In 2013, after eight years of early mornings training in freezing temperatures, Drew and Danny Duffy were named to the U.S. Ski Team. There was just one more hurdle to overcome before the brothers from Vermont could compete: come up with $25,000 each for travel expenses for the season. The U.S. Alpine Ski Team, like most Olympic sports organizations, earns money primarily through fund-raising and sponsorships, which often generate enough to cover travel for only its 20 or so top competitors.
To raise cash, the brothers turned to crowdfunding. While Kickstarter campaigns typically promise early versions of products or a share in the company, athlete endeavors offer perfunctory gifts like signed posters—or nothing at all. That doesn’t keep donors from lining up. “They mostly just want to be a part of your story,” says Drew Duffy, who raised $52,000 in 60 days and won the U.S. Alpine Championships super-G title in 2015. “People like to see you succeed.”
GoFundMe—used to raise money for everything from business ventures to medical expenses—began supporting athlete campaigns in 2010. Two years later, Craig Williamson, an entrepreneur from New Zealand, founded Sportfunder, the first platform devoted to them. But it wasn’t until Bill Kerig, a former pro skier, launched RallyMe that year that online athletic cup rattling really took off. “Lindsey Van, the ski jumper, needed to raise money to compete in Sochi,” says Kerig. “I said to her, ‘If I build this, would you use it?’ ” She did, and more than 1,000 other athletes have since.
Kerig says several million dollars have been raised using the website over the past three years, and it has since signed up other U.S. national teams, including cycling, climbing, and track and field. Other sites are joining the game as well—Athlete.com, Dark Horse Pros, Dreamfuel.me, Makeachamp, and Pursu.it, to name a few. Many now employ a staff to help users reach their goals, whether it’s advice on producing an enticing video or leveraging social-media followings.
“The running community wants to connect with our athletes, and crowdfunding allows them to do that,” says Tom Jackovic, executive director of the USA Track and Field Foundation.
Next up: bankrolling your next adventure. “We want to be there for any athlete,” says Kerig. “If you hope to climb El Cap and need money to do it, we can help.”