The social game: Why Olympians work just as hard to carve up social media as the slopes
March 19, 2017
Steamboat’s most social
Not every athlete takes every platform seriously, and some don’t focus on any seriously. Nevertheless, here are the top scorers when it comes to followers on three large social media platforms.
Taylor Gold, 52,900, Halfpipe snowboarding
Justin Reiter, 43,600, Alpine snowboarding
Arielle Gold, 40,400, Halfpipe snowboarding
Lennon Vaughan, 8,796, Halfpipe skiing
Justin Reiter, 8,985, Alpine snowboarding
Arielle Gold, 5,978, Halfpipe snowboarding
Taylor Fletcher, 4,425, Nordic combined
Taylor Gold, 3,657, Halfpipe snowboarding
Arielle Gold, 22,418, Halfpipe snowboarding
Taylor Gold, 15,988, Halfpipe snowboarding
Justin Reiter, 4,089, Alpine snowboarding
Bryan Fletcher, 4,702, Nordic combined
Steamboat Springs — Lennon Vaughan took to the snow at Park City Mountain Resort in Utah this week and did what he does. He skied.
The Steamboat Springs-raised freestyle skier flew off jumps. He threw grabs, he spun in the air and slid across rails, even though rails have proven a particular weakness.
Vaughan, who specializes in ski halfpipe, has the big dreams, of X Games medals and Olympic trips, but the day at the resort was more about fun than training. His competitive season's over, and while he has aggressive plans for training this summer, that's for this summer, not this week.
Nothing he was doing was meant to help him make the Olympic team.
What he did when he went home and sat down to edit the video from the day, however, was an entirely different story.
The day of skiing ended up compressed into one 30-second video. Music was added, as well as one brief clip of birds sitting on a branch — an artist's touch, in Vaughan's eyes — and 24 hours later, the video, posted to Instagram, had been viewed nearly 7,000 times.
It may not help him make the Olympics, but for Vaughan, such videos are essential for him to make it in his sport.
Social media isn't a hobby for athletes, a way to check in on high school classmates or argue politics. It's far more important than that. It's a way to reach fans, and just how many people that reach can envelop can make a huge difference in a sport where sponsors provide much of an athlete's equipment and income.
"If you're not winning competitions, which only a handful of skiers do," Vaughan said, "your social media presence is what's going to get you noticed and sponsored."
Vaughan, 20, relies on those videos of himself skiing — "Insta-edits" — to build his online following.
He combines clips from six or eight different tricks, adds the music and always at least one quirky element.
Sometimes, it's a random shot of a few birds. A manta ray made the cut in another video, flapping its "wings" as it flew out of the water and matching the look of Vaughan's bouncing skis as he rode a rail.
"I want it to entertain people who might be watching 100 skiing videos in a day, just to stand out," he said.
Then, up it goes, about 100 in the last two years. The most successful outpace his 8,807 precious followers, racking up 10,000, 12,000, even 16,000 views.
Other winter sports athletes tackle social media a little differently, but in 2017 none can ignore it.
Playing the social media game is critical, and many athletes today focus on it nearly as much as they do training for their actual sports.
For Vaughan, courting sponsors and managing his social media — they go hand in hand — has been a learning experience, one that started with a few hard lessons.
He didn't always do a very good job staying in touch with sponsors, letting them know what he was up to and how many people were watching a video of him riding, for instance, their skis through a terrain park.
"I thought they'd just know I'm out there killing it, but you have to reach out to them," he said. "You have to be telling them what you're doing and show them, give them updates. That's how you keep a sponsor. I definitely lost a few, because I wasn't doing that."
Those sponsors have certainly found value in the relationships.
Honey Stinger, a Steamboat Springs-headquartered food company, targets athletes with its products, honey-based snacks like energy bars, gels and waffles.
Through the past seven years, the company has more and more leaned on some of those targeted athletes to help market those products.
Honey Stinger launched a sponsorship program in 2010 at a decidedly grassroots level, mostly "sponsoring" its own employees and their friends with a mountain bike racing team, and mostly, with just with a Team Honey Stinger bike jersey.
The concept grew quickly, however.
"We saw the potential we had there to grow the program into something more encompassing," said Sara Tlamka, Honey Stinger's marketing manager. "We saw an opportunity to open it up to all disciplines."
Now, sponsorships extend to a huge variety of athletes, big names and small. On one end is Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. The U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team is sponsored, as is Axeon Cycling Team, a team of young riders who race in big international events.
At the other end of the spectrum, Honey Stinger sponsors marathoners, rock climbers and even bass fishermen.
The company drew the line only when competitive video gamers applied.
"That one was intriguing, but it's not who we're looking for with our athlete program," Tlamka said, laughing.
The program has grown by 20 percent per year in recent years, and this year has roughly 1,000 athletes who receive varying levels of support.
For a small company like Honey Stinger, sponsoring athletes isn't about national TV commercials. It's far more grassroots than that.
The idea is to get product into the hands of athletes, then let them preach.
The energy chews, bars and waffles are Stinger's gospel.
Social media is the pulpit.
"The bigger, the better"
Steamboat Springs halfpipe snowboarder Arielle Gold has spent years building her pulpit.
There's little other option in her world, where checks from sponsors are how she pays the bills.
"Instagram is great because it allows you to filter out word-based posts, which can sometimes be pretty dry, and just focus on the more visual aspect. Facebook is great because it reaches a somewhat 'older' audience, and finally, Twitter is nice for posting brief updates about where I am and what I'm doing."
Gold's seen her following on those services rise steadily since she broke onto the scene in 2013, when she won the World Snowboarding Championships halfpipe competition and, a week later, made her first appearance at X Games Aspen.
She made the U.S. Olympic Team the following season, and that brought its own avalanche of attention and about 5,000 Twitter followers.
She's seen her follower number rise in the years since, faster when she does well and slower when she doesn't.
Making the podium at an event like X Games is important for plenty of reasons, she said. She's done so four times, including a second-place finish in Aspen last winter.
The prize money is nice. The attention is great.
The boost in followers? Priceless.
"Sponsors aren't nearly as concerned about results as they are about the size of your audience," she said. "The bigger, the better."
It's not all about sponsors for Gold.
She's worked hard to build her soapbox, and she's not afraid to use it for the causes that are important to her, personally.
On her Facebook athlete page — separate from her personal profile — she frequently posts about animal rights, especially encouraging and supporting adopting dogs from kennels.
"There are plenty of other people out there who have a bigger following than me, and I wish that they would use their platform to inspire others, but regardless, I just try to do what I can with whatever I've got," she said.
She mixes those posts in with competition results in season, training updates between seasons, plenty of shots with friends and family and, especially in the summer, photos and videos with her riding or playing with her horses in and around Steamboat Springs.
It's an honest look, she said, but it's calculated, as well.
"My social media presence has been primarily based on trying to give people a look into my day-to-day life," she said. "My snowboarding posts typically do the best, obviously, because the majority of my followers are interested in my snowboarding. But I like to think people also appreciate the photos of my horses, just because it's something different and gives them an idea of the kind of person I am outside of snowboarding."
Getting a wide reach on those posts is important enough that Gold has recently started paying to promote posts from her Facebook athlete page.
"It's ridiculous, but it's the only way to get those posts good exposure," she said. "Nothing's free these days."
Doing the job
Those more personal posts wouldn't rub Honey Stinger the wrong way. In fact, "be yourself" was at the top of the list of things to do for Jordan Edwards, who runs the company's sponsorship program.
"Be genuine," she said. "Be genuine to what it is you're excited and passionate about, and that will translate through your social media. Also, refrain from making any kind of overtly offensive derogatory post slamming other people or trolling."
Genuine can even be more important than straight-up numbers when it comes to social media.
The number of followers does matter, Edwards said, but it's not the only factor in deciding to sign an athlete.
"If an athlete is organically sharing their love of our products, that's more important than the fact that they might have 5,000 followers," she said. "I don't know where they're getting those followers from."
Better than just having followers is having followers who interact, who watch videos athletes post and share the photos, who comment and play along.
Sharing the fun with the sponsor is, of course, essential, as well.
Big Agnes, a sister company to Honey Stinger that focuses on camping and outdoors equipment, has started its own team of sponsored athletes in the past several years, a testament to how well the program worked at Honey Stinger.
The Big Agnes's stable looks different. It includes traditional athletes, but with more focus on adventure. There are photographers and mountain bikers, plus hikers tackling adventures like the Appalachian Trail.
The sponsorships range from discounts on gear at one end to free samples of next year's products at the other, with plenty of levels in between.
"For us, it's a super easy way for people to tell our story without us even having to do much," said Rob Peterson, who runs the Big Agnes program. "We still do ads — Outside, Backpacker — because that stuff is still there, but this is another way."
For Peterson, the ideal sponsored athlete looks a lot like Steamboat Springs Alpine snowboader Justin Reiter, a 2014 Olympian and World Snowboard Championship silver medalist.
Reiter competes through the winter, then spends his spring, summer and fall hiking and biking on long trips through the wilderness.
With more than 40,000 Instagram followers, Reiter falls at the high end of the spectrum for Peterson. ("Low" on that scale is generally 1,000-3,000 followers, he said while "high" is 10,000+.)
More importantly, Reiter excels at documenting his adventures, keeping Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all updated with posts and photos that often just so happen to include a Big Agnes tent.
Reiter will be a part of a new ambassador program the company is rolling out soon.
"He knows it's his job, and he does a great job with it," Peterson said.
Punching the time clock
Taking social media seriously has actually become more than part of the job for Reiter.
He still races and hopes to make his second Olympic appearance next year. Most days, however, social media is the job, much more so than snowboard racing.
"What I've come to realize the last few years, my No. 1 priority is to create content," Reiter said. "My No. 2 priority is to race well."
He doesn't get a salary for being an athlete. He's gotten very limited support from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association through his career, and there's only so much time in the offseason to work a traditional job.
Sponsors fund the life.
His accomplishments on snow help open the doors. His social media following — about 55,000 across all platforms — helps seal the deals.
"I post, you have 55,000 eyes seeing it. That's way more than a billboard that people aren't even looking at on the way to Denver," he said. "Plus, I'm way cheaper than a billboard."
He may be cheaper, but he does charge, and he's frustrated when social media personalities do accept deals just for gear, seeing that as lowering the potential value of his own work. Still, what he does now adds up to enough to allow him to live his life and, even if it takes a back seat at times, pursue a second trip to the Olympics.
Reiter tries to maintain and build his social media numbers with quality photos and videos. It can take a tremendous amount of effort.
He's hired professional photographers to hit the slopes with him locally to help generate content. He plans ahead of time to have someone shoot a high-quality, shareable photos at a race, or he scrambles afterwards to find a photographer who got something that will work.
He's spent recent summers plotting and executing major backcountry excursions. He and a group of friends tackled the Colorado Trail on mountain bikes two years ago. That project generated a film that has tallied 500,000 views online.
Last year, he helped put together a bike and fly fishing trip through the San Juan mountains that was featured online by Outside magazine.
It's awesome, he said, to get out of the house, to tackle such epic adventures.
At the same time, it's work, and he has to keep the flow of content coming.
"Sometimes, I go out and get a shot, and it's just for Instagram," he said. "I don't want to go for a sunset bike ride. Maybe it's a day where I really need to rest. But, I also need to produce content. I owe my sponsors that."
Social media may not have the same demands for athletes across the spectrum, but for athletes in fringe sports that offer little U.S. team funding, or for athletes who are still chasing contracts with big-time sponsors, social media can mean everything.
It's allowed Reiter to continue in a sport where financing has long been a crippling factor.
Vic Wild, a former teammate in Steamboat Springs, became a Russian citizen and joined that nation's Alpine snowboard team in order to secure funding to compete.
Reiter does it with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
"One thought I always come back to, is my life about my Instagram, or is my Instagram about my life?" he said. "I always want it to be that Instagram is about my life, but sometimes, it's the other way around."
Live the dream, add the followers
Lennon Vaughan's gotten better at handling sponsors.
He worked through his list of supporters and didn't hesitate in describing their best quality. He loves his skis. His boots are the best he's ever had.
"I wouldn't trust any other company," he said, finally breaking his pace to laugh.
"Seriously," he said. "I'm not just saying that!"
He's courting others. He has his eyes on an energy drink company and makes a point to include it when he reaches out about his videos and recent results.
Vaughan has high hopes for the next 12 months. He may be a long shot to make the 2018 U.S Olympic team, but he's planning on taking that shot.
"It's going to be a ton of work if I want to have a chance," he said.
He needs to learn new tricks and tighten up old ones. He didn't do well in the first of the five U.S. Olympic qualifying events, placing 36th, but he has four more chances early next winter.
It would mean the world to him to make it.
He would fulfill a dream. He would add his name to Steamboat Springs' long list of Olympians. And, he couldn't help but note, he would surely at least double his Instagram following.