Professional Freerunning with Dominick Hughes

April 20, 2022 9 min read

Professional Freerunning with Dominick Hughes

Dominick Hughes is a phenomenal athlete, consummate professional, and a close friend of mine—so I was very excited that he and I found time to talk about his experiences as a professional freerunner. I first met Dominick in his home town of Eugene, Oregon, where he and I coached gymnastics and trained parkour together. It was always evident that Dominick’s ambitions and skills were way too big for Eugene, and so his journey to Los Angeles wasn’t  surprising. Years of practice and patience pay off for so few athletes, regardless of the sport, and Dominick has worked incredibly hard to make connections and develop his personal brand into a career. In this interview Dominick and I discussed navigating the waters of self-promotion, the difficulties of sponsored athletes, dealing with injuries, and more.

Me: So kicking things off, can you tell me about your journey to becoming a “professional freerunner?”

Dom: Yeah, so I always wanted to do some sort of professional work within the freerunning world, and there weren’t really a lot of opportunities in Oregon where I grew up. There weren’t really brands sponsoring athletes besides Red Bull, and even fewer parkour brands that could actually pay their athletes. There was a lot of “brand affiliate” action going on, from what I remember. Then I saw all of the social media outlets starting to become a source of income for some athletes– not even social media specifically, but working with companies that were outside the realm of parkour and freerunning, on social media platforms. I just kind of decided to start using social media with a purpose behind it, and figure out how this market actually works, because I really had no idea. So I decided to give it a real shot, and the best place to do that out here on the west coast is obviously in LA or at least California. I knew that some athletes out here were making it work for them, and I had known some of the athletes here before social media really began to pop off. I figured, they’re already friends, if I can get a way to move down there, then I think I can figure out how to utilize my social media platforms to push my parkour and myself into a situation that I could monetize. I moved to LA when I was 21, and once I actually got here, it took like a year of hit-and-miss experimenting with content and what does and doesn’t work. You know, a lot of talking with other creators like, “How am I supposed to monetize myself?” Obviously it’s expensive just to live out here as well. I didn’t get my first brand deal until I’d been here a little over a year, and at the time that deal was TINY. But it was a really huge step for me just getting that first deal going. Then I started learning more about brand advertising, and learned about the world of agencies and managers. I ended up getting myself a manager, and that boosted my productivity ten-fold for sure. Once I started really communicating with my manager, we developed game plans for each of my social media outlets. I started to understand how the market really works, and treating it more like a job, less like training just to train, and taking it more seriously.

Me: So what was the largest hurdle for you between amateur and professional?

Dom: Growing a social media following is pretty difficult for sure. Sometimes you get lucky with a viral clip, and sometimes you just grind. What I would say was the biggest hurdle was understanding that you have to play by the rules of each separate app and the algorithms. You have to know how the apps work pretty well, post at the right times, post the correct length of videos, create eye-catching content for non-parkour viewers, etc. I had to get over my ideas of how I thought things worked, accept that I don’t know anything at all, humble myself just a bit, and watch and listen to other people. At the end of the day, yeah it’s about the skills, but I had to think less about the parkour aspect, and focus a little on the business aspect. Once I got over that, I had a little more fun with training again, and using the app became the job.

Me: It’s strange to think that you focused less on parkour to reach professionalism in the sport when training is more or less still your career.

Dom: Once I started getting brand deals going and had some consistent money coming in, I started to relax a little more and could really have fun training again. It became less like, “I have to go out today just so I have something to post!” That just isn’t the most fun or healthy way to go about training. Like I said, once I figured out how the apps work that became the job, and training became the fun part again. Training is supposed to be fun. It got to the point where all of us were just training every single day, and it didn’t feel like a job anymore. I just had fun, and because it was so natural, I made even better authentic content. It was a good time, and I wasn’t having to slave over how to post something, or when or what angles look best. I finally got the hang of using the apps properly, and the training inherently became way more fun again. 

Me: You said that you ended up getting an agent. What has that experience been like, and what do they do for you?

Dom: So I actually have a manager, not an agent. There’s a little bit of a difference in that you bring the opportunities forward to an agent who then negotiates with the brand, whereas a manager already works with a number of companies and can bring opportunities to the table as well.  I signed on with my manager about a year-and-a-half into living in LA. At first it was a lot for me to understand and I didn’t know what the proper rates were, or anything like that, so I had to trust him and trust my friends and their experiences. Essentially they take a percentage off of the top of your pay, but they tend to negotiate much better contracts than you can yourself. This has been my experience with my manager basically the whole time. I found out that I really undervalue myself, and my manager actually showed me how much money I can charge people for posts and that I was low-balling myself initially. Now I have a better understanding of what brands can do with different numbers follower/subscriber count wise, and how to market yourself to brands. Say you’re working with a protein bar company like I was, adding a little bit of workout-type content will probably look good. Tailor your content a little bit to the brands that you’re trying to work with, or are working with. You don’t have to do anything crazy and change your content completely, but do little things that make your content fit the mold of the brand. 

Me: How do you balance tailoring content to a brand, while also presenting movement in a way that’s fulfilling to you personally?

Dom: Yeah, that’s a hard one man! That’s been one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around. In the past I’ve done just the hardest, most ridiculous trick with the product, and sometimes that really isn’t even what they want to see. Getting more into the creative side of things gets hard, because you don’t want to be rinsing and repeating the same tricks with different products. It always depends on the company you’re working with. I’ve always worked with protein bars and energy drinks, so finding creative ways to promote those hasn’t been a huge challenge thankfully. I’m seeing more and more people who make brand posts are being accepted because people know that this is a way that people in our sport are making a living, and finding a way to survive. It obviously can get old if someone is only posting brand deal content, I’ve been guilty of it myself. You have to make sure that you don’t oversaturate your social media with brand partnerships, but at the same time if you aren’t posting for the brands you’re working with, then you lose your income. It’s a difficult balance trying to make content that’s fun and interesting, and trying to respect the sport. There’s always that flip side of trying to make a “trendy” parkour video that just comes across as cringe. But a few years ago, when it was basically just Farang, Storm, and Storror in the public eye, they weren’t getting anywhere near the exposure that freerunners are getting now. It’s interesting to see a different generation of freerunners are at the forefront of parkour monetization, and benefiting from it. I just try to stay true to myself as much as I can and not be too much of a sellout hahaha.

 

 

 

Me: What are some of the difficulties you face as a sponsored athlete?

Dom: I’m dealing with some of the downsides of freerunning and influencing right now actually. The market gets volatile sometimes. If the economy isn’t doing well then some companies will take money out of their marketing budget. If you get injured and can’t post, then how can you promote the brands? That’s what happened to me, right now I’m not currently working with anyone. I’m coming off of two different injuries, life hit a little hard and we were house hunting for a while, so it was hard to make content without a solid living space. You’ve got to be careful, because if you get injured, you’re out of a job for a while. 

Me: That’s especially hard when big tricks are your living. 

Dom: That’s the biggest problem. But I’m still working on building my following, so that I can continue to make a steady income. The larger your following, the more money you stand to make even if you have to take a month off to rehabilitate.

Me: How important is it to be a good athlete?

Dom: There are plenty of people making a living on social media without doing any sport or movement at all. It’s not really important. It matters to me personally, just because I have standards for myself and my movement, but you can make plenty of content with simpler tricks, more creative work, funny stuff, anything really. It doesn’t just have to be high difficulty all the time. That was something I had to get over, people also want to see the simpler aspects of your training. It’ll also burn you out pretty quickly throwing only your hardest skills. You’ve gotta have fun with it, and people want to see that. I know I like seeing people do really clean, simple, or creative things. Sometimes just a nice backflip will do pretty well on social media, because normies really don’t know the difference between that and something significantly harder. It totally happens to me with other sports, when it gets to a level of complexity, it doesn’t matter anymore, it’s just impressive. I mean, I’m definitely posting because I want to push myself and the community, but there are so many more people out there than there are freerunners; if you want to make money, you have to cater to them too. At a point your content isn’t just for the parkour community anymore, it’s for new eyes and broad exposure to parkour. And you can’t only post parkour either, because people like to see other aspects of your life. I also post weight lifting and calisthenics content, not for the parkour community, but for me and for the people who follow me regardless. It’s important to show other hobbies and things, don’t feel weird about posting things that aren’t parkour related. You can post whatever you want, but it helps to expand a little bit outside the movement community. Be versatile, the more outlets the better. 

Me: That makes a lot of sense. If you could get one message across to the parkour community, what would that be?

Dom: Consistency man, that's it, consistency. Anybody can do it. There are so many athletes who are much better than me, but if they’re not consistent on social media, then social media isn’t going to grow. If your goal is to work with brands, it’s better to think of your social media pages as a portfolio, not as Instagram or Tiktok, but a portfolio. You’re creating a platform that brands can see and utilize and at the end of the day, if you do it right, it can be beneficial to the community and to you personally. Don’t sell your soul, but you know, be willing to try new things. 

Me: It’s funny that you bring up consistency, because that was the thing that Verky (Travis Verkaik) told me he’s focusing on this year for his training, uploading, everything.

Dom: Yeah, consistency in all aspects. I almost take social media work as mental training. So you have to make sure you’re consistent with all of it, and hopefully that persistence pays off by pushing the community and pushing yourself.


 

Paid parkour is a tightrope walk of buckle-down entrepreneurship and unfettered freedom. Dom has been fortunate to find success in both. It takes a particularly determined individual to turn parkour from a creative outlet into a commercial one, and Dominick is but one of the insane number of determined people in the community. But there’s one word that keeps ringing through, and that is consistency. And to make money, it isn’t just consistency in your training, it’s posting, adapting, and presenting a marketable version of yourself across all platforms. That’s a daunting idea to entertain, and I wish good luck to anyone with the patience and courage to do so.


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