I get that question a lot. Usually there's a fresh-faced young person on the other end of the email, wanting to quit school and go climbing/kayaking/skateboarding/snowboarding/whatever for ever. And I fully support the idea of following your dreams, even if the dreams turn into nightmares. Sometimes it's a matter of crossing things off a life list until you find what you like. So even bad decisions can lead to good outcomes; it's like turning clay into a pot, sometimes you just have to turn "work" back into clay, but at least you know what didn't work out. If someone truly wants to try and do their sports full-time and get as good as he or she can be then I'm completely down with helping, and often do. But here's the truth: sponsorship isn't part of that process in general, at least not at first. There are no perpeetual"grants" to go and do the sports you love...
Here are a few fast thoughts about getting sponsored:
1. Get money to do stuff you truly want to do, not do stuff to get money.
This is a hugely important distinction. If you're getting $ to go do something you couldn't do without that money and will do anything short of selling yourself on the street (and maybe that) to get to that goal then your heart is true. If you're doing a stupid human trick (First person to ever drop into a half-pipe wearing a bed of nails strapped to your back) to get noticed and get $ then it's not clean, and it's Jackass time. Now, Jackass is totally funny, but it's entertainment, not achievment. I have a hard time explaining the difference between these two things, but it's clear to me when someone is doing something incredibly dangerous, stupid and even ridiculous because he or she honestly thinks it's just the best thing ever, and when someone is doing the same thing because he or she wants to get noticed. It's the difference between the guy who tied a whole whack of balloons to his lawn chair and flew above California and the guy who was going to put his kid into a weather balloon and get a science show out of the resulting publicity or whatever. One rings true, one doesn't.
2. You're the best at what you do, or on the way to being the best.
-Until this point don't bother asking for sponsor dollars. If you're the best 16-year old in North America then you can start asking, but if you just sent a 12c and won the East Podunk bouldering comp in your age division then train harder. It's not worth wasting the mental energy on sponsorship for the amount of dollars you'll get in return. Be the best or very close to it, then ask.
2.1 You have a plan that's not the same as everyone else's plan.
-If you want to win a snowboard comp or two and party your way into rehab (although by that point you probably won't be able to afford it) then join the line. But if you want to win the biggest comps and are training/riding seven days a week while doing the absolute minimal amount of non-riding possible, and you'd rather save the $6/day in beer for another day of riding then you've got some force in your life. And if you want to snowboard every single peak in Maine and have already done 4 then right on, you're different and have a dream. Dreams get people stoked. Especially cool dreams, dreamed by people who have the skills and drive to turn 'em into reality. But don't send in a proposal to be the first non-diabetic white guy under 37 but over 36 with two legs but a fake toe to climb Everest. If your proposal involves any, "With x ailment," "Oldest," "Youngest," "Dog," "White Guy," "Canadian," "Ohioian" or other qualifier then it's a personal achievement and that's great for you, congratulations!
3. Do what you like.
-If you're totally and completely obsessed with your sport and think and do nothing that doesn't involve it then great, your head is in the right place. You will live on chalk dust/wax scrapings just to be out there more. The best athletes I know didn't decide one day to become sponsored full-time athletes, they obsessed over their sports because they truly love them. At some point business entered that equation, and the goal became to work less at non-sport jobs through using sponsorship to spend more time doing the sports. But the love comes first, like the old guys still skiing 60 days a year. That's love. And you can only truly be great at something you love.
4. Understand work and play
-There's this idea that sponsors pay for you to win comps, look cool, and hang out with your friends. This is bullshit. Sponsors actually pay for their image on you in media, the right to use you in their advertising, and generally your ability to represent their brand in a positive way. When I go do a photo shoot for a sponsor that's work, and I try to work my ass off. When I'm climbing with my friends that's play for me, and why I work... These two worlds mix to some extent, but you've got to know the difference between them, and which hat you're wearing. Masters of this game make it look easy, but the sponsorship trail is littered with people who couldn't understand the difference between these two settings. For example, I can not think of one athlete on the Red Bull Canada team who doesn't work his or her ass off when it's time to do so, and play hard too. The world is full of talented people; but not that many actually work hard.
5. Let the action do the talking
-I often get emails with something like, "I'm gonna drop the biggest cliff ever, I'd like to get some sponsors first." OK, that's cool, but there's always a bigger cliff, and if you haven't dropped the first biggest cliff ever then you're just talking smack. And then if you actually do get sponsor $ you might feel a tad bit awkward when you get to the edge of that cliff and it's a really, really long way down--the difference between local hero and world-class is farther than it might at first appear when measured close to the edge of an sport... No amount of money is worth getting maimed or killed for, especially the amounts we see generally see in the "extreme" sports world. You'd better be at the top of the cliff 'cause you think it's the coolest thing ever, and all you really need to be there is your friends. And if you're maimed you'll note a little clause in your contract that says companies don't in general sponsor invalids anyhow. But if you're at the top of the world's biggest ever cliff 'cause there's no place you'd rather be then great, and when you walk into SuperXSport's office and say, "I've dropped the biggest cliff ever, super fun, here's my next project, could your company help a bit?" then your action matches your words.
7. Be true to yourself. Shakespeare had it right when he advised:
To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.