Can urban events like ‘Big Air’ shine a brighter spotlight on the sport and brands?
By Charlie Lunan
The spectacular and historic “Big Air” freeski competition Polartec helped the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association sanctioned (USSA) bring to Boston’s Fenway Park in mid-February was a marketing hit, but it’s unlikely any outdoor brands will step forward to sponsor such an event anytime soon.
Polartec spent a big chunk of its annual marketing budget to be title sponsor of the event, which used $150,000 in prize money and a 140-foot ramp to lure athletes to the first USSA-sanctioned “Big Air” competition ever held in a U.S. city on February 11-12.
Polartec Marketing Manager for North America Darren Josey told SGB the money was well spent. In addition to drawing 27,228 people to Fenway Park, NBC’s coverage was seen by more people than watched the X Games in Aspen, CO late last month. That made it the most viewed USSA event ever televised in the U.S. As of February 17, media impressions neared 80 million.
Little wonder. Polartec Big Air at Fenway featured athletes launching themselves off a 140-foot ramp towering over the park’s outfield to perform aerial tricks against the Boston skyline. The spectacular nature of such events spurred the International Olympic Committee to add men’s and women’s big air snowboarding to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang, South Korea. However, because USSA holds its U.S. Grand Prix events at mountain resorts, they typically draw just a few hundred spectators.
“A lot of the athletes last week admitted they had not performed in front of this many people,” Josey said.
Polartec, which is owned by the same private equity firm that owns Eastern Mountain Sports and Sports Chalet, rarely invests in title sponsorships. But after Fenway Sports Management pitched Polartec CEO Gary Smith, Senior Vice President of Operations Doug Kelliher and Josey, discussions quickly gravitated toward becoming the title sponsor.
“It was very unique and had not been done before,” said Josey, who worked for ToPo Athletic and Vibram prior to joining Polartec last April. “It was going to be close to us and addressed a logical market and it dawned on us that we could own this thing.”
During the event Polartec transformed the visiting locker room at Fenway into an exhibit hall to showcase products made by 40 partner brands. Attendees were also invited to view product videos and then participate in a trivia quiz on Twitter for a chance to win gear from Strafe, Flylow, Burton and Outdoor Research. Polartec also ran television ads during NBC Sports’ coverage on February 11 and 12 and during a recap that ran on NBC February 13.
“We wanted to elevate our brand,” explained Josey. “More of our partners want us to make sure people know who we are and what our fabric technologies do, which helps sell through their products at retail. I think “Big Air” really did that for New England.”
Although officials didn’t mention it, the sponsorship also could serve as some regional goodwill after Polartec faced negative local press late last year for its announced plan to close and move operations from its historical former Malden Mills factory in Lawrence, MA. Still top of mind for some, The Boston Globe reported about 100 people organized by local labor unions showed up outside Fenway’s gates just before the event to protest the company’s decision to leave Lawrence. Polartec officials declined to comment on the demonstrations.
Back inside the event, Josey said he saw a good mix of core snow sports enthusiasts and a lot of families attending and overheard some of the 400 people who passed through the exhibition area remarking on how they never knew so many prominent brands used Polartec fabrics.
It reminded him of the opening of Vibram’s store on Newberry Street in Boston in April 2012.
“I remember watching the boomers and the millennials walk in and the boomers knew about the hiking shoes and millennials knew about Five Fingers,” Josey recalled. “That’s where Polartec needs to be. People need to get to know us for active insulation, waterproof breathable workwear and running.”
Polartec and their brand partners weren’t the only industry winners at Big Air. Bern Helmets, Implus, Clif Bar, The North Face, GoPro, Lifeproof and High Sierra also sponsored the event, as did Mount Snow, Ski NH, Killington and HKD Snowmaker, Prinot Snowcats and World Cup Supply. Local snowsports retailer Summit Ski and Snowboard, owned by Teddy and Leah Schiavoni also got exposure by setting up a booth inside Fenway Park’s Red Sox Pro Shop, where it sold official event merchandise and held social events with athletes.
While Josey considers the event a success, neither Fenway Sports Management nor Polartec have plans to repeat it next year.
“This one event took a lot of our budget so you won’t see us do something of this scale in 2016,” he said.
Polartec will keep looking for ways to engage directly with consumers, however. The RH+/Polartec Junior and sub 23 cycling teams will kick off their inaugural season in Europe February 21 under a three-year sponsorship deal the Alberto Contador Foundation. In the U.S., Polartec will engage consumers via American Field, a project showcasing American-made brands via pop-up retail stores in Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Brooklyn.
Photos courtesy U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association