Professional surfer Jamie O'Brien lit his wet suit on fire and surfed one of the biggest waves in the world. When the video dropped two weeks ago, nearly every action sports media outlet, as well as many mainstream outlets around the world, made at least passing mention of the Red Bull-sponsored stunt.
"My Instagram has kind of gone viral in the past two weeks, and I'm not really sure how to handle it," O'Brien said. "I'm totally confused by the whole social media thing right now."
As more athletes use platforms like YouTube and Instagram to share photos and highlight reels of their projects, stunts, and adventures, sponsors are increasingly using that content to market their products and promote themselves. In some cases, brands even have a say in what athletes post to their personal accounts. Now athletes are figuring out how to leverage the attention they get on social media into higher paychecks and more opportunities.
Many corporate sponsors reward athletes directly when something they post goes viral, but O'Brien says that's not the case with him and Red Bull. Instead, he plans to capitalize on the popularity of the video, which has about 350,000 views on YouTube, to argue for a higher salary when his contract is up for renewal. Red Bull released a behind-the-scenes video of the stunt yesterday.
Red Bull doesn't pay O'Brien, for a viral Instagram photo, he says, nor does it discuss financial information with reporters. But it does, to a degree, control O'Brien's content on his Instagram account. Although he regularly receives offers for $1,500 to $2,500 from companies, such as a brand of vodka or clothing company, to post something, his contract with Red Bull says that it must approve all posts.
"It's a touchy subject. If the social media stuff takes off, if that means something to these people, then they should show it," he said. "It's all about building yourself as a brand."
Many action sports athletes begin their careers on the competition circuit, vying for prize money, and later shift to working for sponsors, usually by making films. Though contracts vary between athletes and sports, a sponsored athlete earns a salary based on his performance—whether that's making a film or garnering new Instagram followers— and hopes the content he produces, in turn, will attract more sponsors. That's not easy, even for athletes at the highest levels of their sport. O'Brien says he still has trouble finding new sponsors.
Other athletes profit more directly from posts going viral. Earlier this week, DC Shoes released a video, called Pipe Dream, of Robbie Maddison surfing in Tahiti on a retrofitted BMX bike. In five days, the video, which was advertised on Instagram, has been viewed 14 million times, and earned him about 100,000 new Instagram followers.
"I'm hoping people go out and buy my shoes," he said. "I get a royalty every time they sell a pair."
Maddison spent most of the past two and half years designing and building the bike and learning to surf with it. In the meantime, he kept a low social-media profile: he wasn't able to post photos of his new bike or updates about what he was working on. In the weeks prior to the video's release, he lost three sponsors.
"The stronger your social media game, the better it is for you when it comes to negotiating time," he says.
Two years ago, he established Robbie Maddison Entertainment, co-producer of Pipe Dream. By owning the projects as well as performing in them, Maddison feels he can better protect his interests and not be so vulnerable to the vicissitudes of brands and sponsors.
"I've had enough injuries to where I can't keep risking my life for other people trying to line on their own pockets," he says.
"Robbie is an example of someone that's doing it right," says freeskier Dash Longe, who's been skiing professionally for 15 years and is currently sponsored by Sony Action Cam. "The dude is legit. I follow him on Instagram."
Longe's contract with Sony, he says, stipulates that he post a certain number of Facebook mentions, Instagram posts, and tweets, all of which bear the tag #ActionCam. Sony relies on Longe for content that gets noticed on social media—likes, comments, shares—and he says it rewards him for high numbers.
But high numbers aren't always good for the sport or the brand, Longe said. He painted a hypothetical scene: a weak-sauce skier sprays a few pow turns, gets someone to take a few photos of it, and posts them to Instagram. Then he'll creep into a hashtag folder, something like Vail Resorts, and follow anyone he thinks will follow him back, usually kids and groms with only a few followers that are ripe for the stoking. Suddenly he'll have a surge of attention. A sponsor will notice that attention and pay him a meager fee to promote their product.
"If you have 20 of those guys in the field, those fake-outs who can't ski that well, who can't make a film, that sucks because the companies should be paying someone that's for real, that's good for skiing," he says. "Should I get paid more because I get more Instagram likes, or should I get paid more because I'm doing something that's rad?"
Many action sports athletes are just now developing ways to make money off their online stoke—their photos, videos, and social media presence. In just the past month, freeskier Kalen Thorien developed a rate and contract for companies that want their products featured on her Instagram account. Of course, she says, everything she posts must be approved by her sponsor Solomon.
Snowboarder Lucas Debari, who rode as a stunt double in the coming remake of the film Point Break and is sponsored by The North Face, recently had a meeting with the company to talk about his social media reach. TNF hires an independent company to analyze each athlete's following and reach, and Debari scored last place on the roster, even though he has 49,000 followers on Instagram. He was given a half-hour lecture on how to improve his "score."
"It's not in my contract right now," he wrote in an email immediately after his conference call to talk Insta-ratings. "However, it will weigh heavily on my next one, I'm sure."