The image of the impoverished musician, starving and couchsurfing while pursuing his or her dreams, is pretty standard. But the perfection and drive of the Olympic-level athlete is usually associated with lush corporate sponsorship money—even though that only goes to a lucky few, and 85% of Olympic hopefuls actually make less than $15,000 per year.
Now Emily White, an artist manager for Whitesmith Entertainment who represents bands including Hockey, Future Monarchs, and Gold Motel, is taking what she's learned from marketing musicians and putting it to use for high-level, accomplished athletes who are struggling not only to make ends meet, but to pay for the training and competition that keeps them in the game. A former Division I swimmer herself, White founded Dreamfuel, a crowdfunding platform that hand picks world-class athletes with specific needs and launches campaigns on their behalf. In addition to fundraising, the company creates marketing plans for the athletes to help them build social media presence and a higher profile for potential sponsorships.
White got the idea from working with Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin, her first sports management client, who gained attention when he made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team after leaving the sport for 10 years to be a musician. He had a high profile and legions of fans, but was still forced to self-fund his participation in the 2012 World Cup tour.
"He told me he would have to put it all on his Amex, even though he was representing USA Swimming," says White. "Corporate sponsorship is usually the way to go, but it’s so competitive, and he only had two weeks before leaving. So I went to Kickstarter, who works with our artists, but they rejected us because they don't do sports. So I went to Indiegogo, put together a campaign as if it were for a musician, and he raised a bunch of extra money." Ervin's campaign raised almost $3,000 more than his $10,000 goal.
Despite the stereotype of the coddled world-class athlete, their actual predicament makes sense—after athletes leave the support of their college teams (if they had one at all) to necessarily train full time, most have no real source of income. "I was talking to another music exec who had a friend who was an Olympic weightlifter, who was living in her coach's basement," says White. "I realized this is a thing."
But White also learned that unlike musicians, who have mostly come around to understand the importance of fan engagement, athletes are largely inexperienced in brand development. "They’re very focused on their craft, like musicians, but they don’t know how to do a lot of community building," says White. "When I first met Anthony and I said we should do a Kickstarter, he said 'What’s that?' So I realized if he didn’t know what it was, a lot of other athletes didn’t either."
Dreamfuel's launch round includes campaigns for swimming World Championship hopeful and new dad David Plummer, Canadian javelin champion Brooke Pighin, and open-water swimmer Christine Jennings, who is raising money to pay her coach and travel internationally, as there is only one major qualifying race for open water swimmers in the U.S. per year.
Many of the athletes have an inspiring come-from-behind stories. Pighin suffered an accident at the age of 11 that left her an expected paraplegic, and skeleton racer Taylor Purdy has reached world-class level after only three years of training, motivated simply by volunteering at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010.
None of the launch athletes have reached their funding goals on Dreamfuel yet, but all the campaigns extend into February—just in time to get a push from the buzz around the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Like many crowdfunding platforms, Dreamfuel offers tiers of perks for donors, which range from sport-related memorabilia to private lessons from the athletes. Currently, Dreamfuel takes a 10% cut of the proceeds, but White says they plan to launch a "Dreamfuel Light" that will take only 5% and be more self-service for athletes who are comfortable designing their own campaigns and just need the appropriate platform.
But for now, Dreamfuel is committed to walking all its athletes through the new and daunting process of self-marketing.
"We put together all the plans, all the benefit tiers, teach them how to create and sell merch, how to market themselves online," says White. "Basically, all the things I do for bands, I’m flipping to the sports universe."