Not long ago, pro surfer Keala Kennelly held one of the most coveted sponsorships in action sports, chasing gaping barrels around the world as a Red Bull athlete. But when the energy drink giant dropped her in 2008, she began an unexpectedly lengthy search to replace it.
That quest seemingly ended this summer when Kennelly signed an endorsement deal with an international beverage company. But it wasn't Monster or Rockstar or Amp, it was Bombora, an Australian vodka brand that hired Kennelly to spread its presence in the surf industry. "We thought a booze sponsor would be a good addition so we were shopping around," Kennelly said. "Since they're a small brand and I'm the only athlete, I get to be involved on all levels of the marketing from events, swag, stickers, advertisement and the whole image of the brand."
Kennelly, whose search for an energy-drink sponsor continues, is one of a number of pro athletes this year who have entered the most tantalizing yet complicated segment in action sports marketing -- the booze bloc. Most recently, her big-wave-riding peer Nathan Fletcher starred in a television commercial for Jagermeister (see video below), and British BMXer Ben Hennon signed with Bondi Beer. They join, among others, Bud Light Lime Surf Team members Fred Patacchia Jr., Serena Brooke, Sean Moody and Benji Weatherley; Black Star Beer-sponsored skateboarder Greg Lutzka; and Billabong XXL champion/Peligroso Tequila ambassador Greg Long.
Still, the surprising figure is not how many athletes have alcohol sponsorships but how many don't -- a reflection of the danger involved for both sides, despite rich potential. Consider the case of snowboarder Scotty Lago. The 2010 Olympic bronze medalist in halfpipe, Lago, 24, is also one of the sport's most popular film stars and most marketable athletes. Yet when Jose Cuervo representatives expressed interest in sponsoring him, his agent, Circe Wallace, said they declined because the potential risk exceeded the reward.
"He's sponsored by Pepsi and he's an Olympian," Wallace said. "Unless it's a very lucrative deal, why bother?"
She continued, "Ultimately, when you're gearing toward a young demographic and as an ambassador for your sport, to encourage drinking is a questionable move. It's probably better for your long-term earning to remain somewhat neutral. I would only recommend it during an athlete's twilight years, or if they're involved with something gnarly like big-wave surfing that appeals to a more mature audience."
Wallace has a unique perspective on the alcohol conundrum. Back in the '90s, before she became senior vice president of action sports at Wasserman Media Group, she was a professional snowboarder sponsored by, among others, Smirnoff Vodka. In exchange for mixing drinks and representing Smirnoff at ski resorts, she received an annual salary of $24,000 -- a number that few, if any, athletes make in today's alcohol market.
"If the spirits really wanted to pay for this category, we'd see a lot more big-name athletes logoed up," Wallace said. "I think a lot of the reason these companies don't make more significant investments is because of the legal restrictions."
Ultimately, when you're gearing toward a young demographic and as an ambassador for your sport, to encourage drinking is a questionable move.” -- Agent Circe Wallace
To that end, beer brands large and small follow the same voluntary rules, known as the Beer Institute Advertising and Marketing Code. "It requires that beer-branded advertising only be placed in media programming where the majority of the audience is of legal drinking age," said Blaise D'Sylva, vice president of media sports and entertainment marketing at Anheuser-Busch, which sponsors both a surf team and surf series. "Every marketing and sponsorship opportunity is evaluated to ensure that it meets these standards."
Other brands operate with similar caution. One brewing company's marketing rep said he won't advertise in certain action-sports publications because their readerships are too young. Pabst lifestyle marketing manager Steve Nilsen relies on internal legal counsel to "keep us in check." "We have to be so careful, and we are," Nilsen said.
It's still possible to thrive in spite of that. Nilsen doesn't sponsor individual athletes, but he has built an impressive action-sports fan base for PBR through calculated, grassroots partnerships. He meets pro skiers and snowboarders as they pass through his Colorado hometown and hands them beer or swag, and he never advertises in print or on TV.
"I get inquiries all the time about sponsoring athletes, from the athletes themselves or their agents. A lot of them already have energy-drink deals," said Nilsen, who spent five years as the sports marketing manager for Red Bull North America. "They say, 'You don't have to pay me a dime, I just want to wear your stuff.' But why pigeonhole yourself with one person when you can go into the whole space?"
Big-mountain skier Chris Davenport has noticed more alcohol brands taking a similar approach over the years. "Athletes don't play into these plans as much as they once may have," he said.
Davenport spent a short period as a brand ambassador for Vodka 14, a small Rocky Mountain spirits company, after he climbed and skied all of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks in 2006. He brought product samples to bars and clubs and talked up the brand.
"Conceptually I don't believe in officially endorsing alcohol," he said. "But everything has a price. If some company came to me with a six-figure deal, I would have to consider it from a business perspective. As long as it was win-win for my family and me and didn't generate any negative consequences for my career long-term, then I would consider it."
That remains an unlikely scenario in today's landscape, which is a shame, says skateboarder Tom Remillard. After winning the 2011 Coastal Carnage, Remillard enjoyed a three-month product sponsorship with Blanco Basura ("White Trash"), which sells five-packs of beer with a small bottle of tequila. He, like others, believes the market is a sliver of what it could be.
"I think beer companies could make as much money as Monster or Red Bull if they were really involved," he said. "It would make the energy companies kind of irrelevant. Everyone in skating would try to get those sponsors."