YAH DON’T SAY? | PHIL TRIFIRO-RIENDEAU TALKS AGRICULTURE
Phil is the Montreal-based mastermind behind the brilliant Bicycle Project and Bicycle Tempo videos. He is also an extraordinary agriculturist. We wanted...
By William Fraser | @whilebeingwilliam
In this article I will attempt to explain the world of snowboard sponsorship and the agent’s role within it. This will be done by discussing what an agent is, who needs an agent, and how agents might be changing snowboarding. I will also discuss the wealth gap between top-tier pros and the average sponsored snowboarder, and how professional snowboard sponsorship has changed over the years. In order to understand all of this, I approached Superheroes Management (i.e. an agency), interviewing Jaimeson Keegan and his riders. Jaimeson is the owner of Superheroes and former head of sports, entertainment, and marketing for Red Bull. Jamieson is currently the agent for Devun Walsh, Darcy Sharpe, Mikey Rencz, Seb Toots, Maria Thompson, Tyler Nicholson, Mons Røisland, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, and many others. I also chatted with Jake Kuzyk, who has had a great career despite never having an agent represent him.
An agent is someone who speaks on your behalf. They’ll go out and get you those sponsors you don’t have, or they’ll maximize the support you’re currently getting. An agent sets up contracts, keeps you informed, and talks business with the business people. They cross the T’s and dot the I’s. But not only that, an agent will act as the middle person between you and your sponsors. They will negotiate money and travel budgets for you. They will make sure that you are being compensated fairly, and that your interests are being heard. In return, however, an agent takes a cut, maybe 10% or 15% – whatever was negotiated before the agent started working for you. That percent keeps the agent working for you. His or her salary is dependent on yours. And, in the best situations, it’s a symbiotic relationship where both parties are benefiting.
Having an agent seems like a pretty awesome thing. The general consensus is that having an agent helps you focus on snowboarding, and not business. When talking with Mikey Rencz he said, “I was getting to a point where the business side was getting overwhelming and I was kinda young, and didn’t wanna deal with it.” Seb and Darcy said something similar.
Darcy said, “I could focus on snowboarding and being myself and not jammin up any creativity I got going on.” Mr. Toutant said, “I think it is really important because at some point you are focusing on your snowboarding and people wanna sign you up, and you don’t wanna get to stressed out by all that bullshit. You wanna focus on your riding.”
Having an agent allows you to narrow your focus and not get lost in the numbers and the search for sponsors. An agent can also help you determine your monetary value, as Devun Walsh said, in a very earnest way, “Sometimes I feel like you don’t know your full worth, so it’s better to have someone else tell the company what you’re worth.” Asking for money is hard, especially when it’s for doing something as fun as snowboarding. It’s weird to think that slapping some petex to your feet and burning down a hill can be profitable. When thinking about this, Darcy said he thought getting an agent was great because he never really knew how to say, “Hey, I’m worth money in snowboarding. That was a ridiculous idea to me as a kid.”
Apart from this, an agent is someone who can also translate your value to sponsors. Mikey gave me an example where he said, “Imagine if someone approached me for a commercial or something, and said we’re gonna give you $5,000 for the day.” That sounds like a great deal, right? And Mikey would have accepted it, too. But, Rencz explained that that’s where Jaimeson steps in, “Jamison would then ask, ‘What’s it for?’ and ‘What’s the reach?’ and after that he’d be like, ‘No, you’re gonna give him $20,000 for the day.’” That’s a huge boost in salary, all because someone knew what the ask was worth. The price a rider is willing to do something for isn’t always the right price. An agent can bridge the gap between rider and businesses, making sure the rider does not get taken advantage of, or, isn’t mistakenly undervalued. During our interview, Jaimeson disclosed that the first goal that is set after signing with Superheroes agency is to get that rider 100K/year in sponsorship dollars, “a living wage,” as he put it.
However, there is also Jake Kuzyk. An all-star rail rider who has never had an agent in his corner, which you might think is kinda nuts, given what I just said about a 100K salary. But, Jake views it differently. Jake said that he believes that an agent could actually hurt his career. He says, “Based on what [I] do and who [I am], it’s almost not smart to have an agent. I think having an agent would hurt me. All the sponsors that I have, it’s like a friendship. It’s a real connection. I think I’d be in a worse spot financially and with longevity as far as my brands go.” A justifiable concern for anyone who has spent a lot of time building relationships with his or her brands.
If not all riders feel like an agent is good for them and their career, then who is an agent for? According to Jake, “I think if there is high demand and you are one of those people who are willing to run on high expectations, and do well under pressure, then an agent is kinda good. But, for me, I’ve always wanted to do things at my own pace and in my own way.” A valid point. If you’re that type A personality who works well under pressure, all the power to you to meet those demands put on you. Money can dictate expectations, creating performance goals and obligations that are not for everyone. But, there are still guys like Mikey Rencz who have agents, and are not running on that type A personality. So what’s different about Mikey? When asked, he said, “There used to be a lot more interest in the filming side, and also there was a lot more going on for people who filmed for videos and shot for magazines, even three years ago.” I interpret this as Mikey saying that these days there is not as much money for people who film video parts, and that maybe the need for the average video part guy to have an agent isn’t as big as it once was. However, that’s not what Seb thinks.
“When I hear people say that an agent is only good for people who make a lot of money, I think that’s wrong. Agents are there to help you sign a bigger deal and get more opportunities.” So, in other words, Seb believes that you should have an agent if you are good enough to have one, which makes sense. Why wouldn’t you like a little extra coin?
However, Rencz also speculates that some “team managers don’t really wanna deal with [an] agent,” meaning that some TMs want to deal directly with the rider, not the middle man. This could be for two reasons. The first being that maybe the TM does not want to be pressured into paying his or her athletes more when times are tight, even though the athlete deserves it—which is a sad reality. Or, two, it could be because some TMs also value the relationship with the rider, and don’t want a middle man to answer to. Either way, we’re kinda back at the point that Jake made about an agent potentially hurting the career he wants. So, maybe an agent isn’t for everyone, especially if you film video parts and want a relationship with your sponsor? Well, that’s not entirely true either. When talking to Jamieson about this, he said that he thinks, “There is actually a big appetite out there specifically for riders that do not compete. I know brands that when I call them and go, ‘Hey, I got someone you’d be interested in,’ they say, ‘oh yeah, we would be, but call us when he or she stops competing.’”
So, who is an agent for? I don’t entirely know. But I can ambiguously say that an agent works best when there is a symbiotic relationship, a win-win, between rider and agent.
That said, there is one obvious group of snowboarders that an agent seems uncontroversially good for, and that is the all-stars. Or, as Jaimeson calls them, “the A listers.” He says, “If you’re a true A lister, your earning potential is, I dunno, anywhere between $500,000 and up. The most bad ass [riders] in our spaces earn a tremendous amount. Those are the one percenters, if you will.” These are the snowboarders who come to people’s minds first, guys like Mark McMorris, Seb Toots, Ståle Sandbech, Torstein Horgmo, and others. You can probably imagine the others. These people just have too many other things going on to worry about dealing with contract renewals and bonuses and their financials in general. Their priority is performing, performing for themselves and performing for the stickers on their board, that’s it. They’ve got big goals and big money to answer to. When you’ve struck the perfect marketable mixture of talent, personality, and fan following, the sky’s the limit.
Agents are great at getting riders non-endemic sponsorships, sponsors like BMW, Virgin Wireless, Audi, and other brands who have nothing to do with snowboarding, but want to be associated with snowboarders. These brands know that there is a market value attached to the top names in snowboarding, and that putting money into that athlete could yield a return for them in brand association and logo recognition. So they do it, they invest. Which is okay to some degree, I think. Non-endemic support allows boarders to put more money into what they love doing. These brands allow riders to travel, get proper physio, feed themselves, save for the future, etc.. They also put money into the sport, giving snowboarding events the means to be broadcast around the globe, gaining exposure for snowboarding and bringing in money. This money can then be put back into the endemic industry through brands, resorts, and media outlets, benefiting everyone.
However, it is also possible to see how this could change snowboarding in a negative way. As Rencz said, “If you look at the contest riders with really weird sponsors, you’re like, ‘OoOoOo, that guys got an agent for sure,’ because [the rider] is not finding those sponsors, and the [sponsors] aren’t hitting them up. You know? It’s like specifically sought out through an agency. . .” This is the “snowboarder” who doesn’t have any sponsors from a snowboard company. And while that’s common place with mainstream professional sports, it’s a weird phenomenon within a niche lifestyle sport like snowboarding, which maybe shouldn’t happen. But why does it?
Well, probably because of the money. And if that is the case, what does that mean? In other words, what does it mean when riders start having more non-endemic sponsors than endemic sponsors? Does it mean that non-endemic brands could start having more influence over the direction of snowboarding than snowboard companies? Has this already been happening? I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions. But, I think questions like this are important to think about. Not thinking about them gets us to the premise for the movie Idiocracy, which is a movie set in the future where brands and big money dictate everything. It’s a future where Gatorade-esque drinks water farmers fields because Gatorade is, quote-unquote, “better than water.”
As many of the riders interviewed in this article have said, one interesting phenomena of contemporary snowboarding is that the wealth gap is growing. That is, there are a few athletes making a lot of money and many athletes making less. The group of riders making more money are the group of A listers that Jamieson brought up earlier. They are akin to the one per cent. And then there’s everyone else. A big middle class of boarders who are really good, but only receive a pair of pants and some beanies at the start of the year. This growing wealth gap is interesting because it mimics our current economy, but maybe it’s not unexpected, considering that the snowboard world is just a microcosm of the world at large. When talking about this with Jamieson, he said, “I don’t think action sports are insulated from what is happening in society. I think a lot of people are disappointed. They feel confident in what they are achieving, and it’s more difficult for them to get rewarded for it.” I guess it isn’t a coincidence that the “glory days” of the prosperous professional snowboarder happened when North America was financially stable, with a strong middle-class economy. Devun also expressed his amazement for what snowboarders will do for such little money, saying, “I feel like there are kids who are willing to kill themselves on rails for like 30K/year. There is no way, back in the day, that people would be willing to risk their neck for that.”
There is no doubt that being a professional snowboarder has changed in the last 10 years, especially within contest riding. The amount of pressure and obligation has increased, everyone in this article agreed with that, to some degree. Devun did say that “before you had to kill yourself all year to make [a] video part, and now it just kinda comes out when they feel like it… apart from some of the videos.” But other than that, everyone agreed that being a pro is difficult. Seb said, “[What] has really changed is snowboarding became so much harder to make it at a pro level. If you’re getting drunk all the time and not really taking care of your body, it is definitely harder to keep up.” Darcy acknowledged that there are many good snowboarders on Instagram that you need to stay on top of your game, whereas before, if you were a part of the chosen few, everyone waited for your part, and whoever else was good was rarely seen.
In the past, the lack of accessibility also allowed for us to know who was pro and who wasn’t. We knew pros had pro models, whether it was a piece of outerwear or a board. That just doesn’t seem to happen as much. The lines are blurred because the money is limited and the talent pool is limitless. Even companies don’t really seem too concerned about the pro label. If you go to Rome’s website, LNP is still listed as one of its pros. But he barely snowboards anymore and has a full-time career as a heavy-duty mechanic.
While interviewing Seb, this was one of the reasons he thinks there is less money in the industry. He said, “for snowboarding you don’t always know who is a pro and who is an amateur, which is something huge and something we need to change. When it is built properly, it’s easier for a big company to invest in the sport.” He went on to explain that if you want to be a certain type of rider, there should be a clear way to achieve that.
His points are good, they make sense as far as growth and money goes. I mean, making it clear to people how snowboarding works is great for sponsors. It allows sponsors outside of snowboarding to know who they are getting behind. It can provide an objective value for a snowboarder. But what about for guys like Jake who aren’t into that structure? When talking about this, Jake said that it’s one of the reasons he does not have an agent. He said that, “I just always wanted to have control over what I did. I’ve always wanted to be very involved with all the projects I’ve worked on. I don’t ‘yes man’ things, and do random stuff that I don’t really believe in.” With more structure, you can lose diversity, you can lose guys like Jake, making pro status only attainable for a certain type of person, which is an issue snowboarding is already dealing with, considering how it is dominated by wealthy, white males.
In conclusion, snowboarding sponsorship is a unique and ever evolving place that can be difficult for professionals, AMs, industry folk, and everyone to exist within, happily. It’s a complex matrix with many parts, understanding it is hard. In this article I tried to show you a little of the objective and the subjective side of it, but when it comes down to it, there is no right information or algorithm when trying to understand it, and, maybe there shouldn’t be.