Shaun White builds on his gold-medal fame to create a sold-out brand.

What Shaun White’s Backcountry partnership says about fame and finance

Shaun White builds on his gold-medal fame to create a sold-out brand.

It was the X Games XVI in Aspen, Colo., and Shaun White had already won. He didn’t have to do more, but when he went down the superpipe on Jan. 29, 2012, he didn’t hold back.

White landed a frontside stalefish 540, a double McTwist 1260, and others, but the most notable moment was his double cork 1260, which had not been done before. He ended up getting the first perfect score of 100 ever given during the Winter X Games.

Gold medals, groundbreaking tricks, and Olympic villages may be a thing of the past for White, but fame is giving him an opportunity to show off a new trick: pivoting fully from athlete to businessman.

Enterprise and retail aren’t exactly new for White. In 2008, he turned his partnership with Target into a shared business venture through the launch of a clothing line. He also invested in a music and sports festival and became part-owner of several ski resorts in the past several years. But in 2022, White left competitive snowboarding full-time. Now, in a media blitz, he talks about his approach to business.

Dubbed “the flying tomato” early in his career for sporting long red hair during his record-breaking snowboarding runs, White has been in the public eye for a long time. Even though he was born in San Diego, a city where snow falls only once every few decades, White became the nation’s most famous professional snowboarder during his early career.

And that career started young. White earned his first sponsorship in snowboarding at age 7 and was a household name by the time he was a teenager. He holds the world record for the most Olympic gold medals for a snowboarder (3) and the most gold medals from the X Games (15). In the thirty years he’s been a professional athlete, White has appeared in movies and television shows, been featured as the title character in snowboarding video games, and played guitar in a rock band.

White continued his award-laden extreme sports career until 2022 when he competed in his final Olympics in Beijing. Retiring at age 35, he has now shifted from action to business.

Last year, White partnered with the Utah outdoor retailer Backcountry to launch Whitespace—a lifestyle brand that features snowboards, jackets, ski goggles, and more. On the company website, White serves as the identity driving the marketing and a model showing off the clothing.

White’s line of snowboards aims to make buyers feel like they are similar to him, to capture the mindset of a chart-topping snowboarder at the peak of their powers. “It isn’t only professional athletes like Shaun who can relate to the headspace of the send,” Backcountry’s marketing for the line reads. “Anyone who’s dropped into a hairy line, pushed their limits on a mountain bike, powered through the crux, or braved a new outdoor pursuit can relate.”

In an interview with the Utah company, White said the idea behind Whitespace was to use the feeling he gets during snowboarding to clear his mind and focus on finding success in his new ventures. “It’s about clearing my headspace to create,” he said in the interview. “We wanted to make something that was different.”

According to the website, White and Backcountry used “state-of-the-art 3D technology” to create the boards and jackets they’re selling.

“At the Olympics, I had the sample boards, all the things,” he told the crew of the “Today” show in October. “That’s what’s so great is I can pour all my expertise, all my experience from the sport into these products.”

White also revealed during the interview that he’s working closely with his brother on Whitespace. Almost as soon as Backcountry listed the snowboards on their website, they sold out. They then expanded the line to add new boards and apparel.

White said on “Today” that retirement had been a hard decision for him but that he wanted to “come down” from the lifestyle of the Olympics and do some traveling with his partner, actor Nina Dobrev.

“Traveling has been a nice distraction, but when the dust settles, having the brand has been amazing to pour all my focus and effort into,” he told the NBC anchors.

White’s image has been evolving in recent years. While part of his fame came from presentation—like the nickname “flying tomato”—he started to change that in his 30s. Articles appeared in the LA Times about how his look had been elevated and reflected his interest in style. 

Backcountry was an ideal partner for White because the company has been carving out a following for decades. The Park City retailer was sold in 2014 from Liberty to TSG for an undisclosed amount, but it was reported in 2015 to earn hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. In 2019, the company invested $22 million in the San Francisco retailer Curated.

With some of the country’s best skiing in Utah, it makes sense that Backcountry has developed a following. But the company also has offices in Virginia, Oregon, Germany, and Costa Rica, giving it a broad international foothold.

While other snowboarding companies like Burton have major cult followings—White has partnered with the Vermont company to release a line of snowboarding gear before—Backcountry shows the shift in White’s approach. First, the company specializes in all outdoor equipment. On top of that, Backcountry’s international focus and network within a larger corporate structure reflects a desire to prioritize business over sticking to snowboarding.

He is by no means the first to make this kind of public shift. Rapper Jay-Z created his public persona in the past decade more about his business choices than about his music. Rihanna turned major success in the music industry into a string of lucrative businesses under her brand Fenty. Kylie Jenner used her reality show celebrity to become a billionaire—a fact many across social media pointed out when headlines declared her a “self-made” billionaire.

While becoming a celebrity might be enough for athletes and entertainment figures to earn millions, using that platform to launch business ventures can be much easier when you’re a household name. And as Michael Jordan proved in the 1990s, creating a public persona as a successful athlete was both a business project in itself and the baseline to do other work. Basketball stars like LeBron James have navigated a similar path.

Companies often cash in on the familiarity of entertainers in their marketing to humanize their brands. This is such a mainstay in today’s society that entire tech companies have been built around the idea of having a celebrity drop in to leave you a personalized message. Others, like Masterclass, use celebrity name recognition to create a sense of learning from experts.

This seems to work. Cameo and Masterclass are both billion-dollar companies, and celebrity endorsement is a cornerstone of contemporary culture.

Famous people appearing in ads and companies built around the commodification of celebrities like this reflects a distillation of the personality industry. Fame has become more accessible thanks to social media, meaning you don’t have to become a world-class snowboarder to stand out. Influencers with millions of viewers and followers launch brands constantly and typically build complicated company structures around their work. Mr. Beast, for example, the wildly successful YouTuber, employs at least 30 people and has a string of business ventures under his belt.

The logic has become consistent: building an audience, whether through institutionally backed fame or through social media, creates a market of people who will want to spend more money on your personality.

This can be seen even within niche cases. Alongside social media success often can be found podcasts, merchandise, and more. This has created an onslaught of new ventures like life coaching or classes supposedly selling self-improvement. Many creators get in trouble when these programs turn out to be quick money-grab projects like influencer Caroline Calloway was infamously accused of doing in 2018. Others still maintain an audience but build them around harmful ideologies. The success of social media personality Andrew Tate, an openly misogynistic TikToker who advocates for violence against women, helps show how any growth can be turned into business opportunities—even if you eventually get banned from the platforms that gave you that audience in the first place.

"The logic has become consistent: building an audience, whether through institutionally backed fame or through social media, creates a market of people who will want to spend more money on your personality. "

White and his partner Dobrev are on another end of the celebrity spectrum, but the rules are similar. They became famous independent of their social media accounts, but both have shown the way expanding their audience through tech channels can help further engagement and business opportunities. Dobrev made headlines when she launched her TikTok account, and again when she featured White in one of them during the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, White’s social media features Whitespace prominently and directs its audience back to his business ventures.

One of the reasons celebrities can so successfully jump into business is that it allows people already rich in social capital to cash in on their personalities. The commodification of personality and status via celebrity is well-documented; the idea that celebrities are a product under capitalism for an audience’s consumption dates back to the 1940s.

“Celebrities were seen as mass-produced, standardized commodities posing as unique human individuals, and celebrity discourse as a major ideological support beam for consumer capitalism,” wrote sociologist Joshua Gamson in 2015. “The pursuit of celebrity, especially in the entertainment business, became highly routinized, rationalized, and industrialized over the course of the twentieth century, with the development of industries, such as public relations, specifically devoted to the generation and management of public visibility. Celebrities are, in this context, marketing tools.”

The addition of entrepreneurship to the celebrity’s role and options changes this dynamic slightly, then. It means commodifying personality and status first for the benefit of investors, and then leveraging that fame to pursue business ventures. Given the size of a celebrity’s built-in fandom, there is far less risk in starting a lingerie line, launching a film festival, or creating a burger chain.

Even if it’s not centering themselves around business ventures, celebrities often have large wells of capital to draw on for investing purposes. Much of capitalist logic is built around the idea that money should always be grown, especially through investments. Many famous people might launch VC firms or buy major stakes in companies they’re interested in.

White’s snowboarding fame has provided him with plenty of money to invest. Forbes estimated he earned $1.5 million in the year before his final Olympics just from his endorsement deals, decades after he shot to cultural stardom—to say nothing of his other investments and businesses.

White seems to have learned this lesson. Even back in a 2014 New York Times Magazine profile, his COO referenced how “Obviously…winning makes everything easier.”

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.