Brian Martin remembers everything about the day he found his calling. He was 13, there was a hilly section of California roadway just off Highway 280, someone put him on a luge sled for the first time and the wheels immediately went into motion.

Now 35, Martin is still on his sled, poised for a fourth trip to the Winter Olympics.

“Little did I know, twentysomething years later, I’d still be there,” Martin said.

Without USA Luge’s summer slider search, Martin probably wouldn’t be there.

And that program is now on thin financial ice, leaving its future in serious doubt.

Without a title sponsor for the first time in two decades, this summer’s search isn’t venturing far from U.S. sliding bases in Lake Placid, N.Y. and Park City, Utah. It’s a major change from past years, when 35,000 kids — many from not-exactly-wintry climates like Hawaii, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, California and Texas — tried what’s billed as the fastest sport on ice.

If the feeder program fails, officials worry the depth of an already-niche sport could take a bleak turn.

“We dodged this year’s bullet with a nice shot in the arm from the U.S. Olympic Committee, helping us out,” USA Luge spokesman Gordy Sheer said. “We’ll be able to do a program. Will it be as extensive and far-reaching as we’d like? That’s the worry. We don’t want our pool of potential athletes limited.”

The value of the series is clear.

Martin was a California teen with a soccer and skiing background who went on to win two Olympic medals. Every member of the U.S. Olympic women’s luge teams at the past two Games started on the plastic summertime sleds, including Erin Hamlin, who won this year’s world championship — the first time in 100 races that someone not sliding for Germany won a major international competition.

Chances are, few of those sliders would have made it to the starting hut without that summer tryout.

“We’ve had great sponsorships in the past,” Hamlin said. “But it’s not like we’re rolling in money. We never have. It’s luge. It’s not football.”

Operating on a budget is nothing new for sliding sports. The global economic downturn hit luge, bobsled and skeleton in many ways – some athletes lost jobs when Home Depot’s multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee ended, there’s fewer vehicles for use now that General Motors is no longer a sponsor and a few sliders have seen private backing cut or eliminated.

Verizon, one of the nation’s biggest telecom companies, was the title sponsor of the sliding search for years.

“The sport, the whole Lake Placid complex, is in New York and we’re a New York-headquartered company so we drew some links from that,” Verizon spokesman John Bonomo said. “You need to remind consumers that your brand is out there. And we take pride in the fact that we as a company helped take this sport from unknown to a world contender.”

In the end, there just weren’t enough eyeballs on luge.

“We’re much more focused now on where we spend our sponsorship dollars,” Bonomo said.

At the same time, USA Luge is focused on where its next batch of sponsorship dollars will come from.

The program is pressing on this summer, with two stops in Massachusetts last month, three planned later this year in upstate New York, and others possible in Utah. The basic tenets won’t change: Some kids will be invited to try sliding on ice, but the search won’t go where it went in the past.

Martin acknowledges he’s a bit worried.

“Having been the 13-year-old on the team and now being one of the old men on the team, you kind of realize more about the nuts and bolts and the business end of how the sport gets run,” Martin said. “Where’s the money coming from? What’s our strategy? It’s a tough thing to have to think about.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.