Marijuana turns to athlete sponsorships – Will ski, bike, climb for cannabis

Remember the Ross Rebagliati cannabis scandal at the 1998 Winter Olympics? After winning gold, our beloved Canadian professional snowboarder tested positive for THC and he was automatically disqualified. As the drama unfolded in the news cycle for a solid few days days at the time, everyone debated the role of cannabis in sports. Some talking TV heads were truly outraged and appalled that a sportsman was also a consumer of cannabis! How could it be that these 2 worlds could collide and still survive!

The decision to strip Rebagliati of his Gold medal was eventually overturned, largely on the basis that marijuana was not on the list of banned substances, and Rebagliati wore Gold in the end. The next day he even appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and became an instant cannabis icon.

Consider how far cannabis culture has come since then. From embracing swimmer Michael Phelps as a user, to the current 420 acceptance within the NFL, encouraging medical use of weed and cannabis sponsorships are on the rise. Hell, now we even have the full blown 420 Games https://420games.org/ and other active lifestyle industries’ acceptance of cannabis.

Heading into 2017, we can count this as a victory. The new paradigm is all about unabashed mainstream acceptance of the sacred plant …

Marijuana turns to athlete sponsorships – Will ski, bike, climb for cannabis

By Joseph Ditzler, The Bulletin

John Spriggs, a freestyle skier, backcountry skier, rock climber and fly fisherman, is paid to live the outdoor life.

A Colorado native, Spriggs, 28, spends most of the year chasing storms in a Nissan Titan with a pop-up camper and a snowmobile towed along behind. A former competitive skier, Spriggs has taken part in slopestyle, half-pipe and big air contests at the U.S. Freeskiing Open and the X Games.

Last week, Spriggs joined the growing ranks of professional athletes, mostly in snow sports, who agree to sponsorship and endorsement contracts with marijuana companies. Spriggs added Oregrown Industries Inc., a Bend-based marijuana company, to a list of sponsors that includes Scott, a ski-goggle retailer, Mo Pros, a maker of snowmobile racks, and Montucky Cold Snacks, a Bozeman, Montana, brewery.

“I felt is was a perfect fit for me, to be part of something I really believe in,” Spriggs said Feb. 7 at the Oregrown retail shop on NW Wall Street. “They can really help me out, and through what I do, the lifestyle I live, where I’m fly fishing all summer and rock climbing at Smith Rock and doing a lot of different things, I can help push that lifestyle connection with cannabis.”

Endorsement contracts with professional athletes pays off in terms of increased sales, according to a June 2012 study co-authored by Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School. But marketing cannabis through celebrity and pro athlete endorsements is a relatively new and unstudied concept.

Chad Zeitner, co-founder of Montucky Cold Snacks, said the celebrity effect is real and benefits the 5-year-old company.

“It’s hard to calculate that, but we see it and it adds that (brand) loyalty,” he said Friday. “When they hear from somebody they know and respect, as opposed to a Facebook ad, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Athletic sponsorships and endorsements promote the image that businesses want to cultivate. Marijuana and athletic activity may seem like contradictory concepts but Spriggs and others say cannabis consumption is part of snow-sports culture, and openly endorsing weed resonates with their intended audience, and means staying true to that culture. It’s also a business calculation.

“Any time a company is going to invest promotional resources into sponsorship and endorsements, as opposed to advertising, for example, they’ll want to align themselves with celebrities or events that align with their brand values,” said Aimee Huff, assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University.

Marijuana companies capitalize on the athletic image, in part, to counter the picture of a stereotypical stoner sunk into a couch in a dark basement, playing video games, she said. Cannabis businesses, she said, are trying hard to associate instead with activity, productivity and achievement.

“By sponsoring and endorsing that obvious talent, and by aligning with sports and the outdoors, it repositions the brand or product with sports and being active, and making a positive contribution.”

For marijuana companies, brand values translate into a lifestyle, said Gary Bracelin, a partner in Tokyo Starfish, a Bend marijuana retailer, and co-founder of Bend Outdoor Worx, an industry accelerator for outdoor-product companies. Tokyo Starfish sponsors a roster of 10 professional skiers, snowboarders, surfers, filmmakers and mountain bikers, including Jake Price, Alex Lopez, Carson Storch and Jamie Lynn.

“First of all, it’s not really a marketing plan for us,” Bracelin said Wednesday. “We all come from the snowboard industry, so this is just who we are. This is what we do. This is the lifestyle we lead.”

At Tokyo Starfish, whose founders include former professional snowboarder Jason McAlister, athletes who ride for the brand are friends whose career paths the business is supporting, as much as it is an advertising method, Bracelin said.

For Spriggs, sponsorship means Oregrown provides him with apparel, sports gear and cannabis, while he’s in the state, said Aviv Hadar, co-founder of the company. In the future, Spriggs may turn up at events sponsored by Oregrown, such as outdoor concerts, or take part in consumer ski-alongs at Mt. Bachelor.

“But it’s also a way of life, man,” Hadar said. “He gets paid to camp and hike and be outside.”

Despite being banned by sanctioning bodies, marijuana use is a common part of snow-sports culture, said Bracelin and others. Spriggs — who at 6-foot-5 is tall for a skier, his shoulder-length dreadlocks tucked into an Oregrown cap with its bill turned backwards — said he smoked cannabis even during his competitive days, which are now five years behind him. He routinely indulges today while skiing, climbing or fishing and selects various strains throughout the day for their effects, whether enhancing an outdoor experience or alleviating muscle aches.

“I’ll definitely smoke while doing all those things, before, during and after,” he said. “And now, with it being so open and people learning what different types of cannabis can affect you during the day, I can really plan out what I’m doing that day.”

Most snow-sport athletes who endorse marijuana products or accept sponsorships are no longer active competitors. They make appearances, take part in nonsanctioned events or star in films and videos that celebrate the outdoor life.

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, which sponsors the U.S. Ski Team and governs U.S. Olympic skiing and snowboarding, has no tolerance for marijuana in the competitive arena. The association adheres to policy set by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that defines marijuana as a performance-enhancing drug, in some cases, and a health risk to athletes.

“A number of studies show that marijuana use may cause a variety of health risks,” the agency states on its website. “These risks include negative effects on respiratory, cardiac and mental health. Frequent marijuana smokers can experience respiratory problems including more frequent acute chest illness and a heightened risk of lung infections. … Chronic marijuana use has also been linked to mental illness including paranoia and psychosis.”

Marijuana use also violates the spirit of sport, according to the agency, because its use is illegal in so many countries.

In Bend, the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation, a snow-sports group whose participants are mostly under age 21, and for whom marijuana use is illegal, anyway, enforces a random testing policy for drug and alcohol use. The idea that professional athletes, whom some foundation athletes may admire, openly endorse marijuana use is a new development, and not something the foundation has given much consideration, said Executive Director John Schiemer.

“We really haven’t gone down that road yet,” he said Wednesday. “I think it could complicate things, but, you know, the majority of our athletes are not of legal age. When an athlete becomes of legal age and out of our group, they’re beyond what we can control.”

Schiemer points out that Deschutes Brewery is a major sponsor of the foundation and its competitive events at Mt. Bachelor ski area, as is Worthy Brewing, both Bend-based companies.

On a larger scale, sponsorships by makers of alcoholic beverages are routine: Anheuser-Busch sponsors a NASCAR team, for example. The National Football League and the NFL Players Association restrict or forbid player endorsements of drugs and alcohol.

Huff, the marketing professor, said alcohol, too, was entirely illegal during Prohibition, just as marijuana was until just recently.

In Oregon, marijuana advertising is permitted but regulated in manner and content. Nationally, the Federal Communications Commission prohibits use of the airwaves to advertise marijuana. That didn’t stop a tongue-in-cheek riff on cannabis by rapper Snoop Dogg and domestic lifestyle guru Martha Stewart in a T-Mobile commercial that appeared during the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.

“We keep hearing that the yoga mom is the target market (for advertising in general),” Huff said. “If Snoop Dogg is doing something, I, (as a yoga mom), don’t know that I’d want to do it, but it is getting towards the mainstream.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7815, jditzler@bendbulletin.com