Even casual watchers of NASCAR auto racing know the guy to beat these days is Jimmie Johnson. What’s more, they can tell you what kind of car he drives: the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Chevy, of course, pays lots of money to sponsor Johnson. And it does so gladly, happy to have its brand associated with success in the impressionable minds of millions of fans.
In ski racing, equipment has just as much to do with an athlete’s success. But here’s a quiz. Austria’s Marcel Hirscher and Slovenia’s Tina Maze won the World Cup overall titles last year. Can you name the ski brands these two stars used to become the best in the world?
Time’s up. The answer: Atomic and Stöckli, respectively.
There are plenty of ski-racing fans who knew that. But it’s no longer clear that World Cup racing results translate into ski sales as they once did. In America, it’s the freeskiing scene and its marquee athletes that have the greater influence.
In Europe, brand managers will tell you racing still has a huge impact on ski sales, especially on the men’s side. And clearly there’s simple human pride at stake, especially in an Olympic year, when visibility is highest.
So who’s winning the arms race? It’s Head. CEO Johann Eliasch has gone on a buying spree in recent years, locking up stars like Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, and Ted Ligety.
“Head decided it wanted to own ski racing, and they have,” says Steve Porino, who calls and analyzes races for Universal Sports and NBC. “It’s like Atomic 10 years ago, where everyone wanted to be on Atomic, and you had guys like Patrick Jaerbyn winning medals at World Championships, actually buying their own skis and tuning them themselves because Atomic didn’t need any more exposure. They were like, ‘We’ve got all the winners. We’ve got Hermann Maier. We don’t need another guy who gets third once in a while.’”
We asked Porino, a former U.S. Team downhiller, to handicap the top brands in this Olympic year. Here’s how they rank, in order of last season’s results (see box below).
“I’d give Head a slight advantage in recent years in speed events, and arguably in GS, with Ligety’s success,” Porino says. “But the playing field is more level than it was, say, from 1997 to 2006, when Atomic flat-out ruled the World Cup.” Head’s weakness: slalom. “They still have not cracked that nut.”
“Atomic won the overall with Hirscher, and his dad is known for being a super guru of equipment and very much the liaison between what Marcel needs and what they design. They have quite the cadre of slalom athletes too.”
“Rossi is and always has been a top women’s brand,” says Porino. “The Austrian companies are still male-centric, while the French and Swiss pay a little more attention to the women.”
“In speed events, it’s Head, Atomic, and Salomon, but slalom and GS are a little more interesting,” Porino says. “Fischer seems to shine on icy courses, particularly in slalom. We watched The Rocket (Italian star Giuliano Razzoli, winner of the Vancouver slalom) re-emerge last year when he switched to Fischer midseason in time for some nasty ice at Madonna di Campiglio. He was eating it up.”
Remember, Salomon and Atomic are sister brands. “There’s a lot of sharing going on,” Porino says. And Salomon has a point-scoring machine in Frenchman Alexis Pinturault, a tech-event specialist. “There’s a guy that not a lot of Americans are gonna know, and they should.”
Head’s slalom struggles open the door for others, and Nordica has taken advantage. “Nordica is small but has been the biggest surprise the last couple years. They have a great GS ski, but their slalom ski is becoming the preferred tool for slalom specialists.”
“You’ve got to mention the David among Goliaths,” Porino says of the tiny Swiss brand. “They’ve got Maze, but not a lot of other athletes, and it’s hard to be good, particularly across all disciplines, when you don’t have a lot of athletes to give you input and feedback.”