There’s really only two reasons for a company to sponsor someone — 1. Because the company cares about the sport; and they want to help someone along they believe either is, or has the potential, to progress things. 2. They believe that a particular person will help excite people about their brand, raise awareness of it, etc, i.e. help with marketing, and thus increase the bottom line.
By definition, there will be many more people who might be sponsored for reason number two, than reason number one. There just aren’t that many people out there able to be on the cutting edge of the sport.
I think the biggest reason for the existence of these detractors is just a lack of understanding of the concepts behind sponsoring athletes. Firstly, reason two is really the only one that matters, from a business standpoint. Sponsoring objectively the best climber in the world won’t do much for your brand if they’re reclusive, ultra-quiet and low key, or worse — put off bad vibes and rub people the wrong way.
A professional basketball or football player is ALWAYS in the public eye by virtue of participating in a televised sport. With climbing, that is not the case. That companies are willing to sponsor less media friendly climbers purely because they have a ton of talent, and the company wants them to be able to develop it, is a testimony to the fact that there’s still a lot of soul left in climbing.
Concerning ability level — in most other “individual” sports (e.g. snowboarding, skateboarding, etc.) it is extremely common for companies to have different levels of sponsorship. They have their flagship core team members, “flow” teams, and the bottom rung “local pro” that gets some gear and schwag. There’s no reason for this not to be the case in climbing as well.
Perhaps those that complain of others’ sponsorships falsely view the system to be a zero sum game — they think that Suzie Spray Queen who’s hardest redpoint is 13d being sponsored means a missed opportunity for their friend who they think is more deserving. That just isn’t the case. As you point out, there’s really no reason to be upset at someone else’s good fortune in the sponsorship game (which, let’s face it, probably isn’t that life changing for the majority of “pro” climbers.)
The other possible cause for complaint — plain ol’ envy — is nothing new, and doesn’t really merit discussion. Though to be honest, it probably plays a large factor — and is a good reason to ignore these kind of opinions outright.
As for the female angle, and “over-sexualization” — I personally don’t feel that qualified to comment (being male.) That said, it’s no secret that most high level athletes are in good shape, and so there’s a good chance that someone out there is going to find that attractive in its own right. If you’re in shape, AND a bit attractive (let’s face it, Sharma and Sasha aren’t exactly ugly) — it’s going to be hard to hide. It will also probably push you a little higher up on the “likely to be sponsored” curve. Many a study has shown that more attractive people get better opportunities in most aspects of life. When it comes specifically to sponsorship, we’re talking about marketing, so just do the math. To specifically call out female athletes for gaming this just sounds like plain old slut shaming to me. I’m quite sure that more than a few females have enjoyed a shirtless male climbing shot in an ad or on Instagram for reasons above and beyond climbing, yet you don’t really hear the parallel argument toward any male climbers.
Anyway, great article.