Living the dream

Professional Surfer Cyrus Sutton lives out of his van and it's exactly where he wants to be.

Over the next several weeks, the Money In Action series on will explore the economics of action sports from the perspective of the athletes, filmmakers, companies and those working in and outside the industry to make ends meet. The debut story explores the fiscal realities of being a pro.

Tanner Rainville pops the cap off a bottle of craft beer, settles into his couch and explains his version of professional athleticism.

"The last couple years, it's like, I'm getting paid to go ski, but it's essentially like working a minimum-wage job if you spread it out for the year," Rainville says. "Actually, it's less than a minimum-wage job."

He pauses.

"At a certain point, it won't equate."

That point has not come yet for Rainville, who has been skiing professionally for 11 years and has starred in nine consecutive Level 1 films -- more than any other athlete. And why should it? At 29 years old, Rainville gets paid to travel around and ski powder while someone films him doing it. He is, as the cliché goes, living the dream.

Sage Advice

  • Fred Gall
    Age: 35
    Sport: Skateboarding
    Years as a pro: 21
    Strategy: Lay low. It's not as fun, but it pays in the long run. "Basically just don't go out and get drunk every night. Save your money and pay your taxes, that's the key."
  • Cyrus Sutton
    Age: 31
    Sport: Surfing
    Years pro: 6
    Strategy: Consider living on the road. Sutton fits six boards, a bed and everything he needs for daily life in his E-250 Ford Econoline electrician's van. "I rented a few places when I was younger, but it always seemed like a waste of money. I bought the van when I was 20, which allowed me to fit in surfing between all my jobs and do work on the road."
  • Tanner Rainville
    Age: 29
    Sport: Skiing
    Years pro: 11
    Strategy: Rainville keeps a separate bank account exclusively for skiing. He deposits his paychecks there and uses the balance to travel and buy gear. "I don't really consider skiing work. Skiing money is strictly to get me skiing. It's always worked that way."

Yet dig beneath the surface and you will find a far less glamorous reality -- one thousands of professional action sports athletes know well, talent be damned. While household names such as Shaun White, Travis Pastrana and Tony Hawk earn incomes commensurate with mainstream sports stars, the other 99 percent of action-sport pros -- Rainville included -- are content to exist on the fringe of financial stability, barely getting by, so long as it means they can live how they want.

It wasn't always that way for Rainville. Back when he skied contests, he made three straight X Games Slopestyle finals (2005-'07) and brought home $60,000 a year from skiing. Then he moved on to filming (aka skiing remote mountains with friends), and the income diminished. His sponsors include industry bigwigs Under Armour and Volkl, but his current wages are hardly enough to sustain what it takes to earn them, let alone afford any sort of societal comfort beyond owning a truck and a snowmobile.

Rainville rents a two-bedroom house in Breckenridge, Colorado's historic district -- his fifth residence in the past seven years -- with his girlfriend, a server at a seafood restaurant. The tidy interior is a galaxy removed from his first home in the mountains, a grimy cabin in Mammoth Lakes, California, where he would see his breath in the morning. Since leaving his hometown of West Bolton, Vermont, in 2003, Rainville has lived with like-minded pros in ski towns around the West. Next year he might move to Bozeman, Montana, he says. Rent's getting too expensive here.

To that end, never mind Rainville's film segments or sponsors or backcountry-Jedi rep around town. He seems just as proud that he hasn't worked a standard job during a winter for 11 years.

"The people who get it," he says with a knowing grin, "they figure it out. They know what they have to do and why it's worth it. The people who it isn't worth it to, they don't make it happen."

Todd Francis

Many of today's action sports pros are just squeezing by financially, and for the majority of them, that's perfectly OK.

Fred Gall can relate. A professional skateboarder for 21 years, Gall got by on $1,000 a month when his career began. It might as well have been $100. "Skateboarding for money? That was like my dream," he says.

Raised in Sewaren, New Jersey, Gall, 35, lives in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood with his wife, a bartender. He makes barely anything from skateboarding now, but he's still the same gifted skater with the same passion who shot to stardom in the early '90s.

Skating professionally by age 15, Gall's authenticity and street skills brought him a lot of money, fast. At one point he had a signature shoe with iPath that paid him $140,000 a year, and his income as a whole approached $250,000. He owned a Cadillac and a condo, and he partied hard.

But Gall, the kid who only ever wanted to skateboard, failed to pay his taxes for 10 years early in his career. (Gall's sponsors had paid him as an independent contractor, and no federal taxes were withheld from any paychecks he received as a professional.) He owed $70,000 when the IRS found out. They garnished his wages and seized his bank account. He still owes $51,000 -- mostly off the money he made as a teenager -- and pays it down at a rate of $250 a month.

Gall gets by. His clothing brand, Domestics, does OK, and he works for a friend's set-design company to supplement his meager skateboard earnings. Every cent of what he made during his prime is gone. Asked when he last ate Ramen noodles -- the trademark meal for athletes on a paper-thin budget -- he says, "Last week."

"I have to earn my money these days," Gall says. "It's like I'm living backward. I coulda, shoulda, but didn't do a lot of things the proper way. But I have no regrets."

Why not?

Nate Abbott

Tanner Rainville, skiing here with the Under Armour MTN team in Wyoming, gets paid to travel around and ski powder, but says it's "essentially like working a minimum-wage job if you spread it out for the year."

"Money has always been nothing to me. I never really gave a f--- about money. Because it's just money. You're not going to take it to the grave with you, so why not have a good time? Let it go."

In that sense, Gall shares a philosophy with Rainville and countless other pros -- some of whom argue their exploits, paid or not, are more lifestyle than sport.

"It never has felt like work," Rainville says. "I don't think about it like I have to do this to get this money. The money is just a bonus part of it."

Pro surfer Cyrus Sutton still gets a kick out of that -- making money from surfing. Companies like Reef, Leatherman and GoPro actually pay him to live in his vehicle and go surfing! Sutton didn't design it that way. He won a few longboard contests as a teenager in Orange County, California, but it wasn't until he bought the electrician's van and put a bed in the back that his career took off.

Sutton had just released a film that he made on a whim, called "Riding Waves" -- a day in the life of Rob Machado, Joel Tudor, Donovan Frankenreiter, John Peck and a young Dane Reynolds. It did better than expected and people around the industry noticed. Sutton made more films, and in 2009 he started, a small production company that has since released 380 web videos, mostly about surf culture.

In addition to Korduroy projects, Sutton had as much commercial work as he wanted. For a while he took it. But he hated how it pulled him away from surfing. So eventually he gave it up and went back to living in his van, surviving on his surf sponsorships and traveling to as many new places as possible (in the past two years, he's been to Nicaragua, Barbados, Japan, Spain, France, New York and Tahiti -- and he drove his van through Mexico).

Matt Price

Fred Gall earned up to $250,000 a year at the height of his skateboarding career. After not paying taxes for 10 years, Gall owed the IRS $70,000, had his wages siphoned and bank account seized. "I have to earn my money these days," he says. "It's like I'm living backward."

Sutton's worldview is based on minimalism. His father always told him, "Buy experiences, not things." Like Gall and Rainville, he has never prioritized money, for better or worse.

"I guess I'm monetizable in some way," Sutton says. "I guess I've done enough stuff in surf culture that they see value in the goodwill I've created. But the funny thing is, a lot of that goodwill created has just been my lack of business ability to monetize what I've done myself. But it's cool, because it allows me to do what I want to do."

Instead of paying rent, which "always seemed like a waste," Sutton, 31, is a member of a chain fitness center, which lets him shower on the road, and he turns his phone into a wireless hotspot when he has to work on his computer. He buys brown rice and lentils in bulk, then steams potatoes and other produce for flavor. "Most money I spend goes toward veggies," he says. For storage, he pays a friend to stash his surfboards in a North County San Diego yard. If he's in town, sometimes he sleeps in the yard's cramped wooden tea house.

He and his girlfriend, who works at Trader Joe's, have budgeted to live comfortably (Sutton likes to get massages) on $2,200 a month, including their health insurance, car insurance and phone bills. Even that number leaves ample fat to trim. "I think you could easily live on $1,200 a month between two people," Sutton says.

Lest someone think such a lifestyle is easy, Sutton has plenty of cautionary tales. "I've seen so many people get sucked into culture and buy things they don't need, spend money partying, get unhealthy then produce lower quality work when they're working for themselves, have less of a clear head for business decisions, then they slip. They fall down and have to take a salaried job because they need that security.

"I think you can mitigate all that stuff by choosing to stay healthy, number one, and clear-headed and uncluttered."

Action sports pros with day jobs

Every fall, Rainville bridges the gap to January's paychecks by selling a bunch of last year's gear on Craigslist. Wary of his future in a freeskiing industry rife with young stars and new Olympic disciplines, he is apprenticing with an electrician, what he calls "my later-in-life profession." Part of him wonders whether he will have to work a few hours this winter to make ends meet, something he hasn't done since he was 18.

Gall is hustling to stay afloat in Brooklyn. His credit card is maxed out. He's still recovering from a skateboarding crash that left him with five pins in his hand. He's building as many sets as he can, wistful of what once was.

Sutton, meanwhile, is saving money to buy a piece of land, even if it just starts out as a place to store his stuff.

The thing about the three of them -- and so many of their contemporaries -- is they would all like to have a mansion on the beach or at the base of the mountain. They just aren't willing to concede the good parts of life to get there.

"I look at people who have a lot of money or come from money," Sutton says, "and I look at my life, and I have to say, I'm the richest man I know."

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