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Risky Business: Corporate Sponsorship of Extreme Athletes

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here. [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="214" caption="Alex Honnold Ropeless Ascent of Yosemite's Halfdome"]Alex Honnold[/caption] By: James Parle For over 40 years climbers like Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost have been developing gear to make climbing impassable routes both possible and safe.  Now free solo climbers are setting out on these same routes with nothing more than climbing shoes and a chalk bag.  Some of the most challenging big wall climbs in Yosemite that most often take two to three days for highly experienced climbers can be completed by free solo climbers in a matter of hours. Impressive though these speed climbers may be, it’s still not universally accepted by the climbing community because of the blatant risk involved. A tragic accident doesn’t just affect the climber, it also impacts family, friends, and the climbing community. One of the world’s best climbers is 26 year old Alex Honnold whose renown comes from his mental steel as much as from his physical abilities.  Alex has free solo climbed The Nose of El Capitan as well as countless other superhuman climbing feats.  Alex sleeps in a white cargo van, and spends every day training and climbing. It’s an anti-establishment way of life espoused by athletes who refuse to conform to mainstream values while placing significant priority on dedication to extreme sports.  How can extreme athletes manage to be financially stable?  One answer is sponsorship.  Much as Michael Jordan was idealized as an icon of athletic success, so too are extreme athletes like Alex Honnold in free solo climbing, Lairde Hamilton in big wave surfing, and Jeremy McGrath in Supercross selected by corporations as stars in their respective sports to be admired by consumers. What is the marketing message associated with sponsoring the athletes who take on the most challenges?  It’s interesting that corporations often choose to support athletes who change the perceptions of what’s possible.  There are any number of characteristics that corporate sponsors could look for.  They could highlight years of participation, Wounded Warriors, polymaths, or be the most outspoken advocates for the sport.  But perhaps its simply human nature to admire people who catalyze significant change. Whatever corporate intention may be, sponsoring extreme athletes influences people.  Most people will look up to their accomplishments as brilliant yet unobtainable.  They may purchase the endorsed product but overall their lives won’t be greatly affected.  Then there is a second group of people; the ones who are already participants.  To these consumers the sponsored athlete becomes a gauntlet.  They represent a new spectrum of what is possible to achieve, and as such become a challenge to live up to.  Additionally, sponsored athletes sometimes direct popular focus to previously underground sports. Does a corporation bear any responsibility for the implications of its marketing messaging?  Corporations are expected to promote safety for their own employees; is it also incumbent on them to promote safety for their consumers?  Or is it the consumer’s responsibility to understand and respect his own skill level?  Where do sponsored high risk athletes fall on this spectrum?  Are they akin to employees because they are paid by the corporation, or are they more like consumers because they would be engaged in their same activities regardless of sponsorship? In light of the concept of triple bottom line, how far does a company’s sphere of influence extend?  And if it is corporate social responsibility to act in the best interest of consumers, is it better to minimize risk or to encourage it for the sake of innovation? [caption id="attachment_90533" align="alignleft" width="81" caption="James Parle"][/caption] James Parle has a background in technology and before coming to Presidio Graduate School spent five years working in wind energy.  He has a passion for improving the world around him and looks forward to combining his previous engineering efforts with his latest deep dive into sustainable business practice.  Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, he is entertaining the possibly of one day starting his own venture.  In his spare time he enjoys getting outside and is interested in one day hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexico border to the Canadian border.