Sinful Sponsorship? Seriously Silly, Semple...

Canadian climber Scott Semple recently posted a screed to his blog, railing against the perceived faults of climbing-industry sponsorship. If his point was merely that "liars are bad", then he takes a circuitous course to arrive at this self-evident truth. But he seemed to go far beyond that.

I disagree with Mr. Semple's view for many reasons, and the first one is that he's attempting to create a case of objective absolutes, built on a foundation of subjective judgments.
  • "If sponsorship isn’t backed up by a legitimate accomplishment that is significant to the sport, then being rewarded for something insignificant is sad and undeserved. And it’s immoral, because it creates a facade, and facades are lies."
Except he never defines significant or legitimate, which leads one to conclude that folks need to climb routes which Semple appreciates in order to justify a sponsorship. In reality, companies give cheap gear, free gear, or gear and a little money (AKA sponsorships) for a variety of reasons. People get sponsored who are climbing new routes, writing articles, taking publishable photos, working as guides, teaching clinics, working for other outdoor-companies, or climbing the most technically difficult routes around. Often it's a combination of these reasons. If Black Diamond gives some free, or discounted gear to a guide who is teaching dozens of new climbers each year, what is immoral and who is lying?
  • Sponsorship is only defensible when the degree of self-promotion is equal to or less than the significance of the achievement. When Good Climber does something Rad and says, “This is Rad”, that’s fine. Kudos. Too often though, Wanna Be Famous does something mediocre and says, “This is Rad! Really! I swear!”
Nobody would condone lying about what you've done, so I assumed Semple isn't merely stating 'don't lie.' The problem is that one person's version of Semple's "This is Rad" is to tell their wife and dog Rex, then go to bed. Another person might write an online trip report on a public forum, post photos on their blog, submit their account of the climb to Alpinist or Climbing magazine, and send a report to the American Alpine Journal. In any of these cases, nobody has to read or be exposed to the information/pictures/evidence of the "rad" accomplishment without specifically choosing to do so. To say that posting on one's blog, is "fine" but deride posting the same report to a wider audience via Hot Flashes draws an arbitrary line of dubious significance. Either you tell nobody, or you tell people who choose to hear about it. And if you are complaining about published climbing stories (online or in print), then stop reading them. I hate Cat Fancy Magazine. Absolutely can't stand it. Guess what I reach for on the magazine rack? Not Cat Fancy. Problem Solved.
  • The sad fact about our sport is that genuine devotees are the exception, not the rule. True athletes, masters and visionaries do exist, but only some of them are sponsored. Most are not.
Climbers who are genuinely devoted to climbing form the exception, but not the rule? This one can't be objectively argued either way, but I passionately disagree. Maybe I'm just not a 'true visionary'.

There are only a small handful of folks who get money from companies, in addition to gear. Of these folks, even fewer make enough to afford a car, health insurance, rent, etc. Sponsored climbers work as guides, writers, carpenters, fishermen, photographers, or window-washers, often grabbing any odd-job they can while they get excited about their next climb. But maybe all that excitement is a facade, they can't genuinely be devoted, can they?

I am fortunate enough to have received some free/cheap gear from Outdoor Research, Cilogear Backpacks, and Trango Climbing, sometimes in exchange for photos, writing, or manual labor. Everyone I have met at these companies is genuinely devoted to the sport. My crew coach in high school told me that finding what you love is easy, but doing it, that is the hard part. If getting sponsored allows people the financial freedom to do what they love, more power to them. I'm curious to hear your thoughts or comments on the topic, you can post them below.

I also don't know Scott Semple, he's probably a great guy, I just couldn't resist a cheesy, yet alliterative title.

On an unrelated note, here are some pretty pictures (courtesy of Bryan Smith)



  1. I think you missed the point:

    "Thanks, Jason. I would have to agree. 5.14 seems to be the standard these days.

    That said, I thought of another type of sponsorship which I think is legit. My criticism is mainly directed at “athletes” that publish their exploits and try to get magazines’ attention.

    The type of sponsorship which I think is worthwhile for both brands and sponsorees is when guides are sponsored. It makes sense. Trained guides are a valuable resource for brands to get their product in front of the target market (clients). It also works for guides, because it helps them out with reduced gear expenses.

    But my criticism still stands for climbers that try to make a career out of notoriety rather than legitimate accomplishment." - Posted by Scott Semple in the comments to his blog post

  2. I hadn't notice that additional comment. On the one hand he seems to be saying that rock climbing at a 5.14 level is "the standard" for deserved sponsorship, which at least forms an objective level of measurement. Yet he also mentions his criticism is directed at climbers trying to make a career out of notoriety. I just wish he'd give at least one example of a person doing this...

  3. Hi Blake,

    Thanks for the article-response. I like it.

    As Anonymous suggested, you should read further down the comments on the post itself.

    As far as standards go, it would be short-sighted of me to list minimum grades or accomplishments as the sponsorship standard. What is rad today will be commonplace ten years from now. (Even 5.14 is pretty standard among top rock climbers.)

    Better than grades, I think the following three questions need to be asked of every sponsored climber (or wanna-be-sponsored climber):

    # What have you done in the past year?
    ( This demands action and recency.)
    # Why is it important in the evolution of the sport?
    (This demands significance and disqualifies actions that count purely as personal achievements.)
    # Is it applauded by elite climbers in that discipline?
    (This corroborates the achievement.)

    I've agreed to turn my post into a fun slideshow at the "Night of Lies" event in Banff at the end of this month. I'll post the show on my blog once it's complete.

    Bottom line: I have no problems at all with sponsorship or self-promotion. But I have a huge problem with self-promotion that is void of any significant achievement, which is happening more and more these days.


    P.S. If you head back to my blog and post a comment (rather than just a URL), then I'll approve your comment. Feel free to include the URL again. Cheers.

  4. Hi Blake. I think Scott is trying to appeal to the conscience of the would be sponsored climber. I thing the giver needs to be closer looked at. The companies don't give anything away because some one needs it. It is done purely for marketing reasons. Weather you lie or not if you can sell it you will get it. I used to think that those companies were able to do something for the community alone (without marketing purpose) . I was sad to find out that is is not possible.
    So is giver or the taker the sinner? I my opinion it is the money ( gear,etc ).

  5. interesting stuff, and good rebuttal, blake, to a good original piece, by scott. i think, however, a big thing is missing from the topic, in that it's not just about the climbing standard or significant climbs a sponsored climber has done. in other words, i think scott too narrowly defines "achievement" -- it's not just about the numbers.

    scott gives this a brief nod in his additional comment regarding guides, though it seems that the feel of the original argument is: "you have to be rad and honest about it." and that is, in fact, rad. i despise those who lie and misrepresent their accomplishments -- i think it's unbelievably lame. i know of plenty of cases of it (shit, i've witnessed it closely, first-hand, with the Ukrainian climbers on Shingu Charpa in 2006, long story...).

    thing is, however, most companies don't sponsor people solely on their climbing. or their guiding. and there's a lot of space between those two things. i've met some great climbers who, if i ran a company, i wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole, as they grumble endlessly about not being sponsored, while they're the crustiest, most unpleasant bastards in the world. who in the hell would want someone so embittered, with such an entitlement mentality, representing their company? other rad climbers are cool, they just happen to be reclusive and fine with it. cool. maybe, or maybe not, what a company wants.

    and then you have climbers who climb well and are great people -- wonderful communicators and fine representatives of the brands that sponsor them. check (or, more literally, "harness" -- rare to get real-money sponsorships; the "pro climber" facade is mostly worthy of great laughs).

    a problem with scott's presentation, IMO, is that it relies on the (nebulous) objective assessment of physical accomplishments. it says nothing of the person (unless they're a liar, in which case i fully agree with scott -- of course they shouldn't get anything good). maybe we can get a math geek to come up with an equation that represents a person's asshole-to-great-representative factor?

    if someone's a total jerk and climbs hard, who cares? they'd better be REALLY good -- michael jordan good -- or companies aren't going to want to sponsor them, i'd think (and largely my observation over the years). fortunately, the climbing world is still small enough that it tends to work like this. it's not the NBA or whatever, where nobody cares if you're a dick, so long as you put points on the board. scott's absolutely right that it's terribly dishonest and wrong to misrepresent one's accomplishments, and he's also right that this does happen. it drives me nuts, i hate it. but there's so much more to it, a gaping hole in scott's argument (and, btw, there are also plenty of straight-shooters out there), in that it's not just about the physical accomplishments. if someone has done, and does, some cool things, and is a terrific communicator, inspires others, gets people psyched on climbing...is scott suggesting that (unless they're a guide) they're cads for being sponsored? if so, i call bullshit.

    hmmm, who would you sponsor, if it were your company? the asshole who climbs 5.14 (or whatever; insert accomplishment as per climbing discipline) or the 5.12 climber -- or, fuck it, the 5.10 climber -- who's a great inspiration and a portrayal of what your brand wishes to represent? unless it's all about the numbers, then for me the answer is clear.

  6. True, Kelly, "it's not just about the climbing standard." I never meant to imply that it was. Character should definitely be considered during the athlete selection process.

    My beef is with climbers who want the notoriety more than the achievement, climbers that have done nothing notable, always top-roped the crux, focused on their photo ops more than their climbing skills.

    This type of sponsored climber exists. Considering all you've done, I'm surprised you're not disgusted by it too.

    Again, yes, I agree "it's not just about the climbing standard." But surely the climbing standard shouldn't be completely ignored.

  7. thx for the note, scott. i agree, and you're right that the standard -- and most definitely honest representation of that standard -- shouldn't be ignored. i suppose i felt like the implication in your piece too heavily weighted the physical accomplishment side of things. but i also realize it may have been my own interpretation, and that was the part of the picture you wanted to focus on. i think we agree on all this stuff.

    indeed, i do know of such lame cases like you're talking about. yup, it's total bullshit. fortunately, usually, i think (though i might be being uncharacteristically optimistic here), it eventually sorts itself out -- like, in the end, the truth usually reveals itself, and the bullshitters get revealed as bullshitters. maybe not always, unfortunately, and the fact that it happens at all is bothersome, i agree. and if it's increasing, then it's even more disturbing -- that gets me drawing parallels to our (at least down here) fast-food-nation and the disgusting mentality that accompanies it. it's a sorry reflection of one's character to misrepresent one's self, and it's among the many things in the world that i simply don't "get."

    thanks for the good though work in this topic, it's worthy of discussion.