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Today’s sponsored athletes take full control of their exposure—how do they do it? And what does this mean for next-gen pros?

In many ways, Brooke Willson seems like a typical sponsored athlete. She spends most of her time gallivanting around the world on fantastic adventures. Her home looks like the inside of an MEC, stuffed with tents, clothing and kayaks—mostly given to her by sponsors. When she’s at home, she lives with her parents in Red Deer, Alberta. But that’s where the similarities end. 

Unlike a traditional athlete, whose claim to fame is cutting-edge exploits, Willson’s comes from her social media swing—namely 147,000 followers on Instagram. She’s part of an up-and-coming band of influencers who are changing the sponsored-athlete game, one selfie at a time.

“Brooke has great energy,” says Andy Cochrane, the marketing manager at Oru Kayaks who helped fund some of her adventures. “We want to attract passionate and fearless women to get outside and she’s a good candidate to appeal to them.”

A Silicone Valley veteran, Cochrane founded the company’s foray into this new social marketing frontier in 2014. At the time he thought they were late to the party, but soon started fielding calls from much bigger companies wanting to learn the secrets.

“No one is really sure how to do this yet,” he says. “We’re at the tip of an iceberg and we’re all just trying to figure out the right formula.”

In the not-too-distant past, athletes and adventurers would approach companies looking for equipment, funding and salary. In return they promised exposure in magazines, films and, more recently, online. Then along came Facebook, blogs and, particularly, Instagram. As the social media-savvy amassed audiences that outnumbered the readerships of some traditional media, companies started to take notice.

 

This should be high on your list of summer goals.

A photo posted by ChrisBurkard (@chrisburkard) on

The big winners in the shift are smaller brands, who can’t afford magazine advertisements or pro-athlete salaries, says Allan Yiu, one of the founders of Westcomb, a Vancouver-based outerwear brand.

“Our goal isn’t to choose an individual who is the most bad-ass athlete with the most followers,” he says. “Rather it’s about fit and balance. Does this mean we have ambassadors with a couple hundred followers versus a couple hundred thousand? Yes, most definitely.” It works. Westcomb tracks 20 to 30 per cent growth on its Instagram and Snapchat feeds every month; social media that enhances brand recognition similar to conventional media advertising.

Westcomb gives product to most of its ambassadors. Athletes wear it in photographs and tag Westcomb in the description. For more powerful influencers, Oru ups the ante with monthly retainers and sometimes kicks in to help fund travel and expeditions. 

It’s not just gear companies getting in on the game. On a variation of the travel journalist junket, last year Travel Alberta, the provincial tourism promotion organization, flew a group of social media influencers to Banff with the goal of promoting the destination on Instagram and other channels. 

Add a few gigs together and it’s enough income that some can make a career out of being social. “You don’t have to be hard core,” says Cochrane. “You just have to be good with a camera.”

Photographer Chris Burkard was one of Oru’s first ambassadors. His captivating imagery quickly amassed a small country’s worth of Instagram followers—1.6 million—catapulting his name into a brand of its own.

Another is Edmonton’s Taylor Burk. “He’s a really hard worker, very professional,” Cochrane says. “He takes pre-payment to create quality content for companies.” And, of course, expose their products to his 255,000 Instagram followers.

Despite the shift, no one thinks the pro-athlete is going anywhere. Their push for the limits helps retain their place as influencers and the ultimate product-testers. Plus, who knows what’s next?

“We started with Facebook and Twitter,” Cochrane says. “Now it’s Instagram and Snapchat. Next year it might be something else.” Whatever it is, the next generation of Insta-athlete will be ready. 

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