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How Far Is Too Far in the Race for Eyeballs?


The war for eyeballs online has gotten pretty grotesque. There is seemingly nothing that is off limits. And yet, as an entrepreneur, if you are trying to grow your business, it can feel as though you need to play the game, or risk losing customers -- and revenue.

Red Bull
Clif Bar recently announced it would no longer sponsor athletes who are primarily known for their extreme climbing. Red Bull, meanwhile, has not. This is a Red Bull sponsored climber.

But at least one company says it has come to the edge of acceptable and it is backing away from the line. Or, in this case, perhaps it is more apt to say, it has come to the edge of the cliff and is erring towards caution.  

Clif Bar, the Emeryville, Calif.-based energy-bar company, announced that it would no longer sponsor rock climbers who specialize in free-soloing (climbing without harnesses or other protective gear), BASE jumping (parachuting from a cliff or other permanent structure) and highlining (basically tight roping at high elevations). All three varieties of climbing are extreme sports which involve death defying amounts of danger.

“We understand that some climbers feel these forms of climbing are pushing the sport to new frontiers. But we no longer feel good about benefitting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net,” said Clif Bar in a recently released written statement.

Related: Why Your Brand Is More Important Than Your Product

The company spent more than a year debating, internally, whether it should continue to sponsor free climbers. But ultimately, Clif Bar, which is a privately held, family-owned company, said it would no longer sponsor athletes who are primarily known for the above mentioned feats. That’s a big deal for a company whose packaging features a rock climber front and center.

“We have and always will support athletes in many adventure-based sports, including climbing.  And inherent in the idea of adventure is risk.  We appreciate that assessing risk is a very personal decision,” Clif Bar said. “This isn’t about drawing a line for the sport or limiting athletes from pursuing their passions. We’re drawing a line for ourselves. We understand that this is a grey area, but we felt a need to start somewhere and start now.”

Related: Good Companies Make You Think. Great Companies Make You Feel.

The move by Clif Bar, which still sponsors almost 120 athletes ranging from bikers to surfers, takes a source of revenue off the table for these extreme athletes whose main supply of income comes from corporate sponsorships. Indeed, brands are looking to spend $14.35 billion on sports sponsorship this year, an increase of 4.9 percent from 2013, according to sponsorship consultancy IEG in Chicago. And while a big chunk of that will be spent on professional teams, action and extreme sports will be getting a bit of the pie, too.

Meanwhile, energy-drink maker Red Bull has made its name for sponsoring athletes across disciplines who take their life into their own hands on a regular basis. That includes free-climbers, like Bernd Zangerl, Eneko Pou and Kilian Fischhuber.  

When asked whether Red Bull has considered its sponsorships with extreme athletes, the energy drink maker said only that it is “committed to providing platforms for world-class athletes to realize their dreams and further their sport — from climbing, to skiing, to big wave surfing, to freestyle motocross and beyond.”

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Catherine Clifford

Written By

Catherine Clifford is senior entrepreneurship writer at CNBC. She was formerly a senior writer at, the small business reporter at CNNMoney and an assistant in the New York bureau for CNN. Clifford attended Columbia University where she earned a bachelor's degree. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @CatClifford.