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Clif Bar’s firing of athletes spurs debate over sponsoring risk

Can outdoor brands walk the 'highline' between preaching safety and generating excitement for the outdoors?

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We’ll likely be talking about this one for a while.

Clif Bar’s recent decision to release five of its sponsored athletes including rising climbing star Alex Honnold for, as it stated in a public letter, “taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company were not willing to go,” has raised pertinent questions within an industry that can sometimes struggle to balance the line between preaching safety and generating excitement for the outdoors.

Clif Bar likely knew it would take some heat for the decision. After the initial public outcry, it explained its action with an online letter posted to its website. The outdoor nutrition brand clarified it wasn’t drawing a line for the industry, just for itself, and admitted it was wandering into was “grey area.”

The reaction of Honnold was a little more black-and-white. Famous for his rope-less first ascents of technical cliffs and walls, he makes a living by taking fall-and-die risks. In an op-ed published by the New York Times Nov. 20, Honnold wrote that he was “shocked” by the announcement, which he heard for the first time after he finished a four-day climb of El Capitan in Yosemite.

“Was Clif Bar terminating its sponsorship because I was doing exactly what I thought it had signed me up for in the first place?” he asked.

Clif Bar’s decision was likely a branding move and not about liability, said Chris Archer, an attorney in Boulder, Colo., who, for the last 23 years, has represented outdoor companies, drafted safety waivers and written contracts for professional athletes. He’s also an avid climber and outdoorsman. Archer said Clif Bar’s decision was the first of its kind, and a 180-degree turn from the company’s previous direction.

“That’s what’s so interesting to me,” Archer said. “The value the athletes brought to the table seems to be the exact reason why Clif Bar fired them. There’s no way that they didn’t know what these guys were doing or what they’d done.”

Archer said that Clif Bar carried little-to-no liability when sponsoring Honnold, even if he had died during a climb. If they ever required an athlete to do something dangerous — a big no-no in the industry — the athlete still has to agree to do it, and because they are professionals, they are likely to understand the risks involved. Liability only becomes pertinent if the athlete is completely unaware of the activity’s dangers, Archer explained. Contracts athletes sign have more to do with scheduled appearances and social media activity, he said. In the eyes of the law, Archer added, there is no difference between being injured while highlining over a 1,000-foot drop or spraining your ankle on a basketball court, as long as you are aware of the risk.

“Nobody is out there going after a death wish,” said Kevin Luby, athlete manager for Scarpa, which has employed adventurers like extreme skier Chris Davenport and free-climber Ueli Steck. “If you expose yourself to enough risk, accidents will happen. You’re always at the mercy of the elements, but what I think is kind of interesting about this is, I’m not 100 percent sure that the general public can tell the difference between safe and unsafe. They gravitate toward shock and awe and toward great personalities, but they don’t gravitate toward athletes who are safe or athletes who are unsafe.”

In one sense, Archer said, Clif Bar was proactively removing their brand from a scenario where a sponsored athlete dies and they have to answer questions about why they encouraged the fatal activity. In the company’s letter, Clif Bar distanced itself specifically from B.A.S.E jumping, highligning and free-solo athletes like Honnold.
“We concluded that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go,” the company’s letter stated.

Honnold responded in his Times column: “I know that when I’m standing alone below a thousand-foot wall, looking up and considering a climb, my sponsors are the furthest thing from my mind. If I’m going to take risks they are going to be for myself — not for any company.”

Luby agreed with Honnold’s point — the athletes are sponsored because of what they are doing, and not the other way around.

“ I don’t consider my job as an athlete manager is to put an athlete at risk,” Luby said. “I would be shocked if there was a company or team manager who tells an athlete that they need to go out and do more extreme stuff to stay. That doesn’t happen here. The athletes are the ones who say where they are going to go and what risks they are going to take.”

Still, it can be a chicken-and-the-egg debate. If athletes who take the most risks get the most sponsorships, are the sponsoring brands at minimum enabling the risks? Plus, what message are brands sending to consumers, especially if a big part of their business is about stressing safety outdoors? SNEWS raised the latter in a 2012 article “Kodak Courage” as the wintersports industry dealt with a rising number of high-profile avalanche deaths. Pull outside the industry and same questions could be asked in the general consumer and Hollywood markets: Should brands support the eye-catching antics of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, and when they do, what message are they sending to women and men?

SNEWS reached out to numerous other brands last week (including Black Diamond, La Sportiva and Red Bull) for comment on the factors go into choosing and retaining their sponsored athletes, but they either declined to participate or failed to return our requests as of press time. Needless to say, it’s a controversial topic.

Honnold and the four climbers released by Clif Bar, including Dean Potter, Steph Davis, Cedar Wright and Timmy O’Neill, likely will fill the sponsorship void soon, both Luby and Archer agreed.

Because building these athlete teams takes a lot of money and resources, Luby said companies are forced to realize a return on the expense, and the recent notoriety Honnold has received is reason enough for a sponsor to hire him.

“These guys all have a nonstandard, nontraditional career path,” Luby said. “None of these guys want to be stagnant on what they do. They want to advance and they want a promotion, so to speak. And I am in the business of encouraging them to become better athletes and develop their brand as an athlete.”

Both Luby and Archer agreed that finding risk-free people to sponsor is an impossible task — whether they are entertainers or athletes or the suddenly famous kid from Target.

“I’m just hoping that this isn’t something that trickles down through the industry and starts getting repeated, because a lot of these athletes have do what they do, and what allows them to do that are these sponsors,” Archer said.

Ryan Slabaugh with contributions from David Clucas