On January 27, 2003, rising big-mountain star Jonny Law won the U.S. Freeskiing Nationals, picked up the Sickbird Belt (awarded for the sickest skiing of the competition) and then ditched the awards ceremony to fly directly to Las Vegas to attend SIA, the annual North American snowsports industry trade show.
I bumped into Jonny on the first day of the show at one of the booths as he was introducing himself to anyone who could make him famous. With one competitive result worthy of a pro under his belt, it was time to try his luck in Vegas. He arrived at the show sporting a shirt and tie, armed with business cards and full of enthusiasm. The only thing he didn’t have was a hotel reservation.
SIA is designed principally for wholesalers to market and sell their products to retailers, but there are two other groups who infiltrate the show each year. Members of the ski media attend to get a glimpse of the new product and generally keep up with industry developments. And aspiring athletes come out of the mountains to market themselves to sponsors, the ski media and the industry as a whole.
For these enterprising athletes, the hope is that what happens in Vegas will send them around the world skiing for their sponsors. Meeting and impressing the right people in Vegas can mean the difference between waiting tables or tuning skis next winter and actually having enough endorsement funding to ski full-time.
Sorry, kids, but only the true phenoms get noticed by sponsors without doing some active self-promotion. Vegas, during the week of SIA, is one of the best opportunities for athletes to get the most out of their marketing efforts. Even though Jonny had won the World Tour event in Utah before heading to Sin City, and went on to finish third overall that year, he still sees his trip to Vegas as playing a critical role in landing the contracts with Dynastar and The North Face that enabled him to take a two-year sabbatical from bootfitting and to travel the world skiing.
Ski companies get off easy when dealing with athletes compared to the marketing budgets and PR programs of mainstream corporations. Most wannabe-pro skiers grovelling in Vegas are eager to plaster a company’s logo on their clothing and equipment, speak endlessly to wouldbe consumers about the product and occasionally break bones in an attempt to hold the product atop a podium or display it on the pages of a magazine—all for a couple of pairs of skis and, in Jonny’s case, a place to crash in Vegas, a few thousand dollars and a temporary “ticket to the movie.”
Well, Jonny got that ticket to the movie. By the spring of 2003, he was a full-time athlete skiing for Dynastar and eventually The North Face. The following winter he was featured alongside Jeremy Nobis in Dynastar’s marketing campaign and was travelling the world shooting with photographers and film companies on someone else’s budget. Unfortunately, Jonny also broke bones on the job, and thus, like most Vegas successes, his payday was shortlived. While filming in Alaska in the spring of 2004, Jonny shattered his femur. Then, after an incredibly long rehab, he blew his ACL during what should have been his comeback season.
I bumped into Jonny back at home in Whistler on opening day last winter. He was healthy for a change, but had returned to bootfitting and was no longer being paid to ski full-time. When I inquired further about the state of his career, he explained that while the size of his endorsements and budgets initially developed at SIA have been slashed significantly, he has managed to maintain ties with both Dynastar and The North Face, despite injury setbacks.
What I didn’t ask Jonny was whether he would be making another sales trip to Vegas at the end of January to line up a few more contracts.