Crossing the Outdoor Industry’s Talent Barrier

I had this idea in early 2011 to make a web site about “normal” outdoorsfolk, those of us who are fairly average in ability when it comes to climbing, skiing, cycling, and other outdoor pursuits — but exceptional in our love for them. That became, which I see as a celebration of that passion for the outdoors, and sometimes a place to laugh at the things we do when we’re out there. It’s been a blast.

Part of the motivation to create this web site might have come when I read this quote in The B.O.S.S. (Bicycle, Outdoor and Snowsports) Report in October 2010:

“Outdoor brands and retailers that want to lure more kids outdoors could start by emphasizing the more social aspects of outdoor recreation rather than highlighting the accomplishments of extreme and ultra-fit athletes, according to a report released last week by the Outdoor Foundation. … ‘Show normal people in beautiful places,’ reads one response highlighted in the report. ‘Not just athletes doing amazing things, but people doing activities that an “insider” could do. Make the transition to being an outsider not as scary.'”

When I read that, I thought, what about a regular-Joe sponsored athlete? A person who not only can’t climb 5.12, but doesn’t really even want to? Would any outdoor brand get behind that?

Outdoor Research would. In August 2011, I became an Outdoor Research Grassroots Athlete, alongside dozens of folks who are mountain guides, big-mountain skiers, alpine climbers, and generally rad, high achievers in the outdoors. They are some of the people who do all the incredible climbs we read about, ski the lines we see only in movies, make our dreams come true for us. I could not keep up with any of them on anything (except maybe coffee drinking or burrito eating), but the folks at OR were kind enough to give me the opportunity to be a sponsored athlete. Or, as I say, The Least-Talented Sponsored Athlete in the Outdoor Industry. Which is an unofficial title, but I think I have a good claim to it.

I met Mark Allen, another OR athlete, at the Outdoor Retailer trade show this past January, and when I handed him a Semi-Rad sticker, he smiled and said, “I’m Semi-Rad.” My first reaction was to laugh. Mark, I thought, people pay you to take them climbing, on big climbs. You have some pretty important acronyms on your resume, like AMGA and IFMGA. You have done more awesome things in a month than I have done in my entire life. That makes you rad. All the way.

Traditionally, outdoor athletes have been ambassadors for a brand, in the same way bigtime professional athletes represent shoe companies — if Kobe Bryant wears Shoe X and Kobe Bryant is one of the best basketball players in the world, then Shoe X must be one of the best basketball shoes in the world, right? So the thinking traditionally holds that brands like Outdoor Research want people like Mark Allen and Sheldon Kerr — people who are out there living it — to be ambassadors for their gear.

But, here’s what Teresa Bruffey, OR’s Grassroots Community Coordinator, says:

“You take your adventures and make them accessible to everyone. I think we need people who are really pushing their sport, who provide high-level inspiration. But we still need people who can communicate stories about adventures on a level that everyone can relate to, because that’s a story that can build community. Which is what OR wants to do.”

Does this break down some sort of barrier, and make it possible for regular schlubs like me to fulfill dreams of being a “sponsored climber”? Can you inspire people if you’re not putting up new routes in the remote corners of the world? Is Big Sexy Outdoor Gear Company X interested in your climb or ski descent if photos of it won’t be in a magazine? Is that paragraph from the B.O.S.S. Report right?

Mark and Sheldon are on a very different on level of experience, strength, ability, and even courage than I am, but when it comes down to passion for the mountains, maybe we’re the same.  And maybe that’s what is really important when it comes down to finding brand ambassadors — that the people who rep your gear are going to be excited about the outdoors, and wear your gear when they’re out there living it, whatever that means.

It’s interesting to think about a new type of “influencer” when we examine what kind of outdoor-related media we consume. We’re never going to stop being inspired by the folks doing all the sick stuff we watch at the Banff Film Festival and Reel Rock and 5 Point, and read about in magazines and the AAJ every year — but if you want to know what jacket I’m going to wear this weekend slogging up some low-5th-class Colorado peak that can be done car-to-car in a day, or the gloves I’m wearing on a couple pitches of moderate ice — because you might do those things too — I’m happy to tell you.

If one company thinks there’s some value in having a not-as-rad brand ambassador on the team, maybe a few other companies will eventually follow suit. Are you listening, Doritos, Ben & Jerry’s, Tapatio?

[Full disclosure: Outdoor Research sponsorship means gear only — I was not paid to write this post, and it was 100% my idea to write it.]


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  1. I don’t think I could be considered any more than ‘nearly moderately rad’. But get a couple of beers in me and I’ll tell stories about skiing till I or anyone listening falls asleep. I like my OR gloves, if they want to refund me the purchase price or give me a deal on a jacket, I’m all ears!
    Nice article Semi-Rad.

  2. How about sponsorship for huge under-achievers like myself?

    Semi-Rad becomes Sub-Par. I like it!
    I (heart) OR stuff.

  3. Great article. I too have always wondered if pros had more passion for a sport than I did, or if maybe it could be equal.

    It would be great if more companies feature more of us ‘normal folk’… I’m much more inspired by passionate people who get out and just do cool shit, regardless of how talented they are.

    Side note: I’m wondering how much being a successful free-lance writer helped your odds?

  4. Always found passionate people doing what they love, regardless of ability level, far more inspiring than some uber athlete cutting some impossible line. But I will draw the line at putting a poster of you on my wall.

  5. There’s lots of interesting dialogue out there on whether labeling our sports “extreme” does anyone any favours…the debate rages on. I’m glad to read that both you and Outdoor Research are making an effort to balance accessibility with cachet.

  6. I’ve been sayinig this for a long time! What’s better? Spending tons of money to sponsor one elite marathoner or sponsoring five “average” runners who then put on the shirt you gave them with your logo on it and go out and run races with hundreds of other people around so they basically become a billboard with legs for your company? I learn more about gear from the people i interact with on the trail or at the cliff than I do from the pictures and ads and articles in an outdoors magazine because #1- I’m too cheap to buy those magazines and #2- I never have time to read them anyway because I’m doing something outside.

    It’s good to see that OR is catching on to this idea. I hope other companies will join in…. and then sponsor me.

  7. Nice post. If a company wants to sell their gear, they are smart to make sure those wearing/using it will talk it up. Certainly sponsoring elite athletes is part of the process. That’s what makes the pro sport world go around, and it allows those like Mark Allen to make it work. But very few of my gear choices are made based on what those pros are wearing. Instead it’s friends, acquaintances and other amateurs that help me decide what gear to consider.

  8. Well put, man. There’s a reason I keep coming back to your site… And it’s not because you write about all kinds of intangible adventures.


  9. A very belated congrats!! Your story and hardwork has definitely lit a fire under my ass. We have a similar outlook, and I’m definitely far away from an Everest summit any time soon.

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Article by: brendan