NAME: Todd Ligare
LOCATION: Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
ART: vimeo/toddligare | Instagram @toddligare
SPONSORS: Armada Skis, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Teton Gravity Research, Tender Belly, Old Town Cellars
Being a pro skier is a dream job for Todd Ligare, but he also cautions that it’s not always what it seems to be. In our conversation he gives us a closer look at what it takes to make it work, and here are some highlights:
- How he became a pro skier: “Chipping away for a little while, trying to figure out how to get that door open and then walking through it.”
- Some misconceptions about being a professional athlete: ” I think the process of making a good ski film is way different than what it looks like in the finished product…”
- Advice on how to turn your dreams into reality: “I think people forget sometimes that you’ve gotta ask for that opportunity.“
Can you start with a brief overview of who you are as a professional skier and how you got to where you are?
My base as a skier definitely comes from my ski racing background. I was doing that as early as it’s offered all the way through college and pushed that as far as it was going to go.
When I finished ski racing I was looking forward to seeing what else I could as a skier. I felt like it was this thing I’d been practicing my whole life and had invested so much of my energy into. I just kind of wanted to see where it would go.
Filming was my goal. Watching videos, seeing what people were doing in Alaska and that kind of thing. So it was a matter of figuring out how to make that happen. I mean, that path is not always super clear, but I had the intention of shooting with TGR [Teton Gravity Research], so I was just chipping away for a little while, trying to figure out how to get that door open and then walking through it.
So your University of Denver collegiate ski racing career helped you move to the next stage?
Totally, yeah. I think I had enough clout or reputation at the end of my ski racing career that I was basically able to get a freeride sponsor right away, just on spec I guess you’d say.
When I first started freeriding it was about spending as much time as I could with my team manager and making sure that he knew what I was doing as a skier, so that when it came time he could recommend me and feel comfortable doing so.
People were always asking, How did you make this happen? And I think the easiest piece of advice I can think of that has helped me — and it’s probably good for me to remind myself of it – is just publicly stating your intentions and making sure that the people who can help you are aware that you want that opportunity. That’s certainly how I got my first chance with TGR. I didn’t know those guys at the start, but I knew some people who did and I just told them, Hey, when there’s a slot, I’ll drop everything, I’ll be there.
I think people forget sometimes that you’ve gotta ask for that opportunity.
So be pretty vocal and also persistent.
What type of work are you currently focusing on these days to help further your ski career and why?
It’s interesting because I think it’s an ever-changing landscape as far as how to make yourself valuable in what you’re doing. I certainly want to be well-rounded, whether it’s the film part or on the backend, because I do really like equipment and design and everything I can do internally. So I’ve always made that a bit of a priority too, certainly with brands that want that kind of input, you know?
Personally I still think a cool annual film part is the best thing you can do. With that landscape changing it’s not always the easiest thing to do, whether it’s gathering the resources or getting the exact trip you want. I haven’t really had much creative control [with annual films], so that’s why I ended up also making a lot of web parts and stuff with footage that wasn’t used or using it in a different way, just so I can at least have some piece of that media that I’m controlling.
Going forward I still just want to be improving, which keeps me interested, for sure. But also I do really admire some of the people in the industry who are doing the writing or design work. There are so many skiers who are getting their artwork on topsheets [of skis] or selling their artwork, like [Eric] Pollard, Sage [Cattabriga-Alosa] and [Chris] Benchetler.
I still envision trying to do something more like that, or just being involved in as many ways as possible. I don’t know that I’m actually going to be making drawings or anything like that, but certainly on the design stuff, on the backend, I really like that and it’s fun to be involved.
How were you able to make a living in your early days, while you were transitioning from the college ski team into your professional career?
Well, when I was first sponsored I was still working even in the winter. Ski-bum style for sure, just trying to work as little as possible. I worked in a lot of restaurants, did some carpentry work. Definitely trying to carve out as much skiing as possible. In that transition from just working ski-town jobs to making a little bit of money skiing, I’d work a little bit in the summer to alleviate the pressure.
But definitely transitioning into skiing as a [full-time] job, there was no instant moment that happened. Certainly I’ve had years like, Wow, that was a way better contract than I had before, but nothing was instant.
I kinda did everything in reverse. I was able to get in on filming first, but I feel there are a lot of athletes who got their breaks in film because they had done something really prominent before filming. When you’re in a major ski film, from the athlete side you’re like, Yes, I made it. But then realistically you look at it and you’re like, Well, a lot of people see these movies but not so many that you’re famous from having a small part in one video, you know what I mean? So it took a couple more years to get the momentum, to make it my “job.”
And what year did you become a full-time skier, where you didn’t have to do the side hustles?
I’m still doing side hustles. [Laughs]
I mean, I think that’s something that people who have been involved in the ski industry will understand. The financial side is like a yo-yo. You lose one thing and it’s, like, that doesn’t exist anymore so you gotta find another thing.
So each year it yo-yos a bit and that’s still something I deal with now. How do you have enough resources? How do you properly do the project that you envision? I think right now that’s an issue for a lot of professional skiers.
That makes sense.
We all want to do really rad trips but the rad trips cost money.
What are some of the side hustles that you’re working on right now, then?
Well, I didn’t work this last year because I had torn my pec [muscle], so that prevented me from doing too much physical labor. It was six weeks doing nothing and a couple of months of light stuff. Before that, I was doing some carpentry work part-time. I’m happy to do other stuff, it’s nice to have extra income.
One of the reasons I do what I do is to have freedom in my time, and that includes in the summer. I do want to balance it out, go on a camping trip, a surfing trip, whatever it may be on my own schedule. I had a pretty great arrangement with a guy I was working for because they really needed skilled hands, so I had the rare position where I was able to leverage that.
That’s the trickier thing— how do you find those things that do have synergy? It goes back to our conversation before, like, What are the things that do align with what I do? Because a lot of people don’t want to hire someone who’s like, I’ll work for two months but then I’m going to go ski in the summer, or I want to go to Chile for a while. So you end up working for people you’re personal friends with who really understand the situation.
But as far as just going out and getting the job you want that pairs with skiing? That’s not an easy thing to do or doesn’t exist.
A lot of people don’t see the side hustles with athletes, so it’s good to know about that. How did you go about landing your first sponsor? You mentioned that one came from your racing days, right?
Yeah, I’ve definitely been a supported and sponsored skier since I was 13 or so, but those sponsors have changed a bit over time.
How have they changed?
So I was with Rossignol when I was training with the US ski team. That was the largest part of my racing career. I was on Rossignol for probably— gosh, almost 10 years or something like that.
My first sponsor in my freeriding career was Dynastar. The team manager at the time was someone I knew through ski racing. It’s a little bit in line with what I was mentioning earlier as far as just approaching those people and being like, Hey, this is my intention, I’m going to do this now, is this something you guys want to support or get onboard with? I wasn’t getting paid right away or anything. It’s not like, Yeah, sweet, here’s a contract and some money. It’s like, Here is some gear, get us some photos.
Everyone basically goes through the same process, but being sponsored, even if it’s not a paid deal, still has the give and take of you hoping that person is going to put you on a cool trip, use the photos you’re getting or help springboard you out there too, make you visible.
You’re also getting the respect of being a sponsored skier and obviously, there are some benefits to that. You’re getting gear from a flow sponsorship and that’s definitely an important piece of the puzzle.
I was with Dynastar in the beginning of working with TGR when what I was doing was actually turning into a career.
How did the Armada [Skis] relationship come about?
Yeah, gosh, it’s a continuous thread here — meeting people over time and just having those contacts lined up. But I’d been eyeballing Armada personally because I really like the brand and what they represent in skiing. It’s something I can really get behind.
I feel like those guys—having artists focusing on the artwork and progressive ski design, the way the company is run where everybody in the office is friends with everybody, it’s definitely the coolest brand I’ve had the opportunity to work with in that regard. I can go in there and I know everybody there, whereas some of the brands I worked with in the past, they’re really Euro-based and you only get to see those guys a couple of days a year maybe at the trade show, and then it’s all emailing from there.
So you have a much more personal relationship with the Armada brand, I think it’s really cool. I also think that they really stand for something different in the industry and I really appreciate them for that. I think it’s a good fit because I feel like what I have to offer is still probably slightly off-mainstream.
Did it take a while from when you first approached Armada to getting on the team?
Kind of, yeah. I had a good contact there from someone who used to work at Atomic, my prior sponsor for a long time. And it was just good timing too because it was around the time when they were moving from Costa Mesa, California (that’s where they were for a long time) to Park City. So I knew it was a good window of time to leverage that move. Just being like, Hey, I’m from Park City, you guys are starting to base the brand out of here and I can be hands-on. That has worked out well.
Being in the same spot as the brand is really cool. And the timing of that, of them moving here when I was looking to make that transition, was helpful too.
When it comes to negotiating contracts and figuring out how they should be structured, how did you learn that process?
That’s an interesting thing. The people I’ve worked with I’m friends with. And that’s certainly one of the issues for sure. It’s a great thing because you’re working with your friends, but on the other hand, when it comes down to the details like asking for more money, it’s not the easiest thing to do. And vice-versa for them, they want to take care of you as a friend.
In my case, I normally just see what they have to offer. I think over time I have learned that you’ve got to ask and stick up for yourself a little bit, even in those types of negotiations with people you know really well. Because if you don’t ask, then you’re definitely never going to get more resources.
The brands I work with, I want it to feel like we’re working on this thing together. So even when it comes down to budget, if I’m on a trip I’m not going to be buying the most expensive meal because I know that money is coming from the same spot. So if my friend is trying to manage that budget, then it’s like, I can help you manage that budget too. If I have the opportunity to do a trip, I try to do it is as cheaply as possible or get them a good deal and help align those things.
I want to be a part of the company and see the whole thing succeed. I want to be easy to work with and help them. Realistically, has that attitude negatively affected how many resources I’ve had and how much I’ve made over my career? Probably, yeah. It’s great that I can make a living as a skier but there was a point where I realized I’m probably not going to make a bunch of it anyways. So it’s like, value skiing, your vision and who you want to work with above trying to make a buck out of it. That’s been my attitude.
Did you run any ideas or contracts by your peer group at all?
I do find that’s a little bit weird. Certainly I can talk about that stuff with Amie [Engerbretson, Todd’s girlfriend and pro skier]. What people are getting paid has been the biggest strange thing in the industry. It’s not like basketball or something where you’re like, This person is getting paid this much, and it’s public information. I don’t even know how much my friends make, you know what I mean? You start to gather, you get pieces of the puzzle and you start to figure it out over time. And you can certainly understand what people’s travel budgets might look like by what trips they get on.
Over time I can compare what I’ve been making year to year with different sponsors, so you have your own baseline, and I think we all have a different baseline as far as what’s acceptable and what’s not.
I still look at it like this. If you’re working with people you like and you’re getting paid to ski, then that’s a success. The main thing would still be tapping into bigger production and travel budgets because that would allow you to take the trips you want.
Have you thought about creative ways you can do that? Whether that’s through non-endemic sponsors or different sponsorships?
Yeah, and I think that’s the best solution for a lot of it at this point. Because there’s good reason for some of those non-endemic sponsors to be interested in what we do and I think we can add a lot of value there. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being more hands-on, pitch in and get the production dollars behind it. For me, it seems like a lot of patience too. You just wait and stuff tends to fall into place a lot.
I also know I should be more proactive, especially as I realize, Man, I’ve been doing this for a long time. You always wonder, How much longer is it going to last? You’ve got to tackle this stuff while you’re doing it.
There is a particular quality to the snow in BC that makes it slightly different than other places — still light and cold but somehow sticky enough to fill in the gaps. Small trees become airs, cliffs can become lines. Keefer Lake Lodge is a fairly new cat operation up there and we were lucky to sample some of the terrain. –Todd Ligare. Photo: Jeff Engerbretson
What do you think is the biggest misconception about what you do as a professional athlete?
When people hear that you’re a professional athlete, I think the most common public misconception is that you’re making good money. And I think people don’t understand that it still involves hard work. People definitely just assume it’s living the dream and the thing is, I’m okay with people thinking that because for the most part, that’s still true.
I think the process of making a good ski film is way different than what it looks like in the finished product, for sure. I think when people see it on film, they’re like, That came together really smoothly, they’re skiing this sick pow on a sunny day. But people just see those good moments and don’t understand that you could have just been hanging out for ten days doing nothing, going insane, waiting for those moments.
A lot of the stuff is accurate. It is still a pretty good thing to be doing. A lot of people end up doing work that they fall into but don’t necessarily choose. It’s still just choosing to do something, having a directed energy for a path that you choose. I think it’s a privilege having the freedom to go skiing a lot and practice the craft.
It’s also pretty rad getting your new stuff — I’m a gear guy, you know? When I get a new pair of skis, I’m excited about that. I love taking them out of the wrapper, seeing them. That stuff is still exciting to me.
So when it comes to the business side of being a professional skier, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had along the way?
Making sure you have enough relationships to have the resources to do what you do is a challenge. Because it’s a circular thing where you need the money to be on the right trips, to do the cool projects, to keep yourself relevant, to get another year of contracts. That’s something people don’t really realize.
You do have some of these athletes in skiing and snowboarding who are obvious superstars. A person like that is one of the few who can do huge projects. They also probably have an equal number of shots hitting the floor as most other professional skiers and snowboarders, but when the media comes out you never see that element of it. You’re like, This person is more accomplished or better than this other person. But those few can go up to Alaska for a month and a half whereas a lot of us are really lucky if we can get a couple of weeks or something. So I think that’s an interesting thing that a lot of people wouldn’t understand looking at ski photos, video or Instagram for that matter. To get the sickest shot — those take resources.
When you look at what your sponsors are paying when it comes to resources like your travel budget and also what they’re paying you, what’s the ratio like?
Yeah, thankfully, those are the kinds of things that you can negotiate. Some people won’t even have a travel budget, they’ll just be like, Give me the whole chunk and I’m going to be using some of it on travel. I think the only time a team manager would agree to that is if they know that person well enough to know that that’s actually true, that some of that money is going to be spent on filming skiing. I think in some cases it could be more like 50-50 when you have a good, big travel budget.
My travel budget is more like a fourth of my contract, but that doesn’t mean I cap what I spend on the season on that amount. I still spend some of my own money on skiing because I’ve never looked at it as this separate thing. During the winter I’m traveling and eating much like I would be if I were feeding myself at home. And I might choose to be somewhere that’s really affordable, or snowmobiling rather than flying in a helicopter, making decisions to try to manage that budget. But on the other hand, it’s not like I’m going to turn down a great opportunity just because I don’t quite have enough. I just do it anyways and figure it out.
All part of the lifestyle, it sounds like. You’ve worked with some of the best ski photographers and filmmakers in the world. How did you start and cultivate those relationships and how essential are those for your career?
One of the reasons I moved back to Utah after my time at the University of Denver was because of how many photographers there are in Salt Lake. It’s one of the ski/snowboard hubs for a lot of professional athletes and photographers.
I thought that was the easiest step in my career, meeting photographers to work with, because they’re always looking for good athletes. So it’s really a matter of just meeting them and stating that intention, Hey, I would love to shoot with you sometime. Plant the seed. Just do the hustle.
What about with filmers? Because clearly TGR has been huge for you.
Yeah, I wasn’t filming a whole lot before I got the opportunity to work with those guys. There are a lot of friends I could hire for the day or whatever, but filmers don’t work on spec. They don’t go gather content with the hopes of selling it to someone later, which would be cool if that was the case because that would really change the dynamic of what I do. If I had the opportunity to just film a bunch and fund it later I would love to do that, that would be the best-case scenario for me.
Whereas photographers you get, generally speaking, for free. I’m not going to do a catalogue shoot for free or something like that, but any given good day, you’re going to go out and you’re working with each other, it’s this team relationship. Filming is more like you hired somebody and they’re going to get paid no matter what you get on the day.
So on the reputation side, as it relates to filming relationships, are there certain skills that make people want to film with you?
Sure. For the bigger, more expedition-style trips I’ve done, the balance of your crew is really important. You’re looking for people who can handle rough situations, who aren’t going to melt down when stuff is going sideways. Because inevitably that’s what happens on a big trip — shit is not going to go well a lot of days. So how do your partners deal with that? Will they help everyone through that as a group or bring it down?
For filming, you spend a lot of time going on missions, you’re tired, it’s cold, it’s some of the most difficult stuff to shoot. If you ask a cameraman, I think that’s pretty accurate. So how do people and your crew deal with frustration?
How much of the year are you traveling?
Man, that changes a lot year to year. But generally I think I often only have one trip before Christmas. Usually January 1st to the end of April is the block where you just think, Alright, be flexible, everything is going to happen in this time frame.
This year I was in Jackson [Wyoming] for a month. That’s kind of a second home for me, but I’m still sleeping in friends’ houses and it wears you out a little bit. This year I haven’t spent too much time in Utah. I saved a lot of budget for Alaska, that’s always in my head.
When it comes to your skiing style and how that relates to what you do on film and in photos, what’s your creative process like? How much do you actually think about how you look and how you want the content to look?
That’s really interesting. How I want the content to look— I definitely have an opinion about that. The type of skiing we do is an action sport. You look at the aesthetics of surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and all those things — the way I view skiing is very much in line with what’s going on in those sports. That’s one of the things that Armada does well, they represent that piece of the sport.
It depends on the given day. When stuff is heavy and I’m doing a gnarly thing, it’s like heavy metal — it can have darker elements and I want to see some of that stuff represented in skiing. But this year I shot a bunch of pow days, which to me is very different. That’s like a dreamscape flowing through the woods with face shots and how that might be presented is going to be different. You’re not going to put a metal track to that. [Laughter]
Is heavy metal music a big inspiration for you or just music—?
Just music in general, rock and roll. There’s a huge connection between skiing and music but I don’t like skiing with headphones on that much, especially in the backcountry. I don’t think it’s a safe thing to do. But it could be anything. Sometimes in my brain they’re very deeply connected.
That’s something I would like to see more of in the industry. Skiing still has this huge lifestyle element to it and that includes art, music, travel and ski designs. There’s a lot of overlap in all those things.
When it comes to your skiing style, did you ever see yourself on film, especially early on, where you said, Oh, I need to change this — have you thought much about that?
Definitely that crossed my mind. I think part of me thought that my success as a film skier has largely been from skiing stuff that other people won’t. So you get to that critical point where you think, Well, I don’t think style matters on this line, it’s only about skiing the line no one’s skied. It’s dangerous or gnarly. So just putting yourself in that space is the statement.
I think when I feel like I’m skiing really well that usually shows in a good shot. But realistically in the end, how much control do I have? Not that much, really. Whoever is going to make the movie picks what they want in their movie. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to include you in the process and listen to your input, it’s whether or not they’re actually going to take it.
Yeah, where you have a quick little window to showcase what you can do.
Yeah, so as far as the aesthetics, my favorite skiers are my favorite skiers because of their on-snow aesthetic. You watch them and you’re like, Wow. I can appreciate that because there’s something in my brain where I’m kind of experiencing their run by watching it.
That makes sense. And what about projects like Skipping Stones — is that something from your mind? Did you come up with that concept, where it’s like, I want to showcase my skiing in this way?
How did that come about?
Talking about track selection, all of that was certainly from my mind. And that was more of an homage to earlier ski films with the Swollen Members track. I wanted one of their tracks because it reminded me of seeing a bunch of ski movies that had their music and I thought those tracks worked well. It was kind of cool because I could see that some people received it that way, there was a lot of good feedback. They were like, Yes, so psyched you decided to use one of their songs.
As far as the web parts I’ve done, yeah. It really is fun for me to work on that kind of stuff. I wish I was a better editor than I am. Because usually it’s been me sitting down with someone who is a better editor and directing it, but not actually building it. Whereas if I was a better editor, I would just do it all myself or with a little bit of help from my friends. Having extra footage to work with is really cool, sort of like clay, mash it into something.
Do you want to do more of that in the future?
Definitely. And it seems like a lot of the more prominent figures in the industry almost always do something on their own for that same reason. There’s a lot of creativity and I don’t think they would be doing that if they didn’t want that creative control. I think for me, it might be interesting to do something with some of the old footage.
What about the Ski Town Hair Down video project that you did — how much of that was your creation?
That was definitely all me. Thankfully one of my roommates in Tahoe is an excellent filmer, so he filmed that one for free, or maybe I traded him something. It was like a hair contest. It just seemed so corny, so it was a way to participate and do something fun with it.
So was that more of a glimpse into the creative mind of Todd Ligare?
Yeah, exactly, stuff like that. It’s for sure one of the fun elements about doing what I do.
And I also really appreciate and am interested in production. TGR was filming a commercial which is much higher production than the stuff I normally see, so it’s definitely fun for me to see the sick new cameras and how people are operating them, to see what the director’s process is like. And when you spend decades around cameras you can help someone as a PA [production assistant]. That kind of work goes well together. You have peers like the Stept [Studios] guys, like Clayton [Vila] and Nick [Martini]— those guys still ski a little bit on the side, but they’re really just full-on Hollywood people now. Which is pretty cool to see them use those skills that they were learning and transition them into something else.
We saw that you did a Ski Big 3 [Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise & Mt. Noquay ski resorts in Alberta, Canada] project in conjunction with Inkwell Media and ROAM Media. How do those types of trips work for you, as a professional skier?
I really like having those kinds of opportunities. I’d never been to Banff, so that was a great opportunity to go out there and do that.
Was that a paid opportunity?
Yeah, thankfully in that case that wasn’t on spec. That was an athlete fee or something. But that’s not always the case. I’ve done trips like that before where it’s just for exposure. You’re like, Hey, someone is paying for my hotel room. If the trip is free and I’m getting the opportunity to shoot, that still helps me too. So there’s some value in jumping on a trip like that even above and beyond a financial relationship, especially for someone who is really trying to build their name.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
There are definitely elements of my skiing that I’m refining, so I just want to give myself time to continue to see them through.
I’d love to still put together a really impactful video part, an opening seg[ment] or a closing seg in a major movie. Filming for me is the most rewarding but also best way to ski challenging stuff because you have a crew of people with you. If it’s high production you might be on a heli or something, so theoretically it’s a little bit safer.
I think that’s what I’m learning more over time as I’m getting older too. You’ve got to just make those personal projects happen, whatever they are in some capacity, even if it’s not exactly the way you envisioned.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I just want to say thank you to the people who have paid attention to what I have been doing.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Amie Engerbretson – pro skier
- Armada Skis
- Clayton Vila – former pro skier, director
- Chris Benchetler – pro skier
- Christopher Whitaker – photographer
- Eric Pollard – pro skier
- Inkwell Media
- Jeff Engerbretson – photographer
- Keefer Lake Lodge – catskiing
- Nick Martini – former pro skier, executive producer, director, owner & CEO of Stept Studios
- Old Town Cellars
- ROAM Media
- Sage Cattabriga-Alosa – pro skier
- Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
- Ski Big 3 – Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise & Mt. Noquay ski resorts in Alberta, Canada
- Ski Town Hair Down – Powder Magazine video
- Stept Studios
- Swollen Members – legendary hip-hop group
- Tanner Hall – pro skier
- Tender Belly
- Teton Gravity Research – action sports media
- Will Wissman – photographer