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Volume 20 No. 42
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Sponsors stand united behind Pearce

Deals with injured action sports athletes show attitude shift

When Kevin Pearce appeared on ESPN during recent broadcasts of the X Games, he wore a Burton beanie, Oakley shades and Nike shoes. When he promoted his documentary, “The Crash Reel,” at the Sundance Film Festival two weeks ago, he hosted media at a lounge provided by PepsiCo’s Amp. And when U.S. Snowboarding held its Grand Prix at Copper Mountain last month, he gave away a snowboard on behalf of Sprint.

After Kevin Pearce’s career-ending injury, all of his major sponsors renewed deals.
Three years ago, Pearce suffered a career-ending and life-threatening injury when his head slammed into the lip of a halfpipe prior to the Vancouver Games. It was unclear if the snowboarding star, who was primed to topple Shaun White at the Olympics, would ever walk again, much less snowboard.

His sponsors were left in a difficult position. Should they continue to support an athlete who would never compete again? If they did, how should they do it? And how long should that support continue?

His primary sponsors — Nike, Burton, Oakley, Amp and Volcom — met to talk through those questions at the 2010 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event in Stratton, Vt. Pearce had been diagnosed with a major brain injury and was undergoing neuro-rehabilitation, physical therapy and counseling in Colorado.

To help, sponsors bought the Pearce family a video camera to document Kevin’s recovery and rented a house for them in Colorado near the rehab facility.

Every major partner renewed its endorsement deal with Pearce, 25, at least once, and all but one of them stuck with him as he overcame major brain trauma and began reinventing himself as a snowboarding ambassador. (Volcom ceded the crowded street-wear apparel category to Nike and Burton.)

Industry sources put Pearce’s pre-injury earnings in the low seven figures and said his earnings fell as much as 40 percent after the injury, bringing his total sponsor earnings today into the mid-six figures.

Pearce’s sponsor support underscores a transition that’s taken place in action sports in recent years. When athletes got seriously injured a decade ago, many lost their sponsors. The problem was so pervasive that longtime X Games announcer and current Red Bull Signature Series host Sal Masekela called skaters, snowboarders and freestyle motocross stars “disposable heroes.”

“For a long time, they didn’t have deals where companies would have their back,” Masekela said.

But as Pearce’s sponsors showed, that attitude has changed. The high risk associated with action sports, the absence of a structured league that provides insurance, and the close ties between brand managers and athletes, who often travel together, means sponsors increasingly support athletes after an injury.

That was the case when skater John Cardiel broke his back and Vans and others continued to support him, and it was the case when BMX rider Stephen Murray was paralyzed at a Dew Tour competition in 2007. Murray’s sponsors pulled together to buy him a vehicle that could transport him and his wheelchair.

“It’s not an obligation,” said Aaron Cooke, who founded Athlete Recovery Fund after Murray’s injury to help support action sports athletes who suffer traumatic, career-ending injuries. “It’s not even assumed, but in the major injuries we’ve seen, sponsors almost always stay behind the athlete in some way now.”

Skater Paul Rodriguez said that sponsors that don’t stand by athletes risk becoming pariahs in the action sports community, but he thinks that’s only part of the motivation.

“If you’re a good human being, you’ve been good to people before a tragedy, they’re likely to stand by you,” Rodriguez said. “It comforts me.”

The sponsor support Pearce received during the last three years was a huge comfort to him as he began his long recuperation process after his injury on Dec. 31, 2009.

The three-time X Games silver medalist, who was the only rider to have beaten White in competition ahead of the Vancouver Games, crashed in Park City while attempting a twisting, double backflip. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and spent four months in the hospital repairing his walk, vision and memory.

After the injury, his family left his longtime agent, Sue Izzo of Mosaic Sports, and signed with CAA. They believed the Los Angeles agency’s ties to the literary and film industries would help if they pursued a book or movie deal around the injury story.

Taking on Pearce as a client challenged CAA. When it signed him, he was only a few months removed from his injuries and questions remained.

“How much of his vision would he regain?” said CAA’s Lowell Taub, who began working with Pearce. “How many seizures would he have? We just didn’t know.”

Taub’s priority was to renew agreements with Pearce’s sponsors — Burton, Nike, Oakley, Volcom and Amp — and he knew that each of them could reduce or terminate their agreements. But in meeting after meeting, they all extended their contracts.

Their support was good and bad for Pearce. Having it strengthened his determination as he worked to regain his vision and improve his memory. But it also made him feel obligated to repay them somehow.

“I wanted to do so much for them,” Pearce said. “I couldn’t. I was like, ‘Where are they going to find value for me?’ It was very nerve-wracking.”

Pearce ­— shown in 2009 — said: “I wanted to do so much for [the sponsors]. I couldn’t. I was like, ‘Where are they going to find value for me?’”
Every sponsor was patient as Pearce recuperated. Burton promoted an organic “I Ride for Kevin” campaign, making stickers and championing a Facebook page that collected more than 50,000 fans.

Nike’s support was equally important. The company invited him to a conference it hosted for sponsored athletes in Oregon. While there, he met documentary director and two-time Oscar nominee Lucy Walker, who spoke at the event. His story captivated her, and they talked about a film.

In 2011, her company, Tree Tree Tree, and Julian Cautherley produced the documentary “The Crash Reel.” The movie, which features footage that Pearce’s family shot during his recovery, debuted at Sundance last month. HBO bought it and plans to televise it this summer.

The movie culminates with Pearce riding a snowboard again in December 2011. His return opened opportunities for him. Sprint signed him and began using him as a brand ambassador, and Bing featured him in a commercial chronicling his recovery through its search engine.

Pearce said returning to the slopes and being part of the industry nourished him in his recovery. He and CAA looked for ways for him to become an ambassador within the sport, and broadcasting was an obvious way to do that.

ESPN tested him as an analyst during last year’s X Games snowboard competitions and brought him back this year to work as a color commentator alongside his longtime friend Keir Dillon. They will work together again during the X Games Tignes next month in France.

Pearce, who still has trouble with his memory and can struggle to find words when he’s tired, worked hard to get ready for the broadcast in Aspen last month. He’s not positive he wants to keep broadcasting, but experts saw enough during the X Games to believe he can stay in the booth if he wants.

“From where he was on Thursday to where he finished Sunday, it was beautiful to watch,” said Masekela, who worked on the X Games for 13 years. “He gives great personal insight, and for him to have a voice in snowboarding is a beautiful thing.”

Having a voice in snowboarding is key to Pearce’s future as an endorser. Taub said that Pearce’s sponsorship earnings declined after the injury, but his portfolio remains healthy. They are looking to add sponsors that fit, and that will be as much about the sponsor as about Pearce.

“Each sponsor has to think about what’s the match with Kevin,” said Issa Sawabini, a partner at Fuse, which works on Mountain Dew’s action sports business. “That’s a brand call. You have athletes who are sponsored in an ambassador role, and that can go on long after they stop competing.”

Pearce’s family is encouraging him to take his time and not overextend himself as he continues to recover. He says he is committed to one thing, and that’s staying in the world of snowboarding. He’s being open-minded about everything else.

“It took a while, but I feel like things are starting to pick up,” Pearce said. “It’s like a whole new start to life, a whole new beginning. It’s a chance to embark on a new future.”