'Too many riders trying to get paid'
The question was the same every time, posed over the past two weeks to team managers and marketing executives working for some of the top ski manufacturers: Are you signing or parting ways with any big-name athletes this offseason?
And like the question, the answer never varied: No.
"We're not trying to grow at all," said Salomon international team manager Tyler Gigg.
"Nothing to report on our end," wrote Armada global brand director Chris O'Connell in an e-mail.
"The best way to answer that is we are in a complete holding pattern," said Jason Newell, director of sports and partnership marketing for Rossignol, Dynastar, Lange and Look. "We're not out there acquiring anyone, but we're not cutting anybody loose, either."
The same went for K2, Volkl, Scott, Nordica and Atomic. No movement. Normally this lack of news wouldn't qualify as news, but coming on the heels of a seismic shift in 2009 -- one that was driven largely by massive cuts at Rossignol et al. -- this offseason's quiet free agency period has raised at least a few eyebrows.
After all, it follows a year in which many of the sport's most accomplished skiers changed teams, from Sage Cattabriga-Alosa (Atomic) to Ian McIntosh (Volkl) to JT Holmes (K2) to Grete Eliassen (Volkl) to Tom Wallisch (Scott) and even Lindsey Vonn (Head) and Julia Mancuso (Volkl).
But just as quickly as the dam broke, it was patched. There are still rumors and off-the-record hints of possible moves to come, but nothing has happened and it's almost August, time to finalize marketing campaigns for the coming winter.
Almost without exception, those who control the money say their options are limited.
"Times like these you need to be really smart about what you are doing with your budgets," said Kevin Kruse, team manager for Scott USA.
"You have to be crafty," said Salomon's Gigg, who oversees a team of 16 salaried skiers.
Some companies have opted to reduce their promotional spending so they won't have to cut back on their teams. "[Our] athlete budget has not been affected, although many marketing programs have," said Jeff Mechura, vice president of global marketing for K2. He added: "Product innovation and advancement is the key to success, and without the athletes our design and development would suffer."
Andy Hare, director of products and promotions at Nordica USA, said his company will not sign anyone this summer but is sending a scout to a number of big-mountain competitions to find two skiers to sign at the end of the winter. The strategy marks a change from freewheeling years past, when a big manufacturer in need of athletes to promote its new fat ski line would have been more likely to sign someone in haste.
Perhaps the best explanation regarding the current trend came from Rossignol's Newell, who watched his team disintegrate last year. He still has his "young Frenchies" -- halfpipe aces Kevin Rolland and Xavier Bertoni -- but lamented "the most change I've seen in 15 years."
"There used to be two-, three-, four-year deals, guys making $40,000 or $50,000 a year," Newell said. "Only the best of the best get that now." Some of it stems from retail sales being usurped by rentals, he said, but a larger factor is the growing number of skiers who develop world-class talent in such short periods of time.
"I said this to agents two years ago," Newell explained. "Either the total number of riders is going to go down 30 percent, or everyone's salary is going to go down 30 percent. Some of the offers we make to these kids, I expect them to say, 'Absolutely not.' But they've been out there, they've been shaking the bushes, they know this is probably as good as they're going to get. There are just too many riders trying to get paid."