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Editorial

How To Become A Sponsored Skateboarder

The Vans, adidas and New Balance Team Managers break it down.

How To Become A Sponsored SkateboarderCharlie Birch, boardslide pop-over. Photo: Reece Leung
Posted by Matt Broadley8 min read
Wednesday, May 22, 2019

So you want to get sponsored for skateboarding? You’ve reached the stage where you think your level is worthy of receiving free products to endorse. But how do you go about getting your name out there? What can you do to grab the attention of brands or people in the industry?

Getting free skateboards or shoes, and more so, getting paid to skate, is the dream. Luckily for you, it’s the Team Manager’s job to find you. The role of a TM,  amongst other things, is to search for new talent, and to judge whether you’re good enough, or have the potential to be good enough to become sponsored.

Team Manager’s can be a funny bunch, they’ll have their own ideas of who they think is a good skater. This alone makes it tough for anyone trying to come up. Throw in the level that is currently on display in today's socially driven digital world and the job of getting noticed becomes even harder.

TMs usually come in two types - those who didn’t quite make it as a skater and those who actually did, lived the dream, and are now looking to move within the industry but still remain in the game. Whilst the job certainly has its perks, it’s not always as glamorous as it first appears.

Mark Baines, New Balance Team Manager. Mark Baines, New Balance Team Manager. Photo: Reece Leung

We reached out to Benny Fairfax (adidas Skateboarding), Josh 'Manhead' Young (Vans) and Mark Baines (New Balance) to get their take on the ins and outs of the role, and to provide you with some valuable info on how to get sponsored.

Photos credits: Reece Leung, Zander Taketomo, Kasia Bobula.

How did you get into the role and what’s the day to day?

Benny: Jascha at adidas and Chez (ex-adidas and now Parade) hooked it up. I’ve been a rider with adidas for a long time so it was kind of a natural progression as I know a lot of people at the company and how things work there. The day to day varies a lot, when we have an event on you have to be on it round the clock, but some days you are just getting product to people.

Manhead: It was a random discussion between myself and Danny Wainwright, he was acting EMEA Team Manager at the time and he told me the job was going. So I offered to do it, the first job interview of my life! Day to day for me is generally chasing shoe orders, booking travel, life advice to riders and invoicing. Pure admin haha!

Baines: I have been riding for New Balance for a while, since that time Mackey became European Brand Manager and we began working together on all the team stuff and just generally throwing ideas out there together. Mackey and Seb spoke about me transitioning into a TM role over the next few years which I started to do about a year ago now. It’s been a learning process for sure as I have spent over 20 years having TM’s look after me. Day to day is making sure riders have shoes, booking flights, train tickets and anything else they need.

What do you look for in a skateboarder, just to be really good? Are there particular character traits you look for?

Benny: Obviously, you have to be good, but there is a ton of other stuff you look for. For me, it’s always good to meet someone in person rather than just put them on the team having only seen videos.

Manhead: Obviously, it helps to be good at skateboarding, but to stand out in the crowd I often find personality shines just as hard. Ben Broyd is a prime example of this, he's rad on and off his board. Being accepted by the rest of the team is also important, you have to spend 24/7 periods with each other more often than not.

"Charlie’s [Birch] got a good character and people want to be around him. There’s no faking that." - Mark Baines

Baines: Being really good these days means less than it once did because everyone is really good. Take someone like Charlie Birch (who’s really, really good) who barely flips his board compared to some dudes out there who can do every trick. But Charlie has some flare, he carries himself in a way that oozes that extra something that the dude posting crazy stuff on Insta will never have. No disrespect to those people by the way. Charlie’s got a good character and people want to be around him. There’s no faking that. So for me, it’s about that, everyone is good these days and it’s not just about that. Actually, I don’t think it ever has been just how good you are.

Matching people to the style of the brand is obviously key, is this something that you can spot easily?

Benny: Yeah pretty easily, if you look at the entire adidas team you can see what kind of skater is gonna fit. If you’re doing boneless’s, street grabs and no complys all over the place it’s probably not gonna happen! Not to say there aren’t exceptions though, some people can make anything look good.

Manhead: There is so much variety in skaters these days, it can be quite hard to find the right person who fits Vans as a brand. I mean anyone can wear them and look good, but I think the key is to have some sort of personality on a skateboard. Mostly it's about bringing your own thing to the table, rather than the whole team being one aesthetic.

Baines: Yeah for sure. Obviously, I look at the global team and what Seb, Levi and the guys in the US have built up and stay on that path. We are all of a similar way of thinking anyway so mostly everyone agrees when names are thrown out there.

Heitor da Silva, Wacson Mass, Felipe Gustavo and Magnus Bordewick Heitor da Silva, Wacson Mass, Felipe Gustavo and Magnus Bordewick. Photo: Zander Taketomo

Do you get many people hitting you up trying to get you to send them product or get on the team?

Benny: Yeah, I think the word has got around that I’m TM in the UK now so i’ve been getting hit up quite a lot, mostly Instagram messages.

Manhead: Yes, I do! That is a weekly if not a daily occurrence. Sponsor me tapes and bombardment of messages on Instagram are a big no-no. If someone is ready for sponsorship I'll get a recommendation to check them out, or I'll know! It seems weird to make a video of yourself purely for the sponsorship blag.

Baines: Yes, I’ve had people start following me on Instagram, ask for a hook-up, then unfollow when they don’t get anything. If someone is hitting you up it can come across badly to start with. So straight away I’m a bit reluctant. It’s not always the case, but getting hit up is a bit of a red flag.

Similarly, are there people you’d flow product to just because you rate them without any expectation on them to be part of the team?

Benny: Yeah for sure, some older skaters because they’ve been doing it for a while and I rate them and also younger kids to give them a push in the right direction. The goal is to find someone who could go all the way and get on the global team but that's not gonna happen for everyone.

Manhead: I do flow product out to people, sometimes because I would like to see Vans on their feet, because they are an integral part of the UK scene, or simply because they're hacking their guts out skating. It's always nice to make someone’s day because you hooked them up with some shoes.

Baines: Yeah for sure. There are a few dudes who smash it but we don’t expect too much from them, they’re just rad skaters who deserve some free shoes. Josh Cox works full time as a roofer but still gets out skating a lot, he’s ace.

Benny with Dan Fisher Eustance, Nelly Mayele and Darius Trabalza. Photos: Kasia Bobula. Benny with Dan Fisher Eustance, Nelly Mayele and Darius Trabalza. Photos: Kasia Bobula.

When you find someone and flow them product, do you know right away whether that person will be right for the team or go far?

Benny: That all depends on the person I guess, you see some kids who are amazing but never leave their home skatepark. Or some dudes don’t feel comfortable skating in front of people they haven’t met or getting thrown in with new groups of people, which is kind of all part of it.

Then having a little something that sets you apart from the rest, whether it’s good style, trick/spot selection, having a board sponsor or a bit of personality.

"If the attitude isn't right, or said flow rider isn't hungry or generally flakey, that's a tell-tale sign they're not down for the sponsorship side of skateboarding" - Manhead

Manhead: There is a barometer for flow, they need to show initiative, be actively filming or heading to events and wanting to be part of something bigger. For some people, this isn’t so obvious, so a bit of bait or a conversation sometimes helps them on their way up. If the attitude isn't right, or said flow rider isn't hungry or generally flakey, that's a tell-tale sign they're not down for the sponsorship side of skateboarding.

Baines: I think it used to be a little easier some years back because there was a smaller pool people would pick from. Now, as I said before, everyone is good and you could hook everyone up. Saying that I think you still know when someone has that extra something that’s needed to make something happen for themselves. Again, take Charlie Birch and his scouse swagger. In about two years since getting on, he’s made some serious strides, not just with New Balance, but we’ve tried to help as much as we can.

What techniques do you employ when taking a less known rider, who doesn’t necessarily know the game, to help them transition into being a successful sponsored rider?

Benny: Just encourage them really, everyone likes free stuff so stoke them out with a load of free product and say all you need to do in return is film, get photos and be motivated.

Manhead: I simply encourage them to do what they want to do, in the way they want to do it and then try to showcase it. Give them opportunities to skate with the existing team. Also, bringing what they've done to catch my attention to the people in head office and Chris Pfanner, who is European team manager.

Baines: I help with a few of the European guys, some of them perhaps haven’t been involved that long so they’re quite reserved, which isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes they need a little nudge. It’s just a case of trying to include people in more stuff, so they can get used to the way things work. It’s not for everyone that’s for sure, but once you understand the way things work it does get easier and you’ll soon be able to figure out how it might pan out for someone.

If a kid thinks they’re good enough to get sponsored, in 2019, what should they do? And are there any things they definitely shouldn’t do?

Benny: The standard in 2019 for up and coming kids is pretty high so I guess be sure that you think you’re good enough. Just because you’re the best at your local park doesn’t necessarily mean you have what it takes, not to sound harsh, but some people are disillusioned. And then if you really want it then put yourself out there, go to the events/comps/spots where people can see you skate in person and make your own video part or sponsor-me tape. And these days you pretty much need a great Instagram as well.

Manhead: I'd tell them not to focus on trying to get sponsorship, just go out and have fun with your mates and push yourself a little. Try to document what you're doing, whether it be an Instagram clip or a full part, just put it out freely. If you're on the right path, the right people will see it and support you.

Baines: The process used to be a kid would get hooked up by their local store and film for them for a shop video maybe. From that, their name would be put out there and it was an easy way for brands to pick up riders as they’d have good connections with those stores. Now there’s a different process which seems to be based around Instagram.

It’s a tough one because I still believe if someone is hooked up then they should have some video parts to look back on, but you almost don’t need that now, it’s more about Instagram followers and interactions, which I’m not that down for. So to answer the question you could whore yourself out on Insta or you could just try and be cool with everyone, get in with your local store if you’re lucky enough to have one, and if anything is going to happen for you it probably will.

Dom Henry, switch flip. Photo: Reece Leung Dom Henry, switch flip. Photo: Reece Leung

How do you see the landscape for kids trying to come up in skateboarding today compared to when you were younger? It seems pretty difficult to stand out given how good everyone is…

Benny: It’s definitely a lot harder these days, just with the number of skaters there are and the level you need to be at. YouTube, Instagram and the internet weren’t around in my day, haha! All we had was checking the local newsagent for the newest Sidewalk and seeing when the next under 18s comp was on!

Manhead: The standard has gone through the roof, but in terms of getting yourself out there, it's easier than ever with social media. Ten years ago you had to spend a year or two filming a video part, release it alongside a fifteen-page interview in a print mag, and even win a major competition in some instances. I think Instagram has changed the dynamics of what it is to be perceived as an established sponsored skateboarder these days.

Baines: Exactly that. It used to be a small pool, now it’s huge! It seems stressful now, kids feeling like they’ve got to post on Insta every day. All we had to worry about was producing a video part every two to three years. It’s over saturated now so I can’t imagine what it’s like. Instagram killed the video part.

Are there any specific skaters from any time in history that you’d love to work with? Or anyone you’d imagine would be a nightmare to work with?

Benny: I wouldn’t think of a skater I’m stoked on and be like, “I’d love to be that guys TM” haha! But yeah, mid to late 90’s era there are a lot of skaters that I idolised… Tom Penny, Keenan, Kareem Campbell, Guy, Huf etc. As for a nightmare to work with? Don’t wanna call anyone out but Bastien [Salabanzi] always used to seem like he loved himself a bit much and people used to mistake me for him all the time! He actually kicked me out of a spot once, haha!  

He threw a wobbly when Clint Peterson and I showed up to a spot in Orange County years back. Bartok, Alex Moul and Ewan Bowman were there with him. He started screaming for us to get the fuck out, haha. At the time I hadn’t seen an English person in months, so I was stoked to see those guys, but then he threw a wobbly and we left!

Manhead: I think someone along the lines of Danny Wainwright or Geoff Rowley, not just because they ride for Vans or I know them, haha. But because they came from shit parts of England and made it! Rad to see people go far beyond their own expectations.

Baines: I remember seeing Henry Sanchez at the Square in Nottingham, he seemed like a total nightmare but he was an incredible skateboarder, still probably is. I’d rather have been his teammate than TM though.

What’s the craziest situation you’ve found yourself in, that you’ve then had to manage the guys out of?

Benny: One guy fell face first off a curb after a couple too many drinks at a video premiere and I thought it was going to be a nasty hospital situation but fortunately, he was fine, just a mild concussion.

Manhead: I've dodged so many bullets on this topic. One time Denis [Lynn] fucked his knee in Marseille, it took three attempts and three individual bookings to get him on a flight home. First try he left his passport on the hotel bed, the second getting stuck in traffic, third times a charm... Got there in the end.

Baines: All the trips have been super mellow so far, sounds boring I know! Dom [Henry] went missing on some rent a bike one night in Stuttgart. That was annoying as I had to ride around a city I didn’t know looking for a drunk Dom when all I wanted to do was sleep. Typically his phone battery died, he ended up finding a restaurant who had a charger so he could call me. He still owes Maxi for the bike charge.

What’s the most common team manager gripe or what annoys you the most about the role? Any specific examples?

Benny: All my riders are cool, they haven’t annoyed me yet. But from my experience of being on the other side as a skater, I’d say it’s all the little things that you should sort out for yourself, like, I missed my flight, I lost my passport, I don’t have grip, I can’t skate unless I have weed, I’m too hungover, I stayed at some girls house and can’t find my way back to the hotel.

Manhead: People not getting back to me or being unreachable, it's the most stressful shit in the world if you're trying to book stuff. Or disappearing at a spot when you're trying to leave.

Baines: I’ve not been doing it long enough to have anything that annoys me. I still ride for the team and get to be involved with a rad bunch of people. The novelty hasn’t worn off yet.

And on the flip side, what’s the most enjoyable part of the role?

Benny: When someone gets a sick clip, or when you’ve been working on a project and it all comes together. When we did a little premiere for that Vortex clip we did with Grey it was nice to see people cheering for the boys!

Manhead, Vans TM getting the drinks in Not only does he kill it on a skateboard but Manhead has the Vans team covered. 🍻

Manhead: Going on a trip and watching everyone get along and have fun. Also, just helping people keep skating and not having to work, or at least as much.

Baines: I’m involved with a bunch of rad people, I can still skate every day and help the team in the same way people helped me over the years.

Who're the best and worst people you’ve managed? Not necessarily that they are good or bad people, just easier or harder to work with than others.

Benny: All my riders are legends in the making!

Manhead: Everyone is pretty good to be fair, I think maybe Denis has gotten into some rockstar type dilemmas that I've had to deal with. Like getting kicked out of Gatwick airport after trying to nab some duty-free red wine and smashing it everywhere… Forgive me for this Denis!

Baines: Some of the guys can be a nightmare, but I know what it is like to be in their shoes. Despite what people think being a sponsored skater can be difficult. Yes, you get free stuff and get to travel, but, if you’re fortunate enough to get paid it’s not always a lot. There are pressures from living expenses, so I understand all that as I’ve been there myself, I don’t mind if anyone is being a nightmare about that. I’m here to give them support. They’re all different but they’d have to do something really shitty to really piss me off.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to a team manager as a sponsored skater?

Benny: Haha, I try not to do bad things to the TM, probably not a good idea. But probably just letting them down with things... Breaking my elbow two days before a two week trip to South America that’s all booked and paid for. Getting cold feet at a demo and hiding in the corner, haha!

Manhead: I shot Wainwright point blank with a paintball gun when he refused to come paintballing. But he did chase me down, pin me to the floor and shot the shit out of me in return!

Baines: Chez and I always had an up and down friendship so I was probably a pain in the arse to him at times, but we were friends before he was my TM so we had a history before that. I am sure I was a nightmare but I definitely appreciated what every one of my TM’s did for me. Alvin, Chez, Shier, Matthieu, Gabe, Ricky, all of them, they all fought our corners when needed.

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