Sponsorship and the Youth Market


Freelance journalist, Tom Watson chats with myself and a few athletes to get a better understanding of youth perception of action sports sponsorship. 

Action sports such as BMX and scooter are bucking the trend of traditional sports, where females often struggle for recognition. With a growing number of girls taking up action sports, they are finding increased opportunities for sponsorship, as companies target the growing segment.

But while the guys support girls getting involved with action sports, it’s when the subject of sponsorship is raised, that there’s some tension in the skate park.

It seems that while the boys are happy to share the sandpit, they still haven’t learnt to share the toys.

Growing up in a beachside suburb, Gabby Campbell, 14, learnt to surf and skate with her family and neighbourhood kids.

Then her friends got into scooters so she decided to give it a go and took to it naturally.

Gabby is now a popular scooter competitor sponsored by ECS and Big Air School, and has represented Australia in BMX.

“The guys at skateparks have always been really supportive of my riding” she says, but admits when it comes to sponsorship

“Sometimes it makes me really sad when they boys discredit me for being a sponsored rider”

“We aren’t asking to travel the world, we ride because we love it. I may not be the best rider, but if I’m getting more girls into the sport, then I’m SO happy that I can do that!”

Daniel, 15, a scooter rider says “I think girls riding scooters is a good thing. It creates a better scene if its boys and girls enjoying the sport together”.

While Brendan, 20, a keen BMX rider, is even more encouraging saying
“I have huge amounts of respect for girls who throw down. It’s great that they aren’t scared of getting bruised in the process of learning new skills.”
But one only has to raise the subject of sponsorship to see their true attitudes on display.

“I see girls fully sponsored… and all they do is ride around the course like idiots! I’m not being nasty, but no guy would ever be sponsored at that level” complains Brendan.
Jess Boland, 19, is a high profile scooter rider. After coming from a skating background she earned a solid  reputation competing on the scooter circuit,claiming several titles, often in mixed gender comps, and became the first female in the world to back flip a scooter. Jess is currently sponsored by Apex Scooters and Madd Gear.

Dan Pankraz, a youth marketing strategist, has looked into the gender motivations of the teen market segment and observed that “young males are excited by symbols of achievement, as they compete with their friends in everything. While their female counterparts are more driven by their social context, image and storytelling”

So it makes sense that the approach to marketing and rider sponsorship differs between the genders, to appeal to different motivating factors.

Yet it seems the gender debate is taking a new twist, and the same old tired male arguments against equal prize-money in traditional sports, is now being used to address a perceived imbalance in sponsorship benefits in modern sports.

Jemima Key, founder of Big Air School says “Sponsorship is the Holy Grail for riders in these industries and the competition to get sponsored is fierce.”

In her experience, Key has found that while “most guys support and encourage the girls to get involved, they see sponsorship as a status symbol” and often resent the girls who are chosen. “Males strongly encourage females to participate in the scooter and BMX scene, but become less supportive, even critical when girls are recognized for their industry contribution.”

Another keen scooter rider Henry, 15, says “I think that the sport is a bit sexist! If you’re a girl and can land basic tricks, then companies will sponsor you, but a guy needs to be an amazing rider to even be considered.”

But sponsorship is not prize-money. Nor is it necessarily a reflection of skill level.

“Sponsorship is an investment in a sport, for marketing and promotion purposes” says Key “and as such, needs to provide a return on that investment, either financially, or through such marketing tangibles as promotion, brand awareness and goodwill. Not trophies!”

BMX rider Scott Harvey, 26, believes ‘Girls get sponsorships handed to them undeservedly for helping to sell a product, not for the skills that guys have.’

“That’s just a typical of the poorly informed opinions most males have toward rider sponsorship” says Key, “Helping to sell a product is precisely what makes someone an ideal candidate for sponsorship.”

Rhiannon Wood, 20 is Team Manager for Engadine Cycles. Sponsored by Grit Scooters, Rhiannon teaches scooter clinics, and works on the Big Air School events team and she has over 5000 followers on her fan page where she shares information about industry developments, new products and upcoming events and her page acts as an industry hub making her an excellent candidate to help promote her sponsor despite the fact that she does not compete.

But as she explains “Sometimes I get targeted by internet trolls saying I don’t deserve to be sponsored, simply because I don’t compete in events or release riding footage?”

Ms Key believes that the prevailing ‘male’ attitude toward recognition, and the youth market’s limited understanding of sponsorship, has created a warped perception that sponsorship should be solely based on performance.

“While the scooter, skate and BMX industries are male dominated there’s still a massive female market, and it’s apparent that the girls become involved with their sports because of the ‘fun, so it makes sense that happy, enthusiastic female riders are engaged to help make the sports more inviting to girls. If companies weren’t marketing to the female sector, that doesn’t automatically mean those dollars would go to the boys… It just means there would be less sponsorship investment in the sport as a whole.”

It’s fair to say that we still have a long way to go before we fully embrace equality in sports, but the disdain for female sponsorship is unwarranted.

When asked how to best address the problem,  Gabby Campbell sums it up perfectly:

“Guys shouldn’t be hating on the progression and expansion of their own sport!”

and Key seconds that by reminding the industry participants

“Don’t hate the player… hate the game”

The marketing game that is!