Today, it is more common than not to see athletes sponsored by corporations, but that wasn’t always the case throughout American history. Rachel Gross, assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado Denver, studied the change in corporate sponsorships over five decades in her latest study titled “Logos on Everest: Commercial Sponsorship of American Expeditions, 1950 – 2000.” The research focuses on how businesses brought their logos to the top of Mt. Everest and what that meant for sports, marketing, and consumers.
According to many scholars, the 1984 Olympics was the turning point for major corporate sponsors. This was the year American Express and Coca-Cola were put on full display at the games, leading sponsors to spend $5.6 billion in that year alone. Gross, however, believes corporate sponsorship came into play much earlier, noting it really came to life during a 1950s expedition to the Himalayas where Eddie Bauer donated down jackets to the American mountaineers on the trek.
Corporate Sponsorship between 1950 – 1970
Already known as a supplier for the U.S. military during World War II, in the early 1950s Eddie Bauer began donating equipment to mountaineers in exchange for testimonials. Before his 1954 trek, mountaineer Allen Steck wrote to Eddie Bauer to inquire about down jackets. The company agreed to make the specialist parkas for $10 each and, in return, the mountaineers would write their testimonials to be published in the company’s catalog accompanied by photos.
In 1963, Eddie Bauer continued its expedition sponsorship by becoming one of many sponsors for Jim Whittaker, the first American to reach the peak of Everest, and his team. The National Geographic Society, the trip’s largest sponsor, had secured rights to all images from the expedition, leaving Eddie Bauer to rely on letters from Whittaker to describe what he had worn.
Eventually, the company was able to use the photograph in a catalog of Whittaker wearing a bright red Eddie Bauer parka. However, since the sponsorship contract wasn’t one set in stone, Gerry Mountain Sports, a competitor of Eddie Bauer’s, made the accusation that Whittaker simply switched out his Gerry parka that he had been wearing for the expedition for the Eddie Bauer parka just for the shoot. This claim holds no merit as the Gerry parkas did not arrive to the climbing team on time. However, this instance changed the way sponsors looked at contracts with athletes to ensure both parties understood the specifics of what either was expecting.
Growth from 1970 – 1990
As outdoor recreation grew through the 1970s, corporate sponsorship became less informal and more of a business partnership. Companies, like Eddie Bauer, began working with athletes to ensure more detailed testimonials were provided, and they sought more overall control of expeditions to boost marketing strategies.
As companies and athletes worked closer together, both parties saw increasing benefits. Eddie Bauer negotiated for teams to keep in constant communication with updates on equipment and photographs while mountaineers received more money and equipment up front. The mountaineers also agreed to give Eddie Bauer feedback on its equipment, which led to product improvements.
As outdoor retailers continued to sponsor more expeditions, they realized the feedback they were getting from mountaineers wasn’t reliable and, in some cases, not fully complete. Even though companies started writing specific questions for the mountaineers to answer, mountaineers felt they were too busy climbing the mountain to study the performance of gear unless it resulted in total failure. Another issue retailers faced was determining who the audience of these marketing campaigns were. Store owners were nervous that if the average Americans saw a sleeping bag being used on Everest, they would turn away from it, believing the products were too heavy duty for their needs.
By the end of the 1980s, Eddie Bauer stopped sponsoring expeditions as they started to focus more on mainstream outdoor lifestyle clothing and marketing campaigns with Ford, but that didn’t stop the industry from growing. Sponsorship of expeditions increased throughout the 1990s and continued to be a key tool in marketing efforts. Although it was unclear if these sponsorships resulted in an increase in sales, companies saw the exposure and brand recognition as valuable.
New Deals in the 1990s
While outdoor retailers stepped away from expedition sponsorship, DuPont and Gore stepped up their game. These chemical companies built up their involvement in expeditions, mostly because it made sense for their business through decades of work to establish the right relationship with those they sponsor.
The deal between Gore and Will Steger of the Trans-Antarctica Expedition team started a new era of sponsorship. The money Gore spent on promotion of its products and the expedition far exceeded the cash and donations to the athletes themselves. This deal also showed the change in what products came out of the sponsorship. Instead of exclusively selling the jacket worn by Steger on the expedition, Gore sold items such as headbands branded with Gore and the expedition name.
The Trans-Antarctica Expedition sponsorship deal also included the usual testimonials, three free appearances from the team, and the requirement that Gore’s logo must be worn on the jackets and the expedition’s dog sled, and clothing.
After the expedition was complete, Gore did not see a direct increase in sales or an increase in consumer awareness. However, marketers argued that the value in sponsoring expeditions such as this came with reputation in the outdoor industry. The fact that a famous athlete might speak out for the brand was enough.
In the Present Day
Today, elite skiers, runners, and other athletes maintain robust social media profiles that highlight cool gear in extreme environments. Behind the scenes, however, adventure athletes are often entirely beholden to sponsors.
“Unlike earlier decades when companies bent over backwards to keep sponsored athletes happy, today the athletes have few protections and might find themselves out of a job for opposing a corporation’s unspoken politics, or even simply because they get pregnant,” said Gross. “Taking a long view at corporations’ growing interest in and control over athletes helps us understand how that happened.”