Words: Damian Doyle
Last month Danny Wheeler announced his retirement from professional snowboarding. With that decision, the UK has lost one of the few snowboarders we could say had a proper pro career. This got me thinking: What defines a ‘professional snowboarder’ and how many British riders can claim that title?
To truly consider themselves ‘pro’, a snowboarder surely has to be getting paid a yearly wage by a brand purely for their snowboarding talent. This wage has to be separate to a travel budget or expenses, and has to allow them to live all year round without working another job. Defining the term in this way gives quite shocking results. It basically excludes nearly all the people we consider to be pros in the UK. According to this strict definition, only a few British riders could actually be classed as professional snowboarders - Tyler Chorlton, Jenny Jones and Jamie Nicholls. Out of the dozens of ‘hooked up’ riders from the UK, that’s less than a handful earning a good living from snowboarding. So should all the other riders be classed as mere amateurs? Or maybe just ‘sponsored snowboarders’? That doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, though - and how many girls would they ever pull using that line?! More importantly, the world of snowboarding is not quite that simple.
To get a more accurate picture, I would argue that there are two types of pro snowboarders - the ‘career pro’ and the ‘lifestyle pro’. The ‘career pro’ earns a wage from the sport, is able to save money, has an expendable income and enjoys a good lifestyle at home, separate to snowboarding. Think Shaun White or Nicolas Müller. Most UK ‘pros’ are not in this position. They only survive without a regular job by changing their lifestyle to go snowboarding, so that day-to-day living and snowboarding expenses become the same thing. They use the small amount of travel budget and sponsorship money they receive to spend the year riding, and get shots in magazines and videos to keep their sponsors happy. In that sense, although you’re not really making any money, you could still say you are a professional snowboarder. I would call this lot ‘lifestyle pros’.
It’s obviously a big leap from lifestyle pro to career pro, and so far, very few UK riders have done it. Danny Wheeler set the path to follow, securing monetary contracts with his sponsors and having a pro model graphic on both Duotone and Icon snowboards. Jenny Jones, meanwhile, is the most successful British pro to date - she can go to an event and win $10,000 in one weekend. But it’s Jamie Nicholls who is now setting the precedent for future riders in this country. He’s doing it in a proper business-like fashion, with the help of a manager, and in the past two years he has gone from being on equipment-based UK deals to earning a yearly wage from Quiksilver, Red Bull and Nike 6.0. Not bad for a 16 year old from Halifax who was studying for his GCSE’s only months ago.
But who else is aiming to take that step up to fill the shoes that Danny has left? And how should they go about it? There are dozens of sponsored riders in the UK, but to make the leap up from lifestyle pro to career pro, it seems they need not only the riding talent, but also the business sense, to make a career from it. Scott McMorris, Gary Greenshields, Seb Kern, Ben Kilner, Dom Harington, Zoe Gillings, and Jack Shackleton are a few that could do it. But increasingly, even for this bunch, the level they have to reach to make snowboarding a proper career is getting higher. Not just based on the current riding standard but also on the money available to them. Instead of being in a position to look for new contracts and more money, riders are hanging onto the ones they have and hoping they don’t get dropped by existing sponsors. Brands have had to cut rider budgets due to the market dropping off, meaning only the very best stay on the payroll. For any rider trying to step up to this level they’re suddenly faced with a much bigger task than a couple of years ago. Long gone are the days when the snowboard industry was booming, pros made mega bucks and could buy houses with one pay cheque.
With increased competition for spots on international teams, riders are forced to become more creative about how they package themselves and what they can offer a sponsor. It’s no longer enough to just go out in the latest kit, ride around resort and shoot a couple of photos. Riders have to go searching and work hard for their coverage; do comps, travel to different resorts and find ways to be noticed for more than their riding talent. This is something that UK riders seem to be particularly good at. There’s something about the UK scene that seems to encourage developing a diverse career and not just relying on snowboarding talent alone.
Even though we don’t have the biggest roster of career focused pro riders and while it may be getting harder to make a living as a snowboarder, there certainly seems scope for people to come through snowboarding and find careers in the wider industry. Prime examples being Ed Leigh now a TV presenter, Jon Weaver being Forum’s European team manager, Tim Warwood presenter and film maker and Scott McMorris becoming Red Bull’s team manager.