There was a point early in her professional career when Linsey Corbin and her husband Chris were rich in beer, bikes and energy bars.
Sponsors had taken limited notice of Linsey, who was on her way to becoming one of America's top female triathletes, but the stock of products piling up in the Corbins' Missoula home couldn't, of course, pay the mortgage.
It was 2007 when Linsey found herself at a crossroads: To win you've got to train more. To train more you've got to ditch the day job and get sponsored.
"The best way to differentiate yourself is to win," said husband Chris, who acts as Linsey's brand manager and now runs Linsey Corbin LLC.
Winning is one thing. As the Corbins found out, in the small world of professional high-endurance athletes, the intricate dance to court sponsors can be just as grueling as the all-day, every-day training schedule it takes to swim 2.4 miles, bike 114, then run a marathon.
Corbin is a former star downhill skier who stumbled into the world of triathlons and achieved success as an amateur. It became her passion. When the time came to move up, she quit her job at GoFetch! and gave herself one year to make money as a pro. Chris worked full time at Big Sky Brewing Co., but also set out to use his marketing background to help Linsey's brand gain traction.
She started by attending races and approaching potential sponsors that sold products she already used. Promoting a unique backstory didn't hurt.
"Immediately, (potential sponsors) loved the idea of this girl from Montana who was gritty and graceful at the same time," Chris said.
Beyond the race success, Linsey has singled herself out for doing things like never finishing a race without a cowboy hat. She uses the "Montana Made" phrase as a marketing pitch on her website, which is filled with pictures of Linsey running local trails. She originally hired an agent, but discovered the personal touch Chris could bring when interacting with a sponsor made more sense.
Big Sky Brewing got on board as a sponsor early, adding its support to a friend. As it turns out, the backing of Montana's largest brewery as Linsey's "post race nutrition" sponsor also attracted attention.
Six pairs of running shoes from Saucony here, a few cases of Clif Bars there; slowly the Corbins turned these into contracts that included salaries or stipends as Linsey continued to build relationships with sponsors.
Linsey was the top American finisher at this year's 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas, a major accomplishment that no doubt pleased the sponsors whose logos now fill her jersey and shorts. Linsey's title sponsors are household names: Saucony running shoes, Clif Bar and Scott Bikes. Local sponsors include Big Sky Brewing and Missoula Bicycle Works.
The stipends she receives from several sponsors can be used on anything, and Linsey said her No. 1 expense is traveling.
"It's definitely no cake walk. I'm super grateful and appreciative, but you work hard for it," Linsey said.
Fellow Missoula-based professional athlete Sam Schultz faced similar uncertain times before he signed a motherlode contract with the Subaru-Trek mountain biking team in 2007. Schultz is one of about 15 riders nationwide whose paychecks come primarily from contract salaries, and is just learning how complicated the business side of professional sports can be.
Schultz began racing in high school and early successes kept him in the running for opportunities to keep moving up in the world of mountain bike racing. Like Linsey, taking his career to the next level meant placing high enough in bigger races to get some sponsor attention.
Bikers like Schultz usually compete on teams, not as individuals. Late in high school, Schultz made it his goal to make the World Championships team. He did, and that success put him in the right place at the right time.
"I got really lucky because (USA Cycling) started a national development team. I wasn't making any money, but I lived at the training center for free, travel was covered," Schultz said.
Schultz competed with USA Cycling's U23 National Team for three years before performing well enough to get a contract with the Subaru-Trek team. A yearlong contract generated a salary and eliminated pressure to find other means of surviving.
Being a Subaru-Trek team member has other perks, too, including things like a team masseuse, a team trainer and a team manager who takes care of most day-to-day details so Schultz can focus on training.
Success at races is a big part of his contract obligations, but image building and being a solid product ambassador are other important aspects.
"Basically our job is to make people fall in love with what we do," Schultz said.
Schultz has performed well enough that the salary attached to his contracts has increased over the years, and now Schultz is "making a good living riding my bike," he said.
The business side of the job has proven harder to deal with than the training and competition. Schultz currently negotiates contracts on his own each year.
"I'm starting to figure out the business part of it. That's definitely my least favorite part and probably the part I'm worst at, but I learn more each year about that aspect," Schultz said.
He started a company, Schultz Racing Inc., that sets him up to be a type of independent contractor, a distinction that helps defer the steep taxes that come with being self-employed.
The next year could be a big one for Schultz, who will be competing next spring in World Cup events. Good finishes could qualify him for one of two spots on the U.S. team for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
"Everyone will be coming out guns blazing, hoping to lock up a spot. ... It's going to be a battle," Schultz said. "It could be fun. I'm definitely pushing for it. I will see what I can do."
Racing with a team does alleviate some sponsor retention headaches, but being on her own, Corbin is now able to pick and choose sponsors. Racing as an individual is also more lucrative.
"We are in the process of renegotiating many contracts right now and are in a very fortunate position," Chris said. "In terms of growth, we continue to see growth in stipend or salary."
Beyond racing, Linsey's obligations to sponsors include wearing their logos, traveling to appearances and competing in a certain number of races each year. She spends almost equal time training as she does interacting with and doing ambassador work for her sponsors.
Chris counts Big Sky Brewing as one of Linsey's most important sponsors, not in terms of monetary benefits, but because it's a unique product people now associate with Linsey, which helps grow her brand recognition.
Big Sky Brewing co-founder Bjorn Nabozney agrees the Corbin/Big Sky fit is a good one. The brewery often brews special runs of Linsey Corbin "Montana Made" beer for her to give out at races.
A custom matching bike and Big Sky beer were on display during a "Happy Hour with Linsey Corbin" event at the Clif Bar Triathlounge in Kona, Hawaii, several weeks ago before Linsey raced in the Ironman triathlon there.
It took about half an hour to get rid of the 14 cases of beer Linsey took to Kona, she said.
The exposure Linsey provides is especially exciting because lately her title sponsor has been eager to collaborate with Big Sky on promotions.
"I think that's one thing that's been really doing for us; her other sponsors are huge and they want to attach on to what we're doing. They are all equally excited about the prospect" of having their logo on a custom beer can, some of which have turned out to be collector's items, Nabozney said.
The status, success and connections Corbin has secured already will open up doors for long-term opportunities, when sponsors may want her as a coach, or consulting for other athletes, she said.
Chris said Linsey wants her brand to eventually umbrella to include the promotion of healthy lifestyles in general. He's hoping to reach out to cowboy hat companies like Wrangler or Stetson so see if there's a possibility they'd like to sponsor her cowboy hat finishing tradition.
As far as her athletic career, Linsey hasn't peaked yet and she figures she has about 10 more years of racing left in her.
"It's definitely success," she said. "I would never have imagined when I finished school I'd be doing this for a job and career. You have to pinch yourself. ... Following your passion can be difficult, but I'll take it."
Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.