Agent of Change
Brody Leven is a ski mountaineer, ultra runner, and outdoor activist. His story, though, is one of constant evolution.
I'd been following Brody Leven for a while. His combination of ski-mountaineering, advocacy, and love of suffering offered a breath of fresh air. I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Brody to talk about his passion for the environment, how he got to where he is today with skiing and how the he handles sponsorship as an athlete with a very distinctive brand.
The Art of the 180
When you think of the hot bed areas of ski talent, north-eastern Ohio is not one of the areas that immediately comes to mind. This never stopped Brody though. "I started skiing when I was like 5 or 6. There was a ski hill like 5 minutes down the road from my house, and they had an after school special where once a week you got a lesson and rentals." Inspired to follow his older sister, and then spurred on by his friend Cody, soon Brody was inseparable from the hill. "I would be there everyday after school. I would be the only person on the hill, and the lifties would come out from the shack and say 'Brody, will you go home? We have to close the mountain!'. It was like 10 pm, raining, and I would be the only one there." As soon as Brody became aware of "park" skiing, he was hooked. "There were no parks in northern Ohio, so I was building jumps with my hands and trying to emulate what I saw in ski movies and magazines." Knowingly or not, Brody was witnessing, and participating in, the birth of modern park skiing. "To be coming up during the birth of the New Canadian Air Force, when Newschoolers was the only way to find out about this stuff, as a kid from northern Utah(!), shaped me as much as anything else as a skier"
Dealing with sponsorship was a lot more difficult in the time of dial-up internet than it is now. "I sent a VHS "sponsor me" tape to everyone, literally everyone I could think of, even Red Bull. A VHS of me hitting jumps in my backyard and at my local hill, along with a handwritten note." At just 13, Line Skis picked up Brody and sponsored him to go to a ski academy in Vermont. After participating in the competitive scene in slopestyle and pipe skiing, Brody made the decision to go to college in Salt Lake City, Utah, to be close to the Mecca of park skiing, aptly named Park City Utah. When he got to Salt Lake, however, his outlook on skiing began to change.
What Goes Down Must Come Up
When I asked Brody about why he made the switch away from park skiing, he answered with his trademark honesty. "As a park skier, I was good for the mid-west, I placed really well when I was competing on the East coast, but when I got to Park City, I realized there were 10 year-olds who had lived there their whole lives who were better than me.". Not to be deterred, Brody took an avalanche safety course in college that opened his eyes to backcountry skiing. "At first I would snowshoe up with these big heavy skis and then ride down doing my park tricks off the natural features. Eventually though, I would skin up and do the same thing, looking for jumps, but then I started not even looking for jumps, and eventually just skinning up for the sake of it." Outside of skiing, Brody had begun to rock climb, and this led to him wanting to combine his passion for both climbing and skiing. This is when he found ski mountaineering. "After 15 years of skiing park, it was time for a change. The funny part is that the change happened when I moved to Salt Lake specifically for park skiing". After parting ways with Line, Brody struck out to find his own path through the mountains. It wasn't long after that Salomon skis decided to bring Brody on board as an athlete representing them in the newly born sport of Ski Mountaineering.
Sponsorship in the age of Social Media
I actually became aware of Brody and his work through Instagram. As we see athletes all around the world increasingly post sponsored content, some of it more transparent and ad-like than others, I asked Brody what his thoughts on social media were and how he personally provides value through his personal brand. "It's amazing, sometimes, to see athletes with huge profiles and influence just post pictures and videos of themselves partying and getting drunk. It's their personal account they can do whatever the hell they want, but I see it as I have a platform, and I want to use that platform for good." As a lot of people who have a passion for the outdoors can relate to, Brody doesn't particularly enjoy social media, but instead sees it as a platform to do good and to present his sponsors in the best possible light. However, one of the main things that Brody tries to accomplish with his social media is keeping it genuine. "I don't really like talking about myself, but what I do is try to talk about things that are important to me, and if it's meaningful to other people that's great."
As previously mentioned, Brody is really involved in advocating for the environment, and it turns out that some brands are not ready to be as committed. Having recently lost a major sponsor, I asked whether it was important for the brands he partners with to match his values. "In the beginning, it honestly wasn't important to me. My previous sponsor's values didn't quite align, but I was okay with that because I was still providing value to that company through being a ski mountaineer and showcasing their gear." Having recently lost that sponsor though, his opinions began to shift. "I really, honestly believe that when your personal values and the brands' values align, it makes the partnership that much more valuable, because now it's reflected that, yes, in fact, the brand does believe in these things because they have an athlete who is walking the walk"
Athletes make most of their living through sponsorship deals, so when a partnership dissolves it is a huge issue. Having recently lost his main ski sponsor, Brody opened up on how losing that support felt, but more importantly, how his search for a new ski sponsor is going. "It came as a really harsh blow, I was just not expecting it. I got an email from the team manager in France saying I was off the team and I was just like 'Whaaaa?'. I moped and felt bad for myself for like 12 hours, but then I just decided that there was no time for that and I had to start hunting." It's easy to see that Brody is always rational about what happens, and even after losing a huge part of his livelihood, he was still focused. "For a while at Salomon I thought that maybe I could make some changes from inside, trying to make an impact on their corporate values. It turned out. that one of the reasons that Salomon let me go was because I was so outspoken on the issues I care about. So now when I look at doing a sponsorship deal, it has become so important to me that our values align, and I'm willing to wait for the right brand to make our partnership that much more effective.".
What if your career was disappearing before your eyes?
Brody is an athlete representative of Protect our Winters, a non-profit organization founded by pioneering snowboarder Jermey Jones and has been outspoken on issues of climate change and land access for as long as he's been a skier. Stretching all the way back to the third grade, Brody was environmentally conscious, running the recycling program at his elementary school. This became even more important when he was student body president at his University, where most of the measures he enacted were environmentally focused. "I realized, now that I was in this position of power, I could use it to make a difference" After college, Brody wondered how he could make a difference without being in this position of power, and that's where a ski trip got him involved with Protect our Winters.
"I was skiing Denali in 2013 with Jermey Jones, and he invited me to join the organization, and I did. Since then, I threw myself into it full bore and have been one of their most active volunteers." Brody chooses to be active in relation to the environment because that is where his passion lies, and the clarity of his messaging ensures that his voice is not diluted by trying to tackle every different issue he cares about. "I think I've set up expectations with my fans, that I'm not just a skier, I'm a whole host of other things as well and I think that resonates a lot with people who do appreciate that there's more to life than just skiing."
This messaging goes beyond social media and extends to the projects that Brody takes on. Pedal to Peaks was a challenge to go skiing, but leave the car at home. "It didn't start out as a statement on climate change, it was just a way for me to combine the things I liked doing into something that I thought people would find interesting. It was super hard, and I told myself I'd never do it again, and then I did it again."
Anyone want a VHS tape?
Brody's brand stands out from other outdoor athlete's especially because he is so genuine, and you can tell that he's passionate about combining all the things he loves into something that connects with his audience. A growing number of outdoor enthusiasts and skiers in particular are becoming more aware of the need to protect the areas in which they play, and are becoming more interested in a more well rounded set of activities to participate in. "I probably enjoy skiing less than any professional skier out there" he laughs, "But I think my brand really appeals to people who have come to realize that there's more out there than just skiing, but at the same time are aware of the impact that their activities have in the mountain."
What became clear to me when interviewing Brody was that no matter what happens, he can adapt to the changing environment whether that be in the mountains or in the boardroom. So to any companies out there that are in need of a well-rounded, passionate, and talented athlete who talks the talk and walks the walk, the only questions are do you have a VHS player, and who should he address the note to?