Action sports stars debate liquor sponsors

Not long ago, pro surfer Keala Kennelly held one of the most coveted sponsorships in action sports, chasing gaping barrels around the world as a Red Bull athlete. But when the energy drink giant dropped her in 2008, she began an unexpectedly lengthy search to replace it.

That quest seemingly ended this summer when Kennelly signed an endorsement deal with an international beverage company. But it wasn't Monster or Rockstar or Amp, it was Bombora, an Australian vodka brand that hired Kennelly to spread its presence in the surf industry. "We thought a booze sponsor would be a good addition so we were shopping around," Kennelly said. "Since they're a small brand and I'm the only athlete, I get to be involved on all levels of the marketing from events, swag, stickers, advertisement and the whole image of the brand."

Kennelly, whose search for an energy-drink sponsor continues, is one of a number of pro athletes this year who have entered the most tantalizing yet complicated segment in action sports marketing -- the booze bloc. Most recently, her big-wave-riding peer Nathan Fletcher starred in a television commercial for Jagermeister (see video below), and British BMXer Ben Hennon signed with Bondi Beer. They join, among others, Bud Light Lime Surf Team members Fred Patacchia Jr., Serena Brooke, Sean Moody and Benji Weatherley; Black Star Beer-sponsored skateboarder Greg Lutzka; and Billabong XXL champion/Peligroso Tequila ambassador Greg Long.

Still, the surprising figure is not how many athletes have alcohol sponsorships but how many don't -- a reflection of the danger involved for both sides, despite rich potential. Consider the case of snowboarder Scotty Lago. The 2010 Olympic bronze medalist in halfpipe, Lago, 24, is also one of the sport's most popular film stars and most marketable athletes. Yet when Jose Cuervo representatives expressed interest in sponsoring him, his agent, Circe Wallace, said they declined because the potential risk exceeded the reward.

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