Mikaela Shiffrin made headlines when she broke a long-standing World Cup record. She spoke to Boardroom about how her individual success is only one part of the story.
On March 11, 27-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin became the most decorated alpine skier of all time. Breaking two-time Olympian Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 wins, Shiffrin now owns the most-ever World Cup victories with 88.
Following months of rising anticipation and subsequent weeks filled with press tours and interviews, the only thing on Shiffrin’s mind following the season was getting back to her everyday routine, surrounded by friends and family.
While an extended weekend in Cabo and quality time with her inner circle at home in Colorado have provided a necessary break from the chaos, the United States’ most recognizable skier remains fixated on her commitment toward growing the sport that she has poured herself into for over two decades.
“I’ve always had a bit of a focus on trying to bring skiing more into the spotlight in whatever way that I can,” Shiffrin told Boardroom.
Shiffrin is the only athlete to have ever won a race in each of the six World Cup disciplines – Downhill, Super-G, Slalom, Giant Slalom, Combined and Parallel. It’s caused US Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Sophie Goldschmidt to struggle finding the best analogy to describe Shiffrin’s greatness.
“It’s like being a speed skater or a figure skater and playing in the NHL. She’s doing four very different disciplines,” Goldschmidt said.
Her dominance on the mountain is somehow more impressive when considering she’s still in her prime. For context, she secured the all-time women’s record six years earlier in her career than when Vonn notched her 85th win at age 33.
“What Mikaela has achieved – especially in the last few months – it really is quite unparalleled, and is incredibly special for her most importantly, and also for our organization,” Goldschmidt said.
Appointed to her post in September 2021, Goldschmidt has had a unique perspective throughout Shiffrin’s run.
The first note Shiffrin sent to Goldschmidt had nothing to do with her own time in the spotlight.
Fellow Olympic teammate Paula Moltzan had just placed in the top seven for women’s alpine skiers alongside Shiffrin. It marked the highest dual ranking for US skiers in recent memory. Shiffrin wanted more people to recognize Moltzan’s accomplishments and asked Goldschmidt and the organization to amplify her efforts.
“People are talking about me winning my 86th race, but they should be talking about the fact that we have two American women who are both able to win and podium at races,” Shiffrin said. “That’s even more important because it’s a sign of the times to come and the future ahead for US skiing.”
“It’s not enough to just reach that success,” she added. “It’s trying to bring other people along with you, up with you. Lifting other people up and lifting the sport up.”
Locking into ski bindings since she was six years old, Shiffrin knows that highlighting the depth of talent in the US will only produce more fans stateside. It’s an issue that’s lingered around the sport for decades.
As the youngest Olympic Slalom Gold Medalist in history at just 18 years old, Shiffrin has seen firsthand that the limelight off the slopes has a direct correlation with the success on them. You can put in all the effort in the world, but if the results aren’t instantaneous, the attention doesn’t follow.
“And with that recognition comes a responsibility to represent the sport and continue to promote it better than I ever had,” Shiffrin said. “It’s become increasingly more important for me, especially with so many struggles that we face in the industry.”
There is no shortage of challenges within ski racing. From the impacts of climate change to high entry costs, the United States has struggled with broadening the reach of its snowsport athletes compared to the rest of the world.
Europe dominates the sport partly due to The Alps’ vast mountain ranges. However, the continent also invests in amplifying the sport through far-reaching broadcasts.
Compared to other major sports like basketball, football, and baseball, Shiffrin said skiing just barely misses the mark on mirroring the latter’s entertainment value. Then, there are glimpses of brilliance like the Winter Olympics, where athletes are thrust in front of the greater sports audience thanks to the over 2 billion eyeballs that NBC Sports draws.
“It’s more of a niche sport,” Shiffrin told Boardroom. “And I don’t know how much we’re going to be able to change that as a whole, but we can certainly make it more available to the masses.”
Achieving 17 global medals in 13 World Cup seasons, the two-time Olympic Gold Medalist highlights the sport’s action elements. Like the adrenaline associated with traveling down a 4 kilometer run at 40 miles per hour.
While a contract extension in October 2022 between NBC Sports and US Ski & Snowboard added eight domestic FIS World Cups to its coverage during the 2022-23 season, issues ranging from REITs to full-season coverage make it, “really hard to make any moves in order to make the sport more appealing from an advertisement perspective,” as Shiffrin put it.
That’s where commercial success becomes a vital component of any winter sports athlete’s brand.
“The problem with a lot of sponsors, especially in the US, is that they only think it’s an Olympic sport and they only want to activate around the Olympics. Some just don’t see the whole picture,” two-time Olympian Killian Albrecht told Boardroom.
Serving as her agent since 2011, the former Australian World Cup racer remembers watching in awe when he first witnessed Shiffrin’s technical skill.
“She skied like an 18-year-old,” Albrecht said.
Albrecht’s first assignment as the then 16-year-old’s agent was securing partnerships for Shiffrin’s headgear — one of the prime placements for endorsement logos. From her first to 88th World Cup win, Barilla has been stamped across her helmet.
Initially, Shiffrin’s parents and agent were hesitant to quickly expand her endorsement portfolio. They didn’t want to overload her as a teenager still attending school. Plus, the schedule of a high schooler competing in World Cup races worldwide doesn’t allow the time to fulfill sponsorship obligations.
Eventually, the team began to add just one sponsor per year. At first, Albrecht said companies presented lower offers because they were betting on Shiffrin’s future. For those in her camp, Shiffrin’s eventual success on the mountain was all but confirmed. It’s one of the many reasons why Albrecht fought for Shiffrin’s race bonuses to rival those of the top-ranked skiers throughout her early years.
In 2019, Shiffrin became the first competitive skier to earn over $1 million in prize money in a single season. Holding partnerships with the likes of Oakley, Bose, Reusch and GrubHub, all of her deals mirror her personality. The companies also take advantage of Shiffrin’s influence in both the US and European markets.
Joining Longines as an ambassador in 2014, Albrecht was responsible for including a clause within her contract for a commercial, knowing a longer form of advertisement catered toward added viewership in more markets. The commercial ran for four years.
A 30-second spot with Land Rover marketing their new Range Rover Sport in 2019 ran for two World Cup seasons.
“You need sponsors like that. That actually get her out there, that invest in her,” Albrecht told Boardroom.
Celebrating her all-time wins victory with a two-minute tribute video, Adidas has been one of Shiffrin’s most impactful partners. Shiffrin signed with the 3 Stripes in 2019 and describes her ambassadorship with them as liberating and empowering.
Headlining their Reimagine Sport campaign in January of 2020 alongside the brand’s series of outdoor toolings, Shiffrin has since been plastered in storefront windows across the globe sporting Adidas. The expanded exposure not reliant on her competing on the course hasn’t been lost on her either.
“They’ve wanted to elevate my personality through the Terrex line, through their various campaigns,” she said. “Not fit me into their particular image, but to actually help me explore my own image through them.”
However, Goldschmidt still believe people don’t celebrate Shiffrin’s professionalism and service as an ambassador for skiing enough. After all, she’s the best to ever stride toward the starting block.
“What she does as a professional, outside of training and racing,” Goldschmidt said. “How she is with our partners and donors, her sponsors with the media, helping other teammates and mentoring some of the next generations. She really is very special from that standpoint. I think it’s the little things that people don’t see. Her respect and gratitude to the fans.”
An hour after competing in multiple runs on race day, Shiffrin can be found at the base of the course in her gear surrounded by a sea of fans. Signing autographs and doing more than her allotted interview requests has been routine as she continues to strengthen her brand.
She feels the effects when reminiscing about fans telling her where they were when she reached win 87. The moments when little boys and girls were chanting her name at her homecoming celebration in Vail. Hearing the next generation of alpine skiers explaining the impact her record-breaking season had on them.
She remembers all too well being in those same boots. She recalls the inescapable feeling of becoming starstruck in the presence of her favorite sports figures. When dreams begin to balloon and ambitions fuel an unceasing inspiration.
“One of the most fulfilling feelings that we get as athletes is making those connections,” Shiffrin said. “It’s one of the few things that for me, ties me back to Earth and reminds me of the little girl – who I was, who I still am and is right there with me – that got me on this path.”
But Shiffrin’s wins or losses don’t govern her overall contentment in the sport. Championing her craft while creating a brighter future of ski racing is ultimately greater than any podium finish.
“There’s got to be more depth to it than winning races, there has to be personality,” Shiffrin said. “And I hope that some part of my legacy is sharing personality with the sport, instead of just winning within it, but actually helping to create some connection with other people.”
“That’s my way of connecting with those around me is through ski racing right now. And I hope people are able to see that over whatever number of victories I end up with.”
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