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Behind The Levi's BMX Program

12/11/2009
Pete Demos/Shazamm/ESPN Images

The typical entry point for outside-the-box brands jumping into the action sports realm is a well known path: Brand jumps in with a marketing plan, picks up riders from a cross section of sports, wastes a lot of money giving product away, then disappears after two years.

But that couldn't be further from the truth in regards to Levi's BMX. In fact, Levi's doesn't sponsor athletes from other action sports; they are a strict BMX-only operation. And they got the formula right from the very start. To begin with, Levi's sponsored a small but very respectable team that included Corey Martinez, Jamie Bestwick, Anthony Napolitan and Morgan Wade. They allowed the team to organically grow alongside the brand's identity within BMX, slowly bringing on new team riders, nailing a hectic production schedule that included a full-length DVD and weekly Web videos, and never overdoing the "We're not from action sports but please accept us as your own" factor.

In the process, Levi's made quite an impact on the BMX community, and that credit goes in part to Levi's BMX TM Kathy McGrath. I could go on all day about how enthusiastic Kathy is about the BMX scene at large, or how I met Chingy the first time we hung out together, but instead I'll let Kathy tell her side of the story. This is Levi's BMX, according to the people that know it best.

First of all, how did the Levi's BMX program come to be?
I was living in New York, missing action sports and working in the music industry. I decided to form my own agency (now known as Bird Marketing), and see if I could put together some youth marketing programs that centered on action sports. I gave it some thought and tried to come up with a good sponsor that wasn't already involved in BMX. In my mind, Levi's was the perfect fit. At that point, Leigh Ramsdell helped me put together a pitch, and Steve Swope was my second opinion and critical eye on both the program and the athletes. After about a month of fine-tuning, I cold-called Levi's and they were interested. After several meetings and a lot of great feedback from the team at Levi's, they signed on, and then the fun began! One of the best parts of being a TM is when you first tell your athletes that you have a program and want them on the team. I think I can safely say that neither Corey, Morgan, Jamie, Anthony nor I had any idea what this program was going to become.

And how was the team decided upon? Who's on the team now?
The original team of four guys was built via a combination of my first list and then some back and forth between Steve Swope and I. We would each take a pro/con on each of the athletes and then discuss each guy. It was actually a very thoughtful process. There are so many great and marketable athletes in BMX, but we wanted to make sure we had the perfect guys for this particular sponsor. Levi's is all about originality, ingenuity, authenticity -- all things that are a great fit for BMX in general, but we wanted to make sure we had guys that were all very different, but similar in that they were completely themselves.

The team is Jamie Bestwick, Corey Martinez, Anthony Napolitan, Morgan Wade, Dakota Roche, Zack Warden and Nathan Williams plus our stellar flow team: Ronnie Napolitan, Jeremiah Smith and Brett Walker and two new additions that I'll fill you in on later!

Can you describe what your various responsibilities are with Levi's? Does anyone help out?
My job is to make sure that all the moving parts of the Levi's program are happening on time, on budget, and in a way that best promotes Levi's and our athletes. I have a few key players on my team that are so important to the program: Steve Buddendeck and Jeff Sack at Axis Design & Photo are the team responsible for all the static imagery (photography, ads, Web site, etc) and all the blog/news content that you see on levi.com/bmx. Cory Muth isn't as involved in the program now, but he should definitely be given credit for establishing the look of this program in our first year. And the Levi's program can't be mentioned without huge credit to the massive amounts of video content produced and edited by Will Stroud at Nine to Five Films. The video we release on our Web site and Vital every week is really the primary voice for the program -- it's the most consistent way we interact with fans of the Levi's program and our athletes.

How did you get into your line of work?
I started the action sports program at Target back in 2002, and that was really my first exposure to these sports. Originally, I didn't even really want to work on action sports, but after one day with the athletes, I knew I had stumbled into something special. The first pros I ever met were Mat Hoffman, Shaun White and Nate Adams; my first X Games event was BMX Vert and Mat's no-handed 900! If that doesn't get you excited about action sports, nothing will! I owe so much to that first crop of athletes I worked with. They not only taught me a lot about their sports, but have really shown me that you can make a life and a career out of doing what you love.

Now I run Bird Marketing, an agency that focuses on creating and managing youth markeing programs. Levi's is currently our biggest client, but I'm always on the lookout for other brands that would be a good fit for BMX or action sports in general. There are so many amazing athletes that I'd love to work with, and I'm hoping Levi's is just the beginning!

How many hours a week do you work on the average?
It's so funny, I get this question all the time, and there's absolutely no way to answer it. If you're asking how many hours I sit at a desk on my computer or on the phone talking to someone about the program, it's not that much. But, as anyone who's owned a small business will tell you, I think about the work ALL THE TIME! I'll be the first to say that this is a dream job. I love what I do, I am great friends with the athletes, and I have a lot of respect for Levi's. So, add the fact that I love my job to the fact that I want to do my very best work for all the people involved, and it's obvious that this isn't going to be your typical 9-5 job.

What are some of the various headaches you deal with on a daily basis?
There aren't really too many. There are always going to be some challenges with working with a company as big as Levi's. My team is essentially four staff and ten athletes, so we can make quick decisions on our side. Levi's has hundreds of people responsible for their marketing, a separate group responsible for their budgets, another team for getting product out. You get the idea. It's not a headache, it's just how it is. Luckily, we've always had great a great program manager at Levi's who keeps the ball rolling.

What's the most difficult part of your job with the Levi's BMX team?
Wow. That's such a hard question. Probably the hardest part is to force yourself to look really objectively at each athlete's strengths and weaknesses in order to determine their future on the team. Contract negotiations, salaries, flow to pro promotions, letting people go from the team and adding people to the team are all really stressful parts of running a program. I work really hard to make sure that every guy is getting what he's earned, and to make sure that every guy is delivering on the contract promises they make to Levi's. It's definitely a balancing act, but I think the guys are all really happy with the Levi's program, and I know Levi's is really happy with the athletes, so I think it's a situation where it's a lot of pressure, but everyone's up for it because they feel valued and they know what the expectations are.

There's no need to "gnarlify" your brand to fit in here!

--Kathy McGrath/Levi's BMX

And what's the most rewarding?
Hands down, no question, it's the people. I have so much admiration and respect for these athletes. All of the Levi's guys are just outrageously good riders, dedicated to their particular discipline and give it their all. I can't put into words how much they inspire me and make me want to do good work to help them shine. They are the best group of people in the world to work with, and that extends beyond just the Levi's athletes. Going to Dew Tour or Interbike and getting to hang out with this community of people is so rewarding. I think about the fact that I originally got into BMX because my boss told me to! It's so unlikely that I would have found this group of people who are now practically family to me. As a marketer, it makes me really happy to know that I'm promoting a bunch of guys that kids see in magazines and on TV who are actually worthwhile people to look up to!

What makes Levi's involvement in BMX unique to action sports?
I think we've all seen examples of big brands coming into action sports and looking like they've gone insane! There's no need to "gnarlify" your brand to fit in here! The best way to fit in is to be yourself, to be authentic. That's what I love about BMX, and that's why I love working with Levi's. They get that, and have really allowed their products and our athletes to speak for the program without resorting to crazy stunts.

Another thing I'm really proud of is our health insurance reimbursement program. It's just so important to have good health insurance, and when you're making your living off of being an athlete, it's not just important, it's absolutely imperative. If I had my way, we'd never have another Stephen Murray, Mike Aitken or Mike Vincent moment, but as long as guys are riding bikes, there are going to be injuries. I just wish we could get to the point where every guy riding has insurance.

What's next for the Levi's BMX program?
You picked the right time to ask! We have big news -- we've added two athletes to our flow team! Brian Hunt and Seth Klinger are now members of the Levi's crew. They're both awesome guys that I am really excited to be working with!