Roots of Racing series: Skiing goes pro
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
This winter, Vail and Beaver Creek are hosting the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships for a third time. The Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum has opened its ski racing archives to tell stories that connect the dots between today’s spectacular made-for-TV competitions and their humble beginnings. This series will feature many of the significant milestones, instigated here in Colorado by individuals now enshrined in the Hall of Fame, which helped shape skiing and international racing. When you are in Vail Village, stop by the museum for a trip through skiing’s past. For more information, go to http://www.skimuseum.net.
Bob Beattie coached the University of Colorado to its first NCAA Championship in alpine skiing in 1959. He soon took control of the U.S. Ski Team in the 1960s, coaching the 1964 Olympic team to its first-ever medals for American men (Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga). In 1966, Beattie co-founded the World Cup circuit. By 1969, he was fed up with the structure and politics of ski racing, while convinced the sport could become a major spectator sport.
Beattie left the U.S. Ski Team and looked for new ways to improve ski racing’s popularity among the general public. “I moved to Aspen, and I had no idea what I was going to do,” Beattie said.
He wasn’t idle long. He founded World Wide Ski Corporation in Aspen and began running Ski Magazine’s NASTAR program. It was just the beginning; his real dream was a professional race circuit.
To succeed in the U.S., Beattie knew that ski racing required television coverage to expand its exposure and needed to adjust its format to be more entertaining. So in 1969, Beattie went solo, building his own international ski racing tour based on the “pro format.” Essentially, the pro format shifts the race from a time trial to a head-to-head tournament. Two courses of gates and jumps are set up adjacent to each other, and two racers compete at the same time. The skiers head back up the hill, switch sides and race again. The difference between the two is measured as they both cross the finish line. The racer winning by the greatest time differential after the two runs moves on to the next round. The World Pro Ski Tour (1969-1981) was born.
GETTING PAID TO SKI
At the time, The World Cup was an amateur series, and athletes struggled.
“In those days, we didn’t get paid for ski racing: we did it for fun. Once we got out of college we had to get a real job,” said Steamboat Springs’ Billy Kidd, former Olympian and the first pro champion.
Beattie’s sphere of influence included television. He was among the in-crowd at ABC Sports, where he served as a commentator, and he used the promise of a national broadcast to secure sponsors and prize money. Beattie’s new circuit would be professional, and offer skiers a chance to earn a living through prize money and sponsorships.
The World Pro Ski Tour became the alternative for the misfits, outcasts and those who simply wanted to get out from under national team oversight.
“The key was the racers themselves,” Beattie said. “I was very surprised how many from the U.S. and Europe wanted to be a part of it, and they all came by themselves.”
These racers loved the freedom, the prize money, the head-to-head format, lining up their own sponsors and the responsibilities of organizing their own training and travel.
“If you wanted intense training and to exclude everything else in your life, you could do that, but a number of us enjoyed every second of the travel, in New York, L.A., and everywhere else. It was just a great adventure,” Kidd said.
BAD BOYS OF SKIING
The World Pro Ski Tour embraced even the most radical skiers, believing their personalities were a distinguishing characteristic and that fans loved bad boys. The more that people embraced these “pirates,” the greater the fan following, the more frequent the television coverage and the larger the purses would become.
In its first year World Pro Ski attracted top athletes straight from the FIS World Alpine Championships at Val Gardena, Italy, including gold medalist Kidd, who quickly claimed the first World Pro Ski crown in 1970. Beattie evolved the tour each year, bringing in more prize money, programming, new sponsors, venues and markets. Beattie even had the guts to bring pro races to cities like Montreal and Boston, bringing World Pro Ski to the people.
During its tenure, World Pro Ski enraptured America, putting athletes on the cover of magazines, scheduling hundreds of hours of network TV coverage, ensnaring Hollywood celebrities through Pro-Ams, and bringing an air of excitement to the small towns these “swashbuckling pros” barreled through.
It was a circus, complete with tents, scoreboards and performers that traveled Europe, Japan, Canada and the U.S. — expanding the sport’s reach with prize money, jumps and an explosive atmosphere of pure adrenaline, partying and possibility.
World Pro Skiing will always be remembered as “the good old days” of ski racing, conducted with class and panache.