Slalom star Mikaela Shiffrin: winter sport’s most marketable athlete?

18 March 2015 | Posted in Notes & Insights | By Michael Long | Contact the author

Slalom star Mikaela Shiffrin: winter sport’s most marketable athlete?

At just 20 years of age, slalom star Mikaela Shiffrin is already being touted as America's next great winter athlete. For her agent Kilian Albrecht, the aim now is to put together an endorsement portfolio to match her talent.

‘It was just a dream, just a moment ago.’

Mikaela Shiffrin’s Twitter bio aptly sums up her career so far. From debuting on the FIS World Cup circuit in 2011 aged just 15, to beginning this year as the reigning Olympic, World Cup, and world champion in slalom, the young American’s rise to skiing superstardom has happened in a flash.

For the past three seasons, Shiffrin has dominated her discipline. Heading into this week's FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup season finale in Meribel, France, she sits atop the slalom standings and is third overall as she bids to become the first woman in history to win both the discipline’s world championship title and the overall World Cup crown in successive seasons.

All that is not bad for someone who only turned 20 last Friday, yet Shiffrin continues to take success in her stride. According to Kilian Albrecht, the former ski racer who now acts as Shiffrin’s agent and manager, an innate ability to do things quicker than other people is just one aspect of what makes his star client so marketable.

“Mikaela is not only successful but also very cute, smart, charming and an absolute pro in working with the press and sponsors – she just has the whole package,” says Albrecht. “Mikaela is very approachable and a great role model especially for kids and young adults as I think she can relate to them because of her still young age. People from the press approach me often and they are always very impressed by Mikaela's maturity, politeness and her eloquence.”

Coupled with her evident talent, that likeability factor is beginning to turn heads away from the slopes. Though still in its infancy, Shiffrin’s personal endorsement portfolio is already an enviable mix of endemic companies like Atomic, Leki and Reusch, as well as international brands such as Barilla, Longines and Oakley. 

“We’d like to have a handful of preferably powerful and ideally global partners,” Albrecht says of his strategy for Shiffrin. “It’s important that the brand fits Mikaela’s image so that she can stand 100 per cent behind the product; authenticity is key.

“A big part, besides fair compensation, is the programmes they are building around Mikaela. Sometimes it’s better to go with a smaller company or a company that does not have many ambassadors, to ensure that they use Mikaela in their communication. You just need to find the right partner where you are preferably the only or one of only a handful of athletes that they really activate.”

“It’s important that the brand fits Mikaela’s image so that she can stand 100 per cent behind the product; authenticity is key."

For the vast majority of winter athletes, few of whom enjoy year-round visibility and therefore relevance for sponsors, capitalising financially on the spike in interest that typically accompanies an Olympics is paramount. Thankfully for Albrecht, then, the hype surrounding Shiffrin heading into last year’s Games in Sochi was impossible to ignore.

“The interest in Mikaela going into Sochi and after Sochi was big, especially from media,” he recalls. “There was definitely some interest on the sponsor side as well but it’s never easy to convert it into endorsement deals. It's a combination of the right brand fit, the obligations that comes with it and of course fair compensation.”

Despite carrying the burden of expectation on her shoulders Shiffrin didn’t disappoint in Sochi, winning the gold medal in her favoured discipline to become the youngest slalom champion in Olympic alpine skiing history. She returned home a national darling, and it wasn’t long before she was appearing on breakfast tables in homes across America as the face of Wheaties, the famous cereal brand.

Though the Olympic buzz has now faded – the post-Games Wheaties deal ran for a single year and expired last month – Shiffrin’s stock has continued to rise. Last October, just months after ranking 23rd in SportsPro's 2014 Most Marketable list, she became an ‘Ambassador of Elegance’ for Longines, the luxury watch brand keen to secure the signature of a racer widely considered the future of women’s alpine skiing.

Shiffrin became an ‘Ambassador of Elegance’ for watch brand Longines last October.

Yet even for one of the sport’s standout stars, skiing presents distinct challenges when it comes to signing endorsements. With the majority of companies visible on a racer’s clothing during World Cup competitions signed by either the FIS, skiing’s global governing body that organises the tour, or the athlete’s respective national association, which in Shiffrin’s case is the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), even the top skiers are restricted in terms of the visibility they can offer their personal sponsors. That essentially leaves the headgear position, where Shiffrin currently sports the logo of Italian pasta brand Barilla, as the only available inventory beyond equipment.

“For the rest, you need to be really creative,” says Albrecht. “It's mostly up to the respective national governing body and how they define everything. USSA is a lot better than other national ski federations but there are still many categories where there is a conflict.”

By way of an example, Albrecht reveals that at one point he had two car companies interested in signing Shiffrin but the USSA’s existing deal with Audi ruled out any possibility of an agreement. “It just means if the respective USSA sponsor in that category does not want to have a separate agreement with Mikaela and she wants to do something else it can get complicated,” he adds. “On the other hand the money that the US Ski Team gets from these sponsors will be used to pay for Mikaela’s training and coaches.”

If Albrecht has his way, Shiffrin’s worldwide Longines deal – which includes social media obligations as well as appearances in print and TV advertising campaigns – is a sign of things to come. Speaking in early March, he reveals that he is talking to “major global brands” in the “sportswear and outerwear fashion” sector about a potential new deal.

Shiffrin sports the logo of pasta brand Barilla on her headgear as part of a deal signed in November 2012.

“That’s probably the next category that we’ll hopefully find an agreement soon for a long-term deal,” he says, adding: “Another category that I really would like to fill is the beverage category, where a company can get great exposure also from a visibility standpoint.”

Any company vying for Shiffrin’s signature can expect to stump up a fixed annual sponsorship fee plus performance-related bonuses for if she finishes in the top three at World Cup events, wins an overall title, or medals at an Olympics or World Championships. Consistent success has, however, begun to shift the remuneration package she receives in her favour. “The total is very performance-based still,” says Albrecht, who refuses to reveal any specific terms, “but with the success it’s shifting and companies are willing to pay more retainer.”

Indeed, as her titles mount up the competition for Shiffrin’s signature will only intensify. As another successful season draws to a close, Albrecht confirms that talks over a renewed equipment deal with Atomic are ongoing amid “big interest” from a rival brand.

It is clear, then, that Albrecht is thinking strategically as he builds Shiffrin’s personal portfolio. But the story of how a former ski racer with no representative experience whatsoever came to be involved in the commercial career of one of the sport’s best young talents is rooted in chance. It begins over a decade ago, at a time when Albrecht, now 41, was competing on the FIS World Cup circuit whilst studying for a Masters in business at Innsbruck University in his native Austria.

Shiffrin's endorsement portfolio: Atomic, Leki, Oakley, Reusch, Barilla, Longines

“When Mikaela was six years old, the Shiffrin family was in Austria skiing in the summer on the glacier with a bunch of other families,” he recalls. “I trained with the kids for a day. The next time we met each other was when I prepared for my last season in November 2009. I trained with a private team in Vail and one day Mikaela came along with her mum and trained with us. When I saw her ski I was only amazed. She was 14 and skied like an 18 year old.”

Albrecht continued to follow Shiffrin’s progress and the pair stayed in touch, sending each other the occasional message on Facebook. “One day she asked me what I am doing now I was retired and I said, ‘Well I kind of want to do something totally different outside of sport but also looking into going back into the business and becoming an agent’, because I thought I had a lot to give back and gained a lot of experience during my career.

“Mikaela then said, ‘I think you should do that’ and then I said, ‘Yes, but only if you are my first client.’ The rest is history.”

Though he has since founded his own management firm, Liechtenstein-based Albrecht Sports & Consulting AG, which also represents a number of other athletes, Albrecht says he continues to spend around 80 per cent of his time working on Shiffrin’s account. “She was my first client and has always been my main client,” he insists, before confirming that Octagon executive Peter Carlisle, who at one stage was helping Albrecht find deals for Shiffrin in the US, is no longer part of the skier’s management team.

Albrecht, seen here in 2000, first met Shiffrin when she was six years old.

The US will remain a key market, though. As recent events have shown, Shiffrin’s popularity is especially strong in Europe, where much of the ski season takes place, yet her profile on home shores has soared since her breakthrough success at Sochi. Much of that is down to the fact that NBC, a network famed for championing US Olympic stars like no other broadcaster, gave its full backing to Shiffrin’s quest for gold in Russia before once again ramping up its promotional efforts for this February’s FIS Alpine Ski World Championships, which took place in Shiffrin’s hometown of Vail, Colorado.

“NBC gave skiing a huge push in the USA and that definitely helped Mikaela,” says Albrecht. “Lots of people saw her on TV and she delivered a gold medal twice and that’s what people remember.”

Some within the industry have speculated that, as 'the new Lindsey Vonn', Shiffrin stands to make as much as US$3 million a year in endorsements. That remains to be seen, but it is only natural that Shiffrin’s success has elicited comparisons with her elder compatriot.

Vonn's glittering career is, rightly or wrongly, likely to be the standard by which Shiffrin is judged in years to come. After claiming yet another downhill crown in Meribel this week, Vonn now has 66 World Cup wins to her name - more than any other woman in alpine skiing history - while Shiffrin has 14, her most recent coming last weekend in Are, Sweden.

Shiffrin has some way to go, then, but if chasing Vonn's World Cup win tally is a personal career goal for Shiffrin, it can only serve as extra motivation as she seeks to become America’s next great winter athlete. As Albrecht says, “Mikaela does not really look at records, but it does not mean that she is not wanting to break them.”

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