Culture is elusive, numbers solid
It would be a waste of time to guess where snowboarding’s culture is right now or where it might head in the future. That part of the sport is constantly changing, and as soon it becomes mainstream, it’s dead and gone.
Besides, each ski area and region has its own slang and fashion, so it’s best not to generalize about snowboarder style or lingo. But there are some quantitative trends that can be more easily defined.
First of all, the myth that boarders are mostly boys and young men is close to the truth.
As snowboarding has become more mainstream, its demographics have remained young (average age 22) and male-dominated (67 percent) compared to skiing, which estimated to be 60 percent male.
Although the percentage of women participating in the sport has steadily increased in the past seven years, the median age of a boarder has only increased by a year.
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In the same time period, skiing’s median age increased from 34 to 40 years old, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
The age of participants has become an important factor to mountain resorts, because the future customers will not be the baby boomers who grew up with and embraced the ski industry. The boomers still have VIP status, but fewer of them are still actively skiing because of the natural aches and pains associated with aging.
Skiing – or any downhill sport done with gusto – is not exactly gentle on the knees and back. But older folks tend to have more money and options for vacations. They can scuba dive, golf, take a cruise to Alaska or visit Disneyland with the grandchildren.
Even those who turned their noses up at snowboarders should realize snowboarding pumped some life into ski industry. At a time when baby boomers were frequenting the slopes less and their children did not seem as thrilled with skiing, snowboarding grabbed the youth market’s need for a snow sport that was cooler than skiing, bursting with rebellion and hated by parents – the latter, a key ingredient to success.
When snowboarding began to take off, some resorts embraced it, creating terrain parks and halfpipes, and sponsoring competitions. Breckenridge and Copper Mountain are good examples of areas that from the start had no doubt that snowboarders were customers worthy of respect.
They put a lot of priority and manpower into their parks and pipes, and allocated enough manmade snow to take their park features to an art form. Breckenridge has hosted the Vans Triple Crown of Snowboarding, the first major world competition of the season, for the last seven years.
By mid-December each year, Breckenridge is ready to film the best riders in the world going huge out of the superpipe or down rails with the word “BRECKENRIDGE” plastered all over the background. The resulting international television exposure has branded the resort as a mecca for snowboarding.
Breckenridge’s terrain park has acquired a well-earned reputation as one of the best in the world. The big guys (and gals) go there to go big.
Aspen, meanwhile, has since grabbed the Winter X Games.
Breckenridge’s worst problems have been inconvenient parking, lift lines and overcrowding on the slopes, but that’s not the worst thing that could happen to a mountain resort during an economic downturn.
Copper Mountain has also bent over backward for boarders by replacing the aging B lift with a high-speed six-pack that drops off riders and skiers at a higher location on the mountain, reducing the amount of traversing riders need to endure to get to other portions of the mountain.
Like many of the other snowboard-friendly resorts, Copper installed tool stations and replaced ropes with rails in the liftline to make it easier on the pole-less crowd.
Other resorts have missed the boat, clinging to the baby boomers clientele by banning boarders or, at least, not welcoming them by limiting their spending on terrain parks.
Afraid of offending their old-school customers, these resorts starting losing them anyway because so many of their family members and friends were boarders.
Many skiers, meanwhile, were slapping on twin tip skis and following the boarders into the terrain parks. “Freeskiers” were also demanding the best jumps, rails and grooming.
The last nail in the snowboard-unfriendly coffin was that snowboarding was growing while skiing remained flat. Skier visits have stayed at around 40 million per year for the past five years, while boarder visits have jumped from 12.1 to 17.1 million. The boarder crowd was beginning to look a little more savory.
Colorado was already sliding downhill with out-of-state visits, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were nearly a fatal blow. Add a few years of below-average snowfall, one of which was a severe drought, and an increase in skier visits to Utah and Canada and there was a recipe for disaster for Colorado ski areas.
Buddy Passes inadvertently came to the rescue in the fall of 1998. Winter Park started it all, and Copper Mountain and Vail Resorts soon followed suit. For a few hundred bucks, a skier or boarder could enjoy a season pass to world-class resorts – a luxury not seen in the ski industry since the 1960s.
The break in season pass prices encouraged skiers who had put away their equipment to try it again and go up to the mountains more often. It also encouraged many to ski and snowboard for the first time.
Colorado had the lowest lift ticket yield in the nation, but the resorts offering Buddy Passes saw their local visits climb, and this lessened the sting of out-of-state visits falling off.
Resorts also realized that bringing warm bodies, any bodies, to their ski towns was preferable to no bodies. These bodies buy food, real estate and lodging, even if they don’t spend as much as destination visitors.
There have been disadvantages to the Buddy Passes. The resorts offering them, in the eyes of some, have become the “blue light specials” of the Interstate 70 corridor, and their town streets on winter weekends have become snarled with Front Range visitors each in their own little vehicle – or giant SUV.
It made their resorts less appealing to destination skiers and boarders by packing the slopes and liftlines with crowds, but nobody could say those crowds weren’t keeping the ski towns alive.
Some towns that did not offer Buddy Pass pricing, like Crested Butte and Steamboat Springs, teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, while Aspen and Telluride have seen substantial decreases in skier visits and town sales tax revenue in the past five years.
Those resorts were hurt by a combination of factors aside from Buddy Passes: remote location, reliance on wealthy out-of-state destination skiers, poor snowpack, an ailing economy, more competition in the recreation industry and even a plague of grasshoppers in Steamboat during the summer of the drought.
But because of these hard times, mountain resorts have been forced out of their complacency and into some serious self-analysis. Buddy Passes have temporarily sealed the ski industry’s leak and they have given resorts time to study their next moves before they miss the boat entirely.
But how do resorts broaden the appeal of and markets for snow sports and plan for the future? How do they recharge their batteries and replace their stuffy, middle-age image with a hipper, more with-it approach?
Can they learn to speak “dude’ fluently enough to attract the ever-increasing number of youngsters fascinated with freestyle skiing and snowboarding?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of stories on the history and future of the sport of snowboarding. Look in the Daily for the continuing series.
Cindy Kleh lives in Keystone. She is an avid snowboarder, author of snowboarding books and a freelance writer.