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Last week, Sarah Swallow was bikepacking through a rural stretch of Baja California Sur when she got the call: Specialized was terminating her contract that ran through December 2023, effective immediately.
Swallow was one of Specialized’s global ambassadors, a loosely-knit team of cyclists who provide content and other services for the brand in exchange for product and a salary.
In fact, the Baja bikepacking trip was just the type of adventure where Swallow would have generated some ‘deliverables,’ like photos and video, for Specialized as part of their agreement.
However, as of next year, Swallow — along with a handful of other riders — won’t be doing business with Specialized anymore.
Swallow said she was told that “the global ambassador budget had been cut to 0, that they were eliminating all global ambassadors, and as of last week they were prepared to resign everyone.”
Other athletes, like Steve Fassbinder and Ty Hathaway, who had similar deals with Specialized, corroborated Swallow’s story.
“I was told nobody’s going to be saying they’re an ambassador for Specialized any more, from someone who gets a bike and gives it back to someone like us who got a salary for being a good representative and providing content,” Hathaway said.
The exact number is unknown, but Specialized currently has a wide-ranging ambassador program, with athletes like Swallow, Fassbinder, and Hathaway who earn a salary for content creation all the way down to lay people who, through an application process, get deals on equipment and bikes.
Hathaway said he suspects at least 40 people have been significantly impacted by the program cuts.
VeloNews reached out to several people at Specialized for details on how the various ambassador programs were being affected and received this statement:
“Our social ambassador program is continuing to change with the needs of the rider, but it definitely isn’t going away.”
Specialized is not the only outdoor industry company reconfiguring with the shifting economic landscape. After more than a year of very high demand and often low supply during pandemic, in recent months many brands have cited economic headwinds as cause for significant lay-offs.
Wahoo, Strava, Pearl Izumi, The Pro’s Closet, and Outside are among some that have laid off large percentages of their workforce in the past six months.
At Specialized, change has been afoot all year, with new appointments to the C-suite happening in close succession.
In March, company founder Mike Sinyard appointed former Dyson executive Scott Maguire as CEO of the company. In May, Armin Landgraf (former CEO of Pon.Bike and Canyon Bicycles) was named chief of worldwide markets.
On October 1, David Schriber, formerly with Nike, Burton, and Masterclass, joined Specialized as chief marketing officer.
Nevertheless, Swallow, Hathaway, and Fassbinder all said they were shocked to be on the receiving end of such an abrupt change, especially given how long each of them had been with the company.
In 2015, Specialized’s marketing department launched a then-unconventional project called Seek and Enjoy. Swallow, Hathaway, and Fassbinder were each asked to be a part and said they were given total freedom and asked for little in return.
“I felt like I was given a mandate to go and do adventures on bikes and they would support me and that’s what I did for eight years,” Fassbinder said.
For Swallow, who curates bikepacking routes and hosts community rides and events, what was so incredible about Seek and Enjoy was that it put riders who weren’t after race results into the spotlight.
“At that time it was pretty unheard of to get paid to do what I do and not be a competitive athlete,” she said. “It was pretty rare and pretty exciting. In 2020 a lot more people were able to become ambassadors.”
Hathaway, who mixed racing and travel and community-based outreach during his eight-year tenure with Specialized, thought that Seek and Enjoy — which evolved over the years into a more generalized ‘adventure’ concept — had an impact that typical sports marketing campaigns couldn’t.
“We were showing people that it’s possible that you don’t have to race, you can ride and have fun. You can ride trails and go bikepacking, do all this stuff that people might not have seen before,” he said.
It was a win-win for the athletes and the brand: the riders were stoked to be getting good money and good gear for their adventures, so it was easy to represent the brand well. And Specialized took good care of them, too. While each contract varied from year to year, the money was significant enough that each of them considered it an integral part of their total incomes.
While they all relied on other forms of income to make a living wage — Fassbinder owns a small guiding company in southwest Colorado, and Hathaway had a bike shop in Los Angeles — the Specialized money was important.
Swallow, who splits time between Durango, Colorado and Tucson, said that she’ll lose about 75 percent of her income with the cut.
And Hathaway, who not even one month ago shut the doors on Golden Saddle Cyclery in Los Angeles, was definitely counting on the $1,500/month that Specialized was paying him in 2022 as he transitioned to his next job.
Of the global ambassadors that VeloNews spoke to, only one said that she was told she may have a contract in 2023.
Lael Wilcox, perhaps the most famous of Specialized’s adventurers, said that her contract was not renewed, either. However, the ultra-distance bikepacker said she was told that she’d be moved to the “S-Racing” team instead. She does not yet have that agreement in writing.
Although the national and global adventure ambassador programs may only make up a small part of Specialized’s extensive reach in the bike industry, the loss to that particular audience will be acute.
One source, who asked not to be named, said that the brand’s marketing department is planning to transfer the onus of content creation to its paid competitive athletes — the opposite of what Seek and Enjoy set out to do eight years ago.
While Swallow, Hathaway, and Fassbinder are all reeling personally from the severing of ties with Specialized, they are also lamenting the loss of what they thought was the brand’s desire to do more than just sell bikes.
“I think it’s important to have these global ambassadors to humanize the brand, to keep things real and hold the brands accountable,” Swallow said. “We are there to encourage people to get outside their comfort zone and ride a bike.”
“We had a great run, and I’m forever grateful for what I’ve been allowed to do with their help,” Hathaway added. “I was just hopeful that more people would get to have the same experience.”