During his pro mountain biking career Darren Berrecloth has suffered through back surgeries, cracked ribs and more broken bones than he likes to count.
But first-place prizes for freeride competitions remain only in the $25,000 to $35,000 range, he says. Between sponsorships and prize money, most freeriders make $50,000 to $200,000 a year. Compare those modest totals to the multi-million paydays enjoyed by athletes in traditional “stick and ball” sports leagues. Between salary and endorsements, NBA players earned an average $4.9 million in 2014, according to Forbes. The average pay for MLB ($3.82 million), NHL ($2.58 million) and NFL (over $2 million) players dwarfed the annual earnings of all but the top action stars.
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The yawning pay gap between action sports athletes—and their mainstream rivals—is rarely discussed publicly. But among themselves, over beers, extreme athletes “talk about it all the time,” Berrecloth tells SI.com in an interview.
“These athletes are way underpaid for what they’re doing. We’re working really hard to get purses and salaries higher and higher,” says the 34-year old Canadian nicknamed “The Claw.”
[daily_cut]So goes the extreme financial disparity between the Big 4 pro sports of NFL, MLB, NBA and the NHL—and the Big 6 action sports of Surfing, Snowboarding, Skiing, Supercross/Motocross, Skateboarding and BMX.
Outside of NFL players, nobody risks life and limb more than the adrenaline junkies of extreme sports. Big wave surfer Mark Foo drowned at Mavericks in 1994. Multiple Supercross/Motocross riders and Mountain Bikers have been paralyzed.
But most of these high-flying risk-takers make peanuts relative to mainstream athletes. That won’t change until organizers open their wallets and start paying more. Or fans and TV viewers flock to action sports in such numbers they can start charging somewhere near the billions collected by the NFL, MLB or the NBA for national TV rights and sponsorships.
As a group, Supercross/Motocross riders and surfers make the most, says Steve Astephen, managing director of Wasserman Media Group’s Action Sports and Olympics Division. Mountain bikers and BMX riders make the least.
The fast-growing sport of Supercross is similar to NFL or NASCAR, says Astephen. Riders sign seven-figure deals with factory “teams,” that outfit them head to toe and arrange travel. But generally, they don’t carry your bags in this show.
These athletes don’t get drafted out of college, sign a multi-million guaranteed contract, then buy the Cadillac Escalade. For most, there’s no team training facility, no team plane, no coaches. They’re handling their own training, travel and medical expenses when they’re still teenagers, according to Kelia Moniz, a 21-year-old women’s longboard champ who also models Quiksilver’s Roxy line.
Rookies start out making nothing, relying on friends, family and part-time jobs. Just ask 21-year old Gabriel Medina, Brazil’s first surfing champion, who struggled for years before winning the 2014 ASP World Tour title. The business model of action sports could be described as “every man for himself,” says Moniz.
“There’s no promise of another year in this industry. You have to work your butt off. It’s definitely not the NBA,” she says.
Yes, there’s action stars who “cross over” into pop culture, with big-time endorsements, video games, etc. Snowboarder Shaun White, Motocross legend Travis Pastrana, pro surfers Kelly Slater and John John Florence and skateboarders Tony Hawk and Ryan Sheckler can pull in $5-15 million per year, according to industry insiders.
But they’re the elite. Once you get past the top five to 10 stars in each sport capable of pulling down $1 million to $5 million a year, athlete pay falls off a cliff. The millionaire's club for action sports is a mile wide—and an inch deep.
Surfing magazine Stab publishes a “Rich List” of the world’s highest-paid surfers. In 2013, Stab listed Florence No. 1, with combined contest/sponsorship earnings of $5 million. Women’s champ Stephanie Gilmore ranked No. 9 at $1.85 million.
Compare their incomes with those at the top of Forbes’ list of the highest-earning U.S. athletes in 2014: boxer Floyd “Money” Mayweather, Jr. ($108 million); the NBA’s LeBron James ($72.3 million) and Kobe Bryant ($61.5 million); the PGA Tour’s Tiger Woods ($61.2 million); and tennis star Roger Federer ($56.2 million).
Action sports researcher Board-Trac estimates there’s roughly 18 million surfers, snowboarders and skateboarders spending up to $20 billion annually on equipment and apparel. So why is the athlete pay gap so wide? Lets start with total prize money.
At the high end, the renamed World Surf League (formerly ASP) will offer a total of $5.8 million in prize money across 11 men’s events in 2015. Female suffers will get $2.4 million across nine events. The Dew Tour, meanwhile, will offer nearly $1.5 million across three events this year, said Alex Rozis of NBC Sports.
On the surface, those numbers are good. But an injured Woods made nearly 10 times as much ($55 million) as WSL’s total purse just in endorsement income last year, according to Forbes.
Other competitions offer surprisingly meager prize money. The Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship, sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, will offer total prize money of $840,000 over a dozen events this year, says spokesman Jen Kenyon. But champions typically receive up to $1 million in bonuses from their manufacturer and other sponsors, she notes. The Monster Energy AMA Supercross series will offer total money of $2,403,407 in prize money and bonuses across 17 events this year. There’s also the Monster Energy Cup, which is not part of the national championship series, that could potentially pay out over $1 million.
To put those numbers in perspective, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman earned a $500,000 performance bonus—outside his normal salary of $3 million for 2014—just for helping his team reach, let alone win, Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks.
With growing attendance, Supercross now sells out NFL stadiums such as the Atlanta Falcons’ Georgia Dome. But first place winners get only $12,000. The purses are a “joke,” says Astephen.
“They should be making a lot more than twelve grand when they cross the finish line in 1st place. In NASCAR, the guy who finishes 20th probably gets that.”
Astephen’s got a point. Compare the prize purses in extreme sports competition to the PGA Tour.
During the current 2014-15 season, the PGA Tour will offer a staggering $314 million in prize money across 47 tournaments, according to spokeswoman Maureen Radzavicz. That doesn’t even count the $17.5 million in bonuses players will earn through the FedEx Cup.
What about comparing individual events?
X Games Aspen drew total attendance of 115,000 in January. But prize money was less than $1 million, according to ESPN spokeswoman Crystal Yang. Competitions like X Games and Dew Tour provide “great media exposure” to athletes and their sponsors, she says.
How about the Red Bull Rampage Mountain Biking event telecast by NBC? Try a purse of $75,000—with winner Andreu Lacondeguy of Spain taking home $35,000.
That’s pocket change compared to the $1.8 million won by Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer at last year’s respective PGA Championship and Players Championship. In fact, the PGA Tour staged over 40 tournaments last year where the winning golfer pocketed $1 million or more. The two richest tournaments—the PGA Championship and Players Championship—offered total prize money of $10 million apiece.
Over his 13-year career, Berrecloth says his single biggest payday was $130,000. Legend has it that ex-heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson dropped $140,000 just on Bengal tigers for his Las Vegas estate (See The Hangover).
Then there’s the lack of lucrative TV/sponsorship deals.
The NFL makes an estimated $5 billion a year—or half of its $10 billion in annual revenue—from TV deals with NBC, FOX, CBS, ESPN and the NFL Network. Players get 55% of national media revenue. That’s $2.75 billion.
In 2013, Feld Motor Sports and Fox Sports announced a 5-year deal to nationally televise Monster Energy AMA Supercross, Monster Jam and other competitions on the Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 channels. Terms were not disclosed. But sources say Fox is only paying $2 million a year.
“The numbers just aren't there,” says Marie Case of Board-Trac.
The nature of the venues precludes much of a live gate too. You can’t sell seats on the nearly vertical sandstone ridges in Virgin, Utah where the last Red Bull Rampage was held. Depending on its setting, Rampage typically sells 1,200 to 1,500 tickets at $20 a pop, says Red Bull spokeswoman Ilana Taub. That’s a banner weekend. With the exception of a few venues, Mountain Biking’s “really not a spectator sport,” explains Berrecloth.
With such small purses, how do these athletes make a living? Answer: Corporate sponsors.
Todd Jones, brother of pioneering big mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones, says they rely on sponsors for pay and free equipment. The top ones usually have four or five separate endorsement deals in the apparel, equipment, sunglasses and energy drink categories. Sponsors provide a base salary and performance bonuses. The biggest may offer travel allowances. But many deals are short-term and can vanish into thin air.
Jeremy Jones’ sponsors, for example, include O’Neill, Sanuk, Sony and Swatch. Berrecloth has Red Bull, GoPro and Adidas Eyewear. Moniz has Roxy and GoPro.
But there’s challenges ahead. Similar to mainstream endorsement contracts, more sponsors are injecting injury and morality clauses that let them wriggle out of deals. Some sponsors expect injured athletes to kick back part of their pay if they miss a certain numbers of events. All sponsors are quicker to exercise the dreaded morality clause after the Lance Armstrong and Ray Rice scandals.
The good news? Extreme athletes are forced to be more entrepreneurial. The most media-savvy smartly use video, documentaries and GoPro cameras to build a fan following and create their own brands, says Berrecloth.
“That’s the only way you can make your way. There’s no scouts out there in the field when you’re young, trying to recruit you. You’re doing it on your own,” he notes. “Once you get to a certain level, you get (media) coverage and some good video. Then companies will bring you on board—and start to pay for some things.”
The 40-year-old Jones is one of the best examples of an action sports entrepreneur. He owns Jones Snowboards. He’s starred in a Coors Light commercial. His brothers Todd and Steve created their own media company, Teton Gravity Research, where they make everything from documentaries to TV spots for sponsors like Subaru.
Jeremy Jones executive-produced a trio of documentaries—Deeper, Further and Higher—which he sells on Amazon and his family’s website. He’s working on a TV series and a book deal.
Like many entrepreneurs, Jeremy Jones followed his gut and it paid off. When his deal with 19-year sponsor Rossignol went south, he started splitting boards specific to his own back country style of riding. Now splitboards are hot sellers. And he’s cleaning up.
“The beautiful thing about that maneuver on his part? He did it from pure need and being kind of frustrated with the industry. Now, that’s the only growing category in the space. So he looks like a hero,” says Todd Jones. “He became an industry leader out of his desire to create something that didn’t exist. It was very entrepreneurial—and good foresight.”
In another positive sign, more advertisers are using extreme athletes to reach younger consumers. Moniz is finalizing an endorsement deal with Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, according to her agent Josh Weil of William Morris Endeavor. The company has previously used actress Katie Holmes and supermodel Kate Upton for marketing purposes.
Still, Berrecloth remembers a conversation with a movie stunt coordinator a decade ago. After witnessing a risky jump, the coordinator mused on how much he would charge for it back in Hollywood.
“He was saying to do that stunt, once, would be worth $30,000 or $40,000 bucks. Once? We constantly do stuff like that. All day long, all year long.”
Sure, action stars get jealous of the millions made by mainstream athletes, says Moniz. But like many surfers, she’s zen about the whole thing.
“Do the other sports have what we have? We’re in pretty much the most beautiful places in the world all year long. We make enough to live on. We’re not struggling one bit.”