ there’s a much longer list of those who didn’t. Those cast to the side, bent and broken by their passionate attempts to break on through. For specific people I can point to the very moment their desire to turn pro was literally beaten out of them. Or the little slip on the razors edge that understandably scared them clear out of the mountains altogether.
There is a delightful horde of hungry skiers banging on the door and more effort needs to be made to bring them in from the cold. I commend companies like Salomon and The North Face who are developing mentorship programmes into their athlete teams in an effort to increase the flow of invaluable information from one generation to the next. But we need more of this.
Companies and athletes across the board should be more open and honest about their business dealings together. I would call on junior programmes and parents to broaden their curriculum to include more of the soft skills of pro skiing. To attempt to temper those youthful expectations while providing them a more well-rounded template for success. For while not all who soar can fly, if we can help guide a generation a little better who knows how far they can go.
SAM THE MAN
BORN New Zealand, July 1986
HOME MOUNTAIN Wanaka (and Verbier when in Europe)
MOTTOExperience teaches only the teachable
Describes his ski style as Fast and loose with a good deal of risk