If you’re a longtime fan or follower of the American Birkebeiner, chances are you recall the Subaru car company being a major part of the ski marathon and its associated events four years ago. Before that, Johnson Bank was a title sponsor starting in 2000.
At the upcoming Birkie from Feb. 20-23, 2014, Swix is going to be virtually everywhere throughout the weeklong winter festival in Cable and Hayward, Wis. Volunteers will be wearing the brand, participants and spectators will be sporting new Swix/Birkie Technical Apparel, and the Swix Sport Group will have a prominent spot at the Birkie Expo.
And while the announcement of a title sponsorship is big news for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) – a thriving nonprofit, which hasn’t had a title sponsor in four years – it could be even bigger for Swix, according to Swix Sport USA President and CEO Steve Poulin. He’s been working on the deal, a two-year commitment as title sponsor of the Birkie ski events, for the last year and a half.
“This is truly the biggest commitment we’ve ever made in the history of Swix USA,” Poulin said on the phone Wednesday. He declined to share specific figures, but said it’s in the range of what other title sponsors have paid for the event.
“We’re probably one of the only companies in the industry to be a title sponsor where it makes sense because of the breadth of our line,” he said. “I think a lot of people think we’re just a wax company, but we offer 13 different categories in nordic.”
To get the ball rolling, Poulin had to visit the Swix headquarters in Norway and convince his bosses that sponsoring North America’s largest ski marathon was worth it. It wasn’t hard to convince them that the race was important from a Norwegian-heritage standpoint – the Birkie originated 40 years ago as a tribute to that – but it also needed to be a sound investment.
And although the nordic industry is currently stagnant by his measures, Poulin said the Birkie’s numbers are up.
“The participation of the Birkie is growing,” he said of the race, the third largest ski marathon in the world that attracts more than 10,000 skiers annually. “It’s important to mention the job that the Birkie has done over the last three to five years appealing to the greater mass market, not just the elite athlete. … We saw this as an event that was progressing.”
Swix Sport USA is also the title sponsor of the Boulder Mountain Tour, a ski marathon in Sun Valley, Idaho, which drew about 900 participants this year. Swix has been the race’s go-to brand for the last three years, and Poulin said the company intends to stay onboard.
In two years, Swix will take a look at its standing with the Birkie and make a plan from there. Given the organization’s cooperation and creative thinking in meeting its needs so far, Poulin expects the partnership to continue.
“Whenever you enter a sponsorship agreement of this magnitude, I think the first two years you’re getting to know each other … and where opportunities lie,” he said. “I’m hoping for a long-term relationship as title sponsor, but the first two years we understand that we have to walk before we run.”
The Birkie’s 50-kilometer skate race, 54 k classic, 23 k Kortelopet, and 12 k Prince Haakon events have a registration cap of 10,300 – a few hundred more than last year. The Barnebirkie and other youth races annually attract another 1,000-plus skiers, and the entire ski festival brings an estimated 15,000 spectators to the region.
Swix will start out as the title sponsor for all the ski events and aims to become the chief supporter of the Birkie’s running and mountain-bike races as well, which it already sponsors.
“We think these citizens races are really a great platform for our company and our direct audience that we make product for,” Poulin said. “The closer that I can get to our audience, the more they can get to know Swix.”
According to ABSF marketing/PR director and sponsorship manager Susan Kendrick, partnering with a Swix, a worldwide leader in the nordic industry, was appealing on several levels.
“Having a ski-specific title sponsor for the Birkie ski events helps us enrich every part of the skier experience —from more products and service at the Birkie, to providing a great participant gift, to outfitting our race chief volunteers, and more,” Kendrick wrote. “The technical apparel alone is something participants have been asking for. The sponsorship not only benefits our organization, it directly put things in the skiers’ hands that makes the Birkie an even better experience for them. We love that.”
From an organizing standpoint, teaming up with the international brand could be beneficial on the global scope as well.
“Working closely with a title sponsor like Swix … helps each of us expand our influence, ultimately grow the sport, and attract more people to the sport,” she wrote. “It’s exciting to work with that larger goal in mind in addition to just doing some really great stuff that adds even more ‘Wow’ factor to the Birkie events!”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.