For all of the millions of dollars swirling around the corporation-cloaked Olympic Games, athletes for years have scrounged through the couch cushions to help finance their dreams. They hold rallies, visit hometown businesses, host fundraising pasta dinners.
Bill Kerig knew of the challenges facing athletes, particular those who compete in pricey winter sports. In 2010, he was making a documentary on ski jumper Lindsey Van and was struck by how much time Van spent searching for money. He couldn’t shake the image of Van standing behind a table at a farmers market soliciting donations with a couple other Olympic hopefuls.
“I was offended for them,” Kerig said. “These are world champions begging for two dollars to do what they love. ‘Anything you have would really help.’ I thought, where’s the crowd-funding for athletes?”
Kerig had used online crowd-funding to help finance his film, “Ready to Fly.” In recent years, sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo had proven to be a successful, efficient fundraising tool, particularly for those in creative fields. Kerig launched RallyMe.com specifically for athletes, and still in its nascent stages, it has already proven to be a boon for Sochi-bound athletes and future Olympians.
Van, who is expected to represent the United States when women's ski jumping makes its Olympic debut in February, said her travel, equipment and lodging for a year carries an $85,000 price tag. She set a modest $13,000 goal on RallyMe but instead raised more than $20,000 with the help of 60 donors who simply had to log in and click a few buttons to contribute.
“It’s a lot easier to get $20 from 100 people than it is to get $100 from 20 people,” said Van, 29. She was able to scale back hours at her part-time job in Park City, Utah, and focus energy on training instead of fundraising. “I wish we would’ve had it sooner,” she added.
Even with traditional corporate sponsors onboard, many athletes still face a funding gap. To entice individuals to make small contributions, RallyMe encourages athletes to offer “swag.” For example, short track speedskater, Alyson Dudek, a bronze medallist at the 2010 Games, sends a personalized e-mail to anyone who donates $25. A $50 donation garners a shout-out on Facebook and $100 earns an autograph. Those with deep enough pockets could get a skating lesson from Dudek in exchange for a $1,500 donation.
“It’s really a good feeling to know these strangers have your back,” said Dudek, 23. “It’s not just your family and friends. It’s the goodness of the public, people from my home town and people who care.”
Online fundraising has become increasingly popular. Last year, crowd-funding raised $2.7 billion for various campaigns worldwide, an 81 percent increase over the previous year, according to a report from crowdsourcing.org, an independent organization that monitors crowd-funding online. RallyMe, which gives athletes 92 cents of every dollar raised, has raised more than a half-million dollars for athletes since formally launching last November. Kerig estimates the site features about 100 Olympic hopefuls — nearly one-third of its network of “rallies.”
The site has already formed partnerships with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and US Speedskating.
“It’s been a really good development for the athletes. It’s given a good framework to do what virtually every athlete has to do to support a career — getting the money to chase their dream,” said Luke Bodensteiner, the executive vice president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
Though actual costs vary from sport to sport, Bodensteiner estimates annual costs for an Olympic-bound skier or snowboarder at around $200,000 a year. While the high-profile competitors, such as Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller, have no problem finding corporate sponsors to cover those costs, many others need all the help they can get. Even gold-medal hopefuls go through years of expensive training before they reach the Olympic stage.
Betsy Duffy received the good news in May that her two sons, 19-year old Danny and 18-year old Drew, had been selected for U.S. Ski team’s national squad, assigned to the developmental team, an honor that will allow them to compete in big races and might someday point them in the direction of the Winter Games. The dream came with a price — $25,000 for each son — and the first $11,000 payment was due almost immediately.
“We had to figure out what to do,” Betsy said. “We’re not the type of people to just put our hand out and ask. We work.”
She created a rally and the whole family aggressively spread the word using Facebook and Twitter, adding to their base of friends and squeezing everything they could out of social media. They treated the campaign as a job and eventually raised over $52,000 from 161 donors, a site record.
Kerig says RallyMe can’t simply cater to established Olympians. The funding need in sports is much bigger, from youth leagues to school programs to recreational teams. His favorite example is in Frederick, where an after-school program called Golden Mile Soccer was seeking money to continue teaching the game to youth from high-poverty areas. It raised nearly $24,000 from 93 boosters.
“I believe RallyMe will be the Kickstarter for athletes,” Kerig said. “For all athletes.”