In the recently-released video below, Pat Moore announced that he'd decided to part ways with Red Bull, for reasons that went beyond business. It got us thinking about this piece on the influence of energy drinks in snowboarding that we ran back in Whitelines Issue 107, published February 2013.
This past winter I decided to leave Red Bull. The benefits of riding for them are undeniable, but I started to question my involvement when I began being coached on how to speak about their product in a way I wasn't ok with. I'm happy to start @villagergoods with a group of likeminded people and a team full of icons. Hopefully one day we'll be able to offer the next generation the benefits of a drink sponsor without the negativity that goes along with it.
Sponsorship and snowboarding go hand in hand, but over the last decade one growing market has brought unparalleled investment and changed the game. Today, just a few short decades since their humble beginnings in Thailand, energy drinks are a global phenomenon. Their industry continues to grow year after year - even as others falter - and their presence is felt in every corner of popular culture. They’ve turned our hot tubs into time machines and taken us to the edge of space; and they're still just getting started.
Meanwhile, the effect they’ve had on the snowboarding industry is less ‘quick caffeine boost’, more ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’. They've changed the sport forever – naturally picking up both praise and condemnation along the way. So how did we get here, and where is this fluorescent fizzy wave carrying us?
Krating Daeng, the brainchild of one Chaelo Yoovidhya, first appeared in Asia during the 1970s. As the world’s first branded ‘energy drink’, the high-caffeine beverage found early popularity among truckers and labourers, and grew to become one of Thailand’s most popular drinks. Visiting Austrian businessman Dietrich Mateschitz saw an opportunity to market a similar product in Europe, and went into business with Yoovidhya.
Taking its name from a loose translation of ‘Krating Daeng’, the first cans of ‘Red Bull’ appeared in Austria in 1987. A decade later it was readily available in the UK and USA, and by 2011 over 4 billion cans were being sold each year.
While it still has the majority of the market sewn up, Red Bull faces ever-fiercer competition from the likes of Monster, Rockstar, Relentless, Burn and AMP. Then there’s Demon, Hype, Crunk, Pimp Juice, Cocaine, and countless supermarket-brand variations. As the names suggest, most see themselves as synonymous with an ‘extreme’ lifestyle and, as a result, have become closely involved with so-called action sports.
Watch anything from motor racing to cliff-diving and you’re bound to see one of the big players' familiar logos. In the same way that Krating Daeng’s ascendency was fuelled by its endorsement of Thai martial arts events, its Western successors have sought close association with all things ‘adrenaline’.
Snowboarding, naturally, fits right in there, and nowadays the sport is awash with energy drink branding. Take a trip to any resort and chances are you'll see more than a few cans being knocked back on the chairlift, or on the deckchairs near the park – and it's one of life's certainties that the Jägerbombs will be flowing in any après bar you care to walk into. With so many different varieties, it’s dangerous to generalise – some paint themselves as a genuine performance enhancer, while others have adopted a more anarchic image.
However, all the major brands have one thing in common: they’ve pumped serious money into the sport. Red Bull Supernatural, the Burn River Jump the Relentless Freeze Festival and, of course, the Monster Whitelines Rail Jam. are just a few of the events backed by energy drinks, while some of the most incredible riding ever committed to film was made possible through the generous support of energy drink brands - from glorious hi-def footage in Alaska (The Art of Flight) to Antarctic powder exploration (Lives of the Artists).
The majority of today’s snowboarding superstars also have contracts with the market leaders; Travis Rice (Red Bull), Xavier De Le Rue (Relentless), Halldor Helgason (Monster), Scotty Lago (AMP) and Torstein Horgmo (Rockstar) to name but a few. UK talent hasn’t been overlooked, with just about every high-profile British freestyle rider of recent years getting an endorsement at one time or another, including Jenny Jones, Dom Harington, Jamie Nicholls, Billy Morgan and, most recently, Aimee Fuller.
Given the necessity to leave these isles in order to get any significant training in, not to mention the costs incurred on the contest circuit, having a deep-pocketed benefactor makes a lot of sense. However, as Aimee explains, her decision to join Red Bull was about a great deal more than money.
“I’d been talking with them for about a year," she said when we called her up to talk Bull. “They’d been watching my riding and invited me to a couple of camps, to see if I fitted that brand and to make sure we were going in the same direction. It all worked out."
"Red Bull’s comprehensive athlete support network includes fitness trainers, nutritionists and strength-and-conditioning coaches"
That phrase ‘fitted the brand’ is interesting. There are reports of energy drink companies being a lot stricter with what their riders can say or do than traditional snowboard sponsors are [Indeed, this is the reason Pat gave for leaving Red Bull]. Is it something she’s experienced? “In many ways it’s just the same as with any professional contract. I wouldn’t say it’s specifically an energy drink thing. I can just get on with it. I don’t feel any pressure, I know what I want to do and it’s nice to have them there to help me achieve my goals."
And help they do, with a comprehensive athlete’s support network that includes fitness trainers, nutritionists and strength-and-conditioning coaches. It’s seemingly ideal for someone like Aimee. Already a formidable international rider, her best years are ahead of her, and you can expect her to be a serious contender for the first slopestyle gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Shortly after our chat, her new sponsor is jetting her off to Idaho for an invite-only performance camp that will focus on just that. Given how she got on at the last one – landing her first double backflip at Red Bull’s New Zealand camp – we can expect big things.
“With the direction I want to go in, it’s the ultimate sponsor" she continues. “On the camps there’s airbags, aerial awareness coaching... there’s everything you could imagine and more. Red Bull is leading the way in helping riders to develop and progress the sport. It’d be hard to fault what they’re doing; it’s such a positive brand. Just having that extra support, someone pointing you in the right direction, is huge."
And does she ever actually drink the stuff? “Yeah, I drink it on the mountain. If you have that sudden lull of energy and you really want to get the last out of the session, it does give you that boost. If there’s a certain trick you want to work on but you’re tired, that extra kick can help you get it done."
"Drink Water promotes tap water as an alternative to what they refer to as ‘energy drink marketing insanity’ in action sports"
However, not everyone shares her enthusiasm. Among those who’ve been vocal about turning down the taurine dollar are Nicolas Müller and Jake Blauvelt. Given that both are well-established names with plenty of other lucrative endorsements, who conduct most of their business away from the contest circuit, it’s hardly a shock. The same, though, cannot be said of 24-year-old Austin Smith who, along with fellow rider Bryan Fox, started Drink Water. As the Ronseal-esque name suggests, the brand promotes water (tap water, specifically) as an alternative to the products themselves, and also a rejection of what they refer to as “energy drink marketing insanity in action sports".
While most who share his view won’t ever have their convictions tested, that’s not how it happened for Austin. After he won both Rookie of the Year and Video Part of the Year at the 2008 Transworld Riders Poll awards, the companies came knocking. As he explains, “It was boatloads of cash, and all I had to do in return is put a sticker on my snowboard. But I didn’t start snowboarding with the hopes of one day getting rich off of it, and it had already given me so much more than I could have ever hoped for. I travel around the world with my friends while being supported by amazing snowboard companies."
Even so, it wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, and Austin sought the advice of snowboard legend Andrew Crawford. As one of the old guard, it’s perhaps surprising that “he told me to go for it. I thought about taking the money and donating it to something I believed in. I thought about giving it all to my brother as it would have changed his life completely. But no matter what I did with that money, at the end of the day I would have felt guilty."
While the companies didn’t seem to be asking much of him, Austin was looking at the bigger picture. “It was more than putting a sticker on my snowboard; it was endorsing a product I didn’t believe in and encouraging kids to consume it. For what snowboarding has given me, I owe it something positive."
The Drink Water guys don’t go as far as to demonise the energy drink manufacturers, their representatives or their customers, instead adopting a laissez-faire attitude that encourages riders to make their own minds up. What it comes down to, says Austin, is individual responsibility: “Todd Richards once told me: ‘Only endorse and promote products you actually use.’ If more people agreed with that it would keep snowboarding in the right direction." [Since this article was first published, Todd Richards has become a spokesman for Rockstar]
Halldor does a (ahem) monster backflip over an urban road gap. Photo: Frode Sandbech
Bryan and Austin soon set about endorsing what they were using: plain old tap water. And what began with two friends writing ‘Drink Water’ on their snowboards has now grown into a global movement, with a team of ambassadors that lists Keegan Valaika and X Games Real Snow winner Louif Paradis among its ranks.
As well as designing and manufacturing their own merchandise, including a colab binding with Nitro, they organise the Rat Race at Mount Hood and back other grassroots snowboard events such as the Dirksen Derby. They’ve accomplished more than most, all without ever having to reach for the tall cans. What’s more, they donate 10% of all profits to water.org, which helps communities worldwide that don’t have ready access to clean drinking water.
Whichever way you look at it, these guys are the ‘goodies’. So what does that make the can-peddlers? Do Austin and Bryan have a point when they suggest that the marketing side of things has got “insane"?
"The leather-clad Monster party girls, the branded helis, Chas Guldemond’s board.... It’s the marketing equivalent of someone screaming in your face with a megaphone"
Well, there’s no denying that these brands are stripping the last shreds of subtlety from the sponsorship game. At top-tier slopestyle events, you’ll often see some thankless rep run out to thrust a can into the mitt of the branded rider who’s just reached the bottom.
Then there’s the leather-clad Monster party girls, the branded helis, Chas Guldemond’s board.... It’s the marketing equivalent of someone screaming in your face with a megaphone. And say what you will about Burton, Nike and Oakley, none of them ever made one of their top riders front up to a camera after a double cork and say anything as cringeworthy as “Welcome to my world – the world of Red Bull."
Of course, this isn't really the problem. What has stoked the flames of anti-energy sentiment is the end, not the means. Sponsorship of snowboarding attracts the lucrative youth market, many of which are pre-teens. You don't need a doctor to tell you that excessive sugar and caffeine consumption among that age group is ill-advised; even the manufacturers would agree with that, and the vast majority maintain that their product isn’t suitable for under-12s.
Still, it’s not uncommon to head to any skate park, snowdome or shopping centre and see increasingly supersized cans in the hands of nippers. Concerns over the drinks’ ingredients have led to calls for an outright ban in some countries, including France, Norway and Denmark.
If this gained any significant traction, you can bet that vast amounts of funding will suddenly evaporate out of snowboarding. Having said that, such measures have failed far more often than they have succeeded, as was the case in the UK (the possibility of a ban was considered by legislators in 2001, but ultimately dropped).
The main reason is that, while no consensus exists, the evidence for the supposed health risks isn’t strong enough. Several studies have concluded that the common ingredients of energy drinks have no significant negative (or positive) effects on the body, even when consumed in relatively large doses.
While one report from America’s Food and Drug Administration hinted at connections between energy drink consumption and death, a quick glance at the Daily Mail will tell you that just about everything is killing us these days and, crucially, a causal link has yet to be established. So even though we would do well to dissuade groms from necking five cans a day, we probably don't have to worry about the kind of tough regulation that would force the brands out.
Perhaps, instead, we should be wary of the fact that a huge amount of influence is now wielded by what is technically an ‘outside interest’. Whether it’s Burton or Burn, Ride or Rockstar, sponsorship is primarily about one thing: shifting units. The fundamental difference is that, when it’s a snowboard hardware company doing the backing, the desired result is that there will be more snowboards, boots and bindings sold. They want established riders to consider their gear for next season, and for newcomers to have heard of their brand when they go to buy their first setup.
For energy drink companies, that’s not quite the case. They want young people to be entertained and inspired by their sponsored riders but, as with motorsports, it won’t really matter if they go on to actually participate in snowboarding.
It’s mainly a great way to reach that target audience who, whether they snowboard, mountain bike or play Call of Duty, are equally likely to pick up a can the next time they’re at the shop. Any increase in ‘mainstream’ exposure is therefore good news for them – and in snowboarding, that’s certainly not an opinion shared by all.
There’s also been a creeping move towards mainstream sport and music, with brands snapping up Formula 1 drivers, NFL players and superstar Euro DJs. Should the powers that be decide that they get a better return from them, they'd undoubtedly ramp up their efforts there – at the possible expense of investment in snowboarding.
"While divestment is a possibility, it’s one that is growing increasingly remote. For the next few years, that cash is going nowhere"
There’s a strong counter-argument to both these points, though: the more coverage snowboarding gets, the more people are likely to take a lesson or buy a setup. The knock-on effect is a stronger scene and increased business for the snowboard industry, at no direct cost to them. And while divestment is a possibility, it’s one that is growing increasingly remote. For one thing, the Sochi Games are coming, with an extra six snowboard medals up for grabs. The value of a worldwide audience seeing one of their athletes atop an Olympic podium surely won’t be lost on the industry. For the next few years at least, that cash is going nowhere.
The debate will doubtlessly rage on for as long as energy drinks still pump through snowboarding’s veins. We can at least hopefully all agree that younger children should stay away from the stuff. Other than that, the jury's out, and it’s up to all of us as individuals to decide what to buy – or what to endorse. As for the effects on the sport in general, time will tell. Either it's finally getting the investment and attention that it’s deserved for years; or it’s becoming hyper, a bit bloated, and heading for a crash.
This article first appeared in Whitelines Issue 107, February 2013