The Subaru Factory Team

Part 2 of our Visma Ski Classics Special

Part 1: – Visma Ski Classics Special: The state of marathon racing in the US, its relationship to club/community based ski programs, and how both affect you ……and Jessie Diggins.

Introduction

From 1994 to 2008, Andrew Gerlach, current director of EnjoyWinter/EnjoySummer and its parent company, Endurance Enterprises, operated what was known as the Factory Team. In 2000, when Subaru signed on as the major sponsor, it was the largest professional ski team in the world. Its annual budget supported 10-15 athletes, a crew of international wax techs, and various support staff members. The group revolutionized marathon skiing – mobile wax rooms, the first wax truck ever, belly button uniform logo placement, and highly paid and supported athletes – all were unique innovations for the sport in the United States. During its 15-year run, the group was responsible for placing 20 athletes on the US Olympic team, winning over 500 races, 50 national titles, and 5 American Birkebeiners. Had it not been for the financial crisis of 2009, which forced Saab, then the title sponsor, to close its doors for a time, this tenure of dominance may have continued. Sadly, the history and legacy of this distinct venture is foreign to many. In this discussion on the revitalization of marathon skiing and its relationship with the overall health of the ski community, top to bottom, a trip down memory lane to revisit the inception, organizational structure, and impact of the Factory Team is paramount.

Andrew Gerlach – World Class Manager

Growing up in Blaine, Minnesota, Gerlach’s cross country skiing origins remind me a bit of my own (which took place just four hours northwest of his along the Red River in Moorhead), namely, in their shared amounts of playful hacking around in the woods on old, wooden planks . The runner, biker, and skier spent a short time at the University of Minnesota before transferring to Montana State University. He skied for Brian Knutson, who had been Andy’s high school assistant coach. In 1987, the mechanical engineering graduate with working knowledge of the German language began traveling around Europe, hoping to find a job with a ski factory. Unsuccessful, he returned to MSU and began his master’s degree in applied economics. Thanks to his entrepreneurial genius and knack for promotion, Gerlach avoided a “real job” – for the most part – for the next couple of decades. 

The catalyst for eventually forming the Factory Team was a friendship between Gerlach and 1984 Olympian Dan Simoneau, as it led to an opportunity to manage Fischer’s marathon ski team for a season. As a skier, runner, and mountain biker, Gerlach was “only” a national level competitor. He would soon discover he did in fact have world class talent in sports – in the managerial wing of athletics. “I was always really good at finding sponsors. I was always able to find a marketing value in myself, even if I wasn’t as good of an athlete,” he recalls. Rummaging up small support from the local running store or various mountain bike brands was common practice. “I found a way to add value to my sponsors. I had an innate ability, on the athlete side of it, to actually figure out the value to a sponsor.” Eventually, this innate ability would be manifested on a much larger scale. The 1992 season with Fischer’s group would serve as the initial learning curve.

Laura McCabe, Laura Wilson, and Jeannie Wall were three of the six athletes he had been hired to manage during that pilot season. The group traveled in a van and sourced uniforms from Patagonia, typically giving a clinic the day before racing one of the major American marathons. Bouncing up and down the dial, from the Boulder Mountain tour to the Birkie, Gerlach’s mind was already devising solutions to streamline the organization. Fischer’s budget for the team wasn’t much, and when the receipts were totaled, Gerlach understood the grim reality of what he felt was required to financially support a season. He also knew Fischer probably was not interested in forking over any additional funds.  

After the 1992 season, Gerlach went to the “dark side” and worked one of those dreaded “real jobs” as an investment broker. Fortunately for endurance athletes everywhere, he didn’t hang on long, and in 1993, he quit and started Endurance Enterprises, which he still owns and directs today. In 1994, before beginning his second stint as manager of the Fischer Marathon team, Gerlach proposed an idea to the Austrian-based ski company. “Instead of them owning the team and me having an unrealistic budget, I said, ‘how about I own the team, you’re (Fischer) willing to give in ‘X’ amount of money. I’ll go chase these other sponsors.’” Fischer liked it – just so long as the promotions, clinics, etc., continued. Endurance Enterprises assumed ownership of the team from Fischer, and they were rebranded as the Factory Team. The first sponsors were Pearl Izumi and Swix. 

Even the name itself was a marketing strategy. 

“My goal was to create a team where I could add sponsors to and change sponsors from and not have to reinvent itself,” explains Gerlach. “I was watching pro cycling – they change a sponsor and suddenly the name of the team changes, even though the athletes are all the same. I wanted to create something that I would own – the brand – it was really a branding exercise.”

The rest is history. “For 13-14 years, we grew this huge program that was the stepping stone from post collegiate racing to World Cup and Olympic racing and then up to it and then down from it. Every year our budget increased, every year I was able to pay athletes more.”

The snowball had started to roll, as they say, and the team grew in popularity and power.

“And then we had the first mobile wax room in the world – a 30-foot trailer,” Gerlach recalls with pride. “Then, I bought a mobile bus and we had these big mobile wax rooms with one hundred pairs of skis in them and one hundred grand worth of wax. We’d show up and it would be all “logo’d” up.”

When the Factory Team pulled into the parking lot at a race, a statement was already made. They made a statement in the results, too. “We had a bigger budget than the US Ski Team for a while. We had more athletes on the 2002 team than the US Ski Team did. We had eight athletes on the team. We had our own hospitality suite at the 2002 olympics.” 

Always assumed it was impossible for nordic skiers to be properly supported? Gerlach proved this was a faulty forgone conclusion. Continuing his exercise in joyful reminiscence, I can hear the busy man multi-tasking on a project in his shop as he speaks with me on the phone. “And we paid the athletes a living wage. And we really promoted cross country skiing and the joy of loppet racing and marathon racing.” 

What’s the catch? Well, let’s just say providing value to a sponsor requires more than simply snapping a few photos for “Insta.” Good ol’ fashioned elbow grease needs to be part of the equation as well. In recalling the Factory Team, Gerlach presents a warning to young, aspiring professionals in the sport.

“It was a marketing program that happened to be a ski team, unlike the so called pro teams that exist in America now that call themselves professional … that are a ski team that don’t know how to market. We were successful because our athletes’ jobs were to promote their brands through ski racing, and they got the benefit of being able to chase their Olympic dreams in doing so.”

In summary, while on the one hand, athletes today are not doing enough to help sell their sponsors’ equipment, perhaps part of the blame can be placed on the companies as well. When a company like Fischer says that athletes don’t help them sell skis, Gerlach has a pointed response: “They’re not helping you sell skis because you are not actively managing them and promoting them to do that. You’re giving them skis and telling them to go ski.”

Maybe pro teams, current Visma’s included, need to take a page out of Gerlach’s book. We’ll include his advice here because it not only is part of the story, but is a valuable thought to ponder as Seder-Skier.com pushes for the creation of an American-based pro team on the Visma tour.

Promoting the Sport

So, what were some unique aspects to Gerlach’s marketing scheme? For starters, it required multi-talented athletes who were willing to give back to the sport by washing their followers feet, so to speak. Before we proclaim a skiing version of the Matthew 28 “Great Commission,” the stars have to be willing to serve and connect with the supporters. This was a vital component to the Factory Team.

“We’d pay them more if they won the marathon and did a clinic. It was all a marketing program, it was not just about winning the race. For us, we had to do the clinic at the ski shop before the race to give back to that shop so they’d buy more Fischer, then we’d win the race, then we did a clinic on snow after the race. Then we’d do wax clinics. The athletes were all paid for these services. Even if they weren’t winning, they were still making money.” In other words, there was an incentive to do the marketing side of things.

“If you want to get paid as an athlete, you have to effect someone’s life,” Gerlach preaches. If we’re going to continue with Sermon on the Mount metaphors, you can picture him shouting at the Pharisees, the stiff-necked doubters stirring up complaints within the American ski culture, as he makes his final quote of this exuberant rant: “You call yourself a professional … then, promote!” In the podcasting studio as I listen on the other end, I’m feeling ready to sign on the dotted line….or at least bring him back as manager of our US-based Visma Team!

Marathon Racing – the future – 

Believe it or not, it wasn’t all that long ago that here in America, marathon skiing was at least a “semi” big deal. Clubs were organized, matching uniforms could be spotted at the Birkie, and success from programs like Gerlach’s encouraged other pro teams, like Rossignol’s, to up their game. The atmosphere was vibrant. If you have been a part of the marathon scene lately – maybe the last 5 years or so, you’ve seen this dwindle. Let’s just say when I hop out of the Seder-Skier Sprinter Van after pulling into the Snow Mountain Ranch Parking, the effect is not as widespread as when Ivan Babikov hops out of Gerlach’s wax truck in Telemark, Wisconsin. Once we get the Bose outdoor sound system installed, and rap lyrics from “Leadville” by Ryan Sederquist are blaring, this could change, but I digress. Interestingly, while marathon racing in nordic seems to be dwindling, certain sports, such as gravel bike racing, are starting to take off.

The bright yellow uniforms of the Factory Team dominate this photo of racers traversing from Telemark to Hayward in the early 2000’s.

“The sport needs to reinvent this enthusiasm for consumer racing,” says Gerlach. “The joy about gravel racing is that the fast guys are on the same course as where you’re going. They’re enduring the same thing. That’s what loppet racing is all about.” 

If Gerlach is correct, then what the Visma Ski Classics are doing is spot on. Twenty seconds into the official Visma Ski podcast, the organization’s universal call and vision is abundantly clear. Before host Teemu Virtanen’s weekly interviews with World Champions, Olympic gold medalists, and Vasaloppet winners, he boldly proclaims, “We WILL help YOU become a better skier.” Additionally, the website boasts concrete data to validate this improvement through a Visma Ski Classics world ranking. Nothing is preventing me and my friends from trying to chase down Anders Aukland in the rankings. They believe in having ‘pros’ race right alongside ‘joes.’

More significantly, they believe it is for the betterment of both.

For a ski fan and Visma hopeful, hearing Gerlach retell the “glory days” of the American loppet racing scene feels a bit like a Mark Rosen telling a young a Minnesota Twins fan how great 1987 was. We are left stirring – is there a way to bring it back?

“A lot of people in the industry say we need to reinvent the factory team because there is no energy and excitement in loppet racing in America anymore,” says Gerlach. “I totally agree with them, and the numbers are going down because no one is in the sport. None of the ski brands are putting any excitement and energy into loppet racing in America. So that is a void that needs to be filled.”

This much is clear: a US-based Visma team would improve the overall health of skiing in America. Gerlach explains the impact of his team on the loppet scene at the time, saying, “The whole level of racing in America really raised. There was more money in the sport, which led to more marketing, which led to more professionalism, which led to better skis, which led to better results. We were promoting loppet racing and marathon racing. Loppet racing keeps getting smaller and smaller because no one’s saying, ‘hey go race Traverse City one day and Boulder Mountain the next,’ … there is no excitement. Now, we count on Jessie Diggins to be a voice for American cross country skiing and her by herself can’t do it.”

The Time is NOW!

Visma has expanded to other parts of the globe, and in fact, the American Birkebeiner has become a Challenger Event (meaning, it isn’t one of the ‘big’ events which counts for the overall title, but it is included in the season schedule). Ever the innovator himself, CEO David Nilsson’s energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and creativity are palpable, and he leaves the fan in full anticipation when he talks about what is to come in the future for the Visma series, as he did with Virtanen on their season wrap-up show. Nilsson is the Dana White of endurance sports – a bold, successful visionary who knows how to grow his brand with the populace. Don’t be surprised when Visma overtakes the UCI (professional cycling) in worldwide popularity. In a similar vein, I predict one day, the term “Grand Slam” will not only be synonymous with golf and tennis, but also with the winners of Vasaloppet, Marcialonga, Jizerska, and Birken. The first to accomplish this, a new element to the recently completed 2020-2021 Visma Season, will be rewarded with 100,000 euros. The US needs to get on board. Now.

Can you imagine thousands of skiers training all year for a slew of huge races – marathon races – where they get to enjoy beautiful courses, impeccably groomed trails, perfectly run events, and the chance to compete in the Visma series, right here in America? Remember, this IS what the average citizen in Norway has. Now, in order to entice the whole slew of Visma teams to make the trip over here, it will probably take more than just an hour long Seder-Skier Podcast with special guest, David Nilsson (but we’d be happy to take care of that first piece of the puzzle, too). You would also likely need to have 3-4 straight weeks of actual, season standing impacting races, at various points across the country. Could we do it? I think so! Hayward is week 1, West Yellowstone is week 2, Aspen is week 3…. the inaugural Leadville 100 cross country ski race (the route is ready) is week 4. The pandemic led to record sales in the outdoor industry, including cross country skiing, and it the increased popularity has given us a situation ripe for promoting loppet racing for all. Our clubs and race directors should try to capitalize.

“I felt like a pro athlete.”

Speaking of athletes – it is worth mentioning a few quotes from some of Andrew’s former Factory Team stars.

“He was a great manager,” says 3-time Olympian and former Factory Team athlete, Ivan Babikov.  “He had that feeling or sense – he was a great businessman.” As we mentioned, Andy incentivized his athletes to actually care about how well they marketed their products, but he also went to bat for them creating hype through trading cards, posters, etc.

“I felt like a pro athlete, right away, at 23-years old,” remembers Babikov.  Driving around the country in the Subaru cars, enjoying the first ever wax truck, and staying in fancy places all contributed to this feeling for the then young Russian immigrant. When describing Aspen, the World Cup veteran, who is maybe as fast of a talker as he was a skier, pauses mid-sentence to justify his feeling that the place was “cool” because, “You know….Dumb and Dumber!

Babikov striding at the Owl Creek Chase in his Subaru Factory Team kit “back in the day.”

The result of all of this was an ‘officialness’ to it all.  I find it telling that, though Babikov’s rags to riches story would make an ESPN documentary twice as inspirational as any that has ever been produced, he said this quote to me about his Factory Team years/experience: “Those were the best years of my ski career. … that time was so fun.” Interestingly, especially in regards to the thesis of this article, is how much credit Babikov gives to the opportunities and education that only would have come about because of the strength behind the Factory Team.  

Members of the Factory Team seem to be the closest cross country skiers will get to the rockstar treatment. Sure, it wasn’t private jets and 5-star hotels, but compared to 15-hour drives in a van by yourself and sleeping in the parking lot of the race before hand (throw in $1 baguette loafs to carbo-load and you have all of the ingredients of my pre-race ritual….sad, really), it was close. It seems today, while athletes want glitter and fame, they don’t really understand what is required to have it. American athletes, clubs, and programs, according to Gerlach, aren’t really doing things “right.”

“They (clubs) don’t last long. Their goal is to just — they aren’t sustainable because their job is to support elite, rich, white kids chasing Olympic dreams and [it] has nothing to do with the sport, which is the difference between what our program was about. We were able to support kids who had other sources of money,” he says. The benefit was mutual.

“We allowed them to pursue their goals because we were focusing on growing the reach and impact of these brands and the sport. Well, now, the club and elite programs support much fewer because they are just about training athletes; not about anything else.”

Clearly, there are differences from a community-based model ski program such as APU, and the Subaru Factory Team. However, the blend of both – a willingness to grab a few big sponsors while supporting the “skiing for all” mantra – the Norwegian Federation’s motto – is probably what is required if we are to ever see a substantial presence on the Visma Ski Classics scene. 

And if there ever was a prominent US presence on the Visma circuit – what would it look like? Who would our picks be for the team? Where would they train? Who would coach, manage, and tell their stories? How would the whole operation be funded? 

We would only be good journalists if we decided to do a little data driven deep diving and debatable speculation.

And, we would only be good writers if we said, “read on to find out….”

Next Week: Part 3 – The Vision – The Dream Team – Our VISMA Mock Draft

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