Word was out about a young skier from Indiana. An unlikely location for a freeskier, sure, but those who saw him compete in rail jams and slopestyle contests took note of his raw talent and a certain drive that was rare among his teenage peers.
Kerry Miller, a longtime freestyle coach based out of Utah who now works as a sort of godfather to top freeskiing and snowboarding athletes, started hearing murmurs about this gifted boy from Perfect North Slopes, a molehill of a mountain near where Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio converge.
"I thought, 'Someday, I'll have to find this kid,' " Miller said recently. "Then, not long after, this dad from Indiana called me out of the blue and said, 'We've been trying to find you to tell you about our son.' "
They arranged for a meeting at an action sports camp in Ohio. There, Miller watched the teenager test new tricks on water ramps and got acquainted with him and his parents. Convinced of his potential, Miller helped introduce the boy, then 15, to the world of professional freeskiing, which involved leaving his family to move west and attending a world-renowned ski academy (where students were required to maintain a 3.0 GPA) in Mount Hood, Oregon.
Since that move, Nick Goepper, the boy from Indiana, has turned 20, won an Olympic bronze medal in slopestyle and racked up two X Games wins. This year, his face appeared on a jar of Jif peanut butter and a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes.
Goepper says he owes a lot of his success to the man he jokingly refers to as his uncle. "Kerry has cooked me a lot of meals, helped me organize trips, introduced me to the industry. He's willing to go to any length for the kids he's taking care of," Goepper says. "For that, I would credit at least 50 percent of my career to Kerry. Obviously, I worked hard and skied hard, but Kerry was the sole reason I left Indiana and started pursing my career."
Miller calls himself "an opportunity provider." In addition to Goepper, he also has helped launch the careers of freeskiers Tanner Hall, Jossi Wells, Mike Wilson, Vincent Gagnier, McRae Williams and others. He's not exactly an agent or manager; he's a talent scout.
In sports like baseball and football, scouts have become ubiquitous -- watchful eyes scouring the land for the next phenom ready to break into the pros and bring home huge endorsement deals. But in action sports like snowboarding, surfing and skateboarding, agents and scouts have been nonexistent until recent years.
With broader media attention, Olympic inclusion and more mainstream sponsorships available to action sports athletes, there are more people out there -- agents, coaches, team managers -- searching for the next Shaun White. And they're looking everywhere from neighborhood skateparks to amateur surf contests to YouTube for tomorrow's most promising athletes.
As the talent level and marketability of these youngsters are on the rise, so, too, is the competition among the agents and team managers for spotting them first, making the kids these talent scouts are recruiting just that: kids. The ages of these athletes on the cusp of their career breakthroughs have gotten younger and younger -- 10-year-olds are now landing major sponsorship deals.
Jack Freestone was 13 when he was surfing Snapper Rocks, the site of Australia's Quiksilver Gold Coast Pro surfing event, and Kurt Jacobs, then Quiksilver's team manger, spotted him. Something about Freestone's skill and confidence in the water -- coupled with his age -- made him do a double take.
"I knew on the spot I had to have Jack ride for Quiksilver," says Jacobs, who now runs the action sports division of Australia's Inspired Athlete Management. "He was a prodigious talent and I could see he would be a driving force in the future for whatever brand picked him up. He had it all."
Freestone, now 22, went on to win two Junior ASP world titles. After recently switching to Billabong's team, he has become that brand's face in global ad campaigns.
Spotting these talents before they've had their notice-me moment -- a big contest result or a noteworthy film part -- is the trickiest part for agents. It requires paying constant attention to the grassroots scene.
"By the time someone has a breakout result, they're likely already on the industry's radar," says Jamieson Keegan, formerly an athlete manager for Red Bull who now owns Superheroes Management. "So prior to that, the most promising young athletes have usually produced several strong Web edits. Finding them is a constant process that requires being plugged in full time, as things tend to evolve quickly in action sports."
Keegan essentially scouted ski-movie darling Sean Pettit, now 21, when Pettit was just 13, signing his first sponsorship deal later that year.
"As younger talents demonstrate their abilities to generate results and outcomes earlier, brands are compelled to take interest in them," Keegan says. "And when you reach the stage of brands becoming interested in compensating younger athletes, you're usually going to see agents and managers in the mix."
The recipe for success is to find a young athlete who has the raw skills to win -- plus the personality to appeal to sponsors.
"There are qualities we look for -- if a young rider is driven or well-spoken, he'll be every sponsor's dream," says Jim "Bones" Bacon, who works with the winningest manager in supercross history, Pro Circuit Racing's founder Mitch Payton. Bacon is known as Payton's man on the ground for finding talent. "But for us, the bottom line is about results. We want to win championships, so we look for speed."
Bacon and Payton often nab young riders even before they turn pro, including Ricky Carmichael, who was just 10 years old when they first spotted him. Their latest young talent, 17-year-old Supercross rookie Adam Cianciarulo, was leading this year's 250 East Supercross Championships before injuring his shoulder.
Just finding the next big name in action sports isn't always enough. These scouts are also in charge of sending their potential future stars down the right track, getting them the best coaches and physical trainers, the biggest sponsors, quality media exposure and entry into the top contests.
Their job? To find up-and-comers at Midwestern ski hills, then turn them into stars. "I'm trying to help kids become exceptional people. I'm into building high-quality kids who also happen to be great athletes. You have to be dedicated to do what I do. Or crazy," Kerry Miller says.
Skateboarder Alex Midler was 8 years old when he got his first sponsor, a local skate shop in Southern California. Videos on his dad's YouTube channel of him skating started getting 60,000 views in a couple of days, and he had promising results at Tampa Am as a preteen.
The future stars of action sports
The future of action sports looks bright, thanks to these 18-and-under athletes who will usher in the next generation. Pay close attention to these names, as you'll likely be hearing a lot more about them in the years to come.
By age 9, etnies was giving him shoes. By 13, Volcom was paying him a travel budget and photo incentives, the specific amount of which he won't disclose. Now the wise age of 15, he is sponsored by Nike, Real Skateboards and Red Bull, among others. Because he doesn't have a license yet, his mom has to drive him to photo shoots.
"If you don't get a kid on your program at 13, you might not have a shot," says Ryan Runke, Prime Athletes agent and former Red Bull athlete manager. He says he's seen the age of elite-level athletes lower in recent years. "From a company side, finding talent young and taking risks and investing in the future is key."
Take snowboarder Gabe Ferguson, who is already doing ads for Ameritrade at age 15. Ferguson, and his older brother, Ben, now 19, were both spotted by Runke in 2010. He heard about the Ferguson brothers, then ages 11 and 15, from their Oregon-based coach, James Jackson. He said they had style on the hill and great personalities -- things you simply can't teach -- plus their love for snowboarding was obvious.
"I knew both boys were going to break through soon and it was only a matter of time," Runke says. "I would love to take credit for their success, but I can't. They have worked hard to get where they are and the key to their success has been a great network. My job is to help them along the way."
"There are more young athletes for sure," adds Circe Wallace, the senior vice president of action sports for Wasserman Media Group, who started working with skateboarder Ryan Sheckler when he was 12 years old and backcountry-freestyle snowboard pioneer Travis Rice right after his first X Games gold in 2002, when he was 20. "The difference is the agents are signing so many kids at such a young age. Now kids' parents are looking for the right agent for them."
When 13-year-old snowboarder Chloe Kim scored a silver medal at her X Games debut in Aspen, Colorado, in January, agents from around the country took notice. Wasserman agent Steve Astephen hopped a flight to Aspen to meet with her after he saw Kim's performance, but ultimately, Kim signed a deal with CAA, the Hollywood talent agency that represents White and Nyjah Huston and has shown an increasing interest in action sports athletes.
"It's a very competitive business," Wallace said.
As for who is the next Shaun White, nobody knows for sure. But there's a 14-year-old snowboarder named Toby Miller who is being groomed by Bud Keene, the same guy who groomed White.
White's longtime snowboard coach is Toby's coach, too. The two met at a snowboard camp, and sensing his potential, Keene offered his coaching services about two years ago, when Toby was 12. Now, Toby, a pint-sized kid who lives in Truckee, California, often gets to train in White's private halfpipe at Northstar and ride alongside the red-haired superstar.
By the time he was 13, Toby was already landing double corks in the halfpipe. Now, he's sponsored by PopTarts, alongside a slew of action sports brands such as Oakley and Nike. Toby's goal is to compete at X Games in the near future and qualify for the halfpipe team for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Once he's there, of course, he'd like to win Olympic gold.
Ask Toby if he wants to become the next Shaun White, and he'll shrug, and then say: "Shaun has had a lot of success and he's definitely an inspiration to watch. But actually, I think it would be cool to just be the next Toby Miller."