Once upon a time, the only way for you to receive a photo from a recent race (like the one above) was to pay cash to a photography company. Event directors hired said company to take your photo, and they’d mail you that sucker if you paid for it.
As Facebook and smart phones took over, people no longer needed a photo they could frame. Race participants took their own photos, and maybe even posted a mile by mile recap. (If we were unlucky enough to be in their feed). Something needed to change.
Around the same time a new genre (or two) of running event was booming. Races that forced us to get muddy and submerged in water, weren’t great for cell phones. Neither were races that threw paint at us and had us being tackled by zombies. However, those races had the BEST photo opportunities. The documentary, Rise Of The Sufferfests, pointed out that these bad-ass post event photos were one of the largest contributing factors to millions rushing to sign up in the first place. Realizing this,companies like Spartan Race began eating the cost, yet giving post event photos for free as part of their overall consumer experience.
Enter GameFace Media (GF), who in November of 2012 launched their company with a new concept. The business model was to attract business from race companies by give them the lowest industry rates for their photography services. Next, GF would find sponsors to partner with, who would pay to have THEIR logo on the photo in the opposite corner of the race company’s logo. They could do all of this, and charge the customer zero.
This model was revolutionary, and it was working. Company founder David Lavallee sent out the following via email blast on February 6, 2014:
- As many of you know, I helped to found Gameface in late 2012 to provide free photos to participants in athletic events such as running races, obstacle races, triathlons, skiing and youth sports. We generate revenue by allowing a sponsor to place their logo on every photo and to host the photo download and social media connections on their website or Facebook page.
- Yes, it’s a very simple concept, but it’s working!
- We exceeded our goals for our first year of operations and are continuing the momentum as we kick off 2014. Here are a couple of highlights:
- We covered more than 40 events in 2013, capturing 600,000+ athlete photos
- We generated nearly 10 million online impressions for our event and brand partners
- We have covered three of the top five obstacle/mud event series, as well as many running races and triathlons
- We have expanded beyond our initial endurance events market into new categories like youth sports and CrossFit competitions
- We partnered with leading brand sponsors including Merrell, City Sports, GU Energy, Harpoon Brewery and Newton Running
- We acquired Nuvision Action Image and Race Pace Photos – two of the leading event photography companies in the industry
- We expanded our sales and technology teams and moved into our new corporate headquarters in downtown Boston
- We are on track to shoot more than 2 million participants in 2014 and will generate more than 100 million social media impressions for our brand sponsors. This will make us the largest provider of free event photos in the country.
Screenshot from GameFace website Feb 2015
For the next two years, the company continued to do well by all appearances. GameFace was acquiring larger and larger clients. These race companies collectively had hundreds of thousands (if not over a million) participants who needed photos. Tough Mudder, Ragnar Relay, Rugged Maniac, Warrior Dash, The San Francisco Marathon, Bay To Breakers, Muckfest to name a few. This is on top of countless other one-off smaller races in markets all over the country.
Fast forward to July of 2016. ORM was made aware of a thread on a photographers forum where various photographers were voicing concerns about GameFace Media. Here is one:
They still owe me literally THOUSANDS of dollars for jobs from over 2 months ago. I could not get anyone to respond for the longest time but finally got a form response from the CTO at Gameface Media that basically said they are out of money and cannot pay their photographers at this time because they are waiting to be paid by their sponsors. An online negative Gameface review from another unpaid said they raised millions from investors during the summers of 2014 and 2015 and that he thought they were out of money because he could not find anything online about them raising money in 2016 and he has not been paid. Marty from Gameface posted in this very thread that they have interested investors. So I am wondering which it is. Are they waiting to be paid by sponsors or are they waiting on more funding? And if their free picture business model has not been profitable in 3 years why would anyone continue investing? Whatever is going on they do not have any working capital at this time and the photographers are suffering because of it. This has caused my family financial hardship.
We reached out to owner David Lavallee at that time, and he was not willing to on the record. He did speak with Runners World, who were doing their own investigation.
David got back to us on Sept 1 of that year and told us the following:
Overall, our core business model is working well at Gameface. We are adding high quality new events and sponsors every week. We have also continued to provide the highest quality event photos in the market with our busiest weekend in Gameface history expected on September 10 and 11.
We greatly value our relationships with photographers which is why we have always paid the highest hourly rates in the industry and tried to pay people within 15 days of an event. As we grew, however, the logistics of paying that quickly grew unrealistic. This challenge increased earlier this year as we took on a flurry of big new events. This meant we were trying to pay photographers within 15 days of an event while our event and sponsor clients often paid us 90 days after an event. I should have planned better for this and I also should have communicated this better to our photographers. We have always paid everyone what they are owed and always will. As we continued to generate more revenue this summer, our payments are getting back to more reasonable timing. We have also reached out to most of our photographers over the past two weeks to communicate better with them. While we won’t be able to meet our old, unrealistic goal of 15 day payment cycles, we plan to continue paying the highest rates in the industry to attract the best talent available.
We at Obstacle Racing Media continued to monitor this situation, by periodically checking the above message board, a Facebook group created by unpaid contractors. and by speaking with photographers we came in contact with directly at races. The promises from GameFace remained the same, but the payment situation was not improving. In June of 2017, 9 months after the payment problems were first made public, David told ORM the following:
Over each of the past three years we have grown revenue and lowered our operating losses at Gameface. We are on track for our best financial results ever in 2017 and expect to be profitable later this year. Like most start-ups with an innovative business model, we knew that we would lose money before we became profitable. Any time you disrupt an entrenched legacy model by converting to a digital model, it’s expensive. As we have fought our way toward profitability, it was even more expensive than we’d originally expected. That caused us to fall behind on payments to some of our photographers last year. With a recent financing round, we were able to pay off the large majority of what we owed our photographers. We continue to make more payments every week and expect to finish this process soon as we collect fees currently owed from our clients. Our model has allowed us to pay our 1,600 photographers nearly $5,000,000 since we started the company. We typically pay above market rates and offer some of the best assignments in the industry.
By mid 2017, experienced photographers would no longer accept new assignments, no matter how high the rate. Gameface, desperate to keep their doors open, began offering payment in advance for a weekend race event. Many photographers countered with something along the lines “As long as you pay past debts first, and then pre pay for the current event, I am happy to shoot”. This is typically when communication for GameFace would stop. Being forced to use less experienced photographers has not improved Gameface’s overall situation. When the quality of photos goes down, participants complain to the races they pay for directly. The average racer doesn’t care who you hired to get their photos, they just want good photos. In addition, unpaid photographers took to contacting races and sponsors who do business with GF directly.
As you can find on the aforementioned Facebook group and Fred Miranda page, the situation has remained mostly the same since then. The one difference being that fed up photographers began to take legal action. Many began to take GF to small claims court for services rendered. You can read several posts where contractors were able to collect amounts owed using the legal system to their advantage. One was even able to freeze GF bank account assets until receiving payment.
Meanwhile, David continues to make promises to photographers. Here is an email that photographer Jim Auer posted on Nov 26, 2017.
I am very sorry for the long-delayed payment and slow response to your emails. We have made good progress on our finances this year and are no longer losing money every month. We have been chipping away at our photographer debt, but I realize that isn’t much consolation to you since you have been waiting so long. We are on the verge of a round of financing that will be used to make payments to all of you. We expect to close that round by the end of this year. In the meantime, we have had to prioritize payments to photographers who are covering events for us every weekend. This has meant that our older obligations have gotten more delayed. I know that isn’t fair, but we needed to make that hard decision to allow Gameface to survive.
I would be happy to give you a call to answer any questions you may have. I try to have a couple of calls like that per day. It makes for slow progress, but it results in a much better dialogue than email or social media. Please let me know if you have some time over the next few business days.
CEO & Co-Founder
Gameface Media Inc.
The TL;DR verson is this:
We are really close to getting funded again, and this time, we promise, we’ll pay everyone, promise.
Two sentences however need to be highlighted:
“In the meantime, we have had to prioritize payments to photographers who are covering events for us every weekend.”
Put another way: If you continue working for us we’ll pay you what we already you, if you don’t work for us, we will not pay you what we already promised we would.
At best, this is bad business. At worse, this is employee extortion.
“This has meant that our older obligations have gotten more delayed. I know that isn’t fair, but we needed to make that hard decision to allow Gameface to survive”.
At best and worst, this is an employment ponzi scheme.
This morning, GameFace Media published a press release, announcing additional funding from a company called Stage 1 Ventures. We contacted Stage 1 Managing Director, David William Baum, by phone and email and at press time, have not had a response.