Snowboarding has never been "nice’
Where is snowboarding headed?
Every rider should wonder after seeing the graphics of one of the Sims Fader series boards with porn star Jenna Jameson in a, well, let’s just say suggestive pose. Will snowboard manufacturers do anything to sell a board?
Sims offered dealers a topless version.
Or maybe this is retro, a throwback to the early years of snowboarding, a time of shock-value fashion and board stickers that were totally offensive to anyone in the liftline or on the chairlift that dared to read them.
Snowboarding has never been “nice.”
In its infancy, snowboarding wasn’t welcomed at many resorts, which viewed the sport as radical, unkempt and undesirable.
Riders had a right to some attitude about skiers back then. As resorts opened their arms – and cash registers – to snowboarding and other new riding contraptions, the animosity mellowed.
The in-your-face attitude did not subside. Snowboarding has always reeked of it. And today, snowboarding’s rebellious spirit is finding most of its expression in urban-skateboard-influenced fashion, music and freestyle tricks.
But instead of freaking out about the youth wave crashing on the slopes, ski resorts are trying to think young, and go after that market with attempts to be cool. They have been forced to rethink the entire concept of a “ski resort” to avoid losing customers to resorts that are more willing to cater to the riding crowd.
Beginning as a fringe sport of freaks and rebels using bungie cords for bindings and hiking the backcountry for each turn, snowboarding has gained respect.
Who would have believed in the late 1980s, when riders were begging for the right to ride the lift, that the sport would rejuvenate the ski industry and even redefine the ski resort?
Who would have believed aging baby boomer skiers would embrace hourglass skis for aging knees, and their kids would embrace twin-tip skis for freestyle maneuvers – both snowboard-inspired designs?
Who would have believed that resorts such as Aspen and Keystone would ever welcome riders, that the top snowboarding magazine would have rail-riding in a city on its front cover?
After more than two decades of growth, what has snowboarding grown into? Is the sport headed for hell in a hand basket? In order to look into the future of snowboarding, it’s important to understand its past.
There has been much discussion over who invented the snowboard – Jake Burton Carpenter, Dimitrije Milovich or Tom Sims– but it wasn’t exactly a raging success at first.
During the earliest years of snowboarding, much effort was spent getting this new, ever-improving snow toy into the eyes of the public and convincing ski resorts to allow them on the lifts, which helped accomplish the former.
Nobody worked harder as an ambassador to snowboarding than Jake Burton.
After putting himself in deep debt – he ripped through a $100,000-plus inheritance – making 50 snowboards a day in Londonderry, Vt., Burton decided to turn away from a profit-driven, business-like approach.
He put most of his time and efforts into working for the good of the sport. He had an industry with no market, and so he focused on selling the idea of the sport to ski areas and convincing them to allow riders use of the lifts.
Today, only four major mountain resorts in America do not allow snowboarding.
Sims, a skateboarding world champion and top skateboarding manufacturer, was busy on the other side of the country, concocting freestyle equipment.
A bitter rivalry developed between Sims and Burton, and national racing competitions brought out the best in innovations from both of them: better bindings, better cores and edges, and faster bases.
Obscure to Olympic
In the 1983 World Championships, the first held on the West Coast, Sims introduced the half-pipe competition, then proceeded to dominate it with help from the Sims team, which included Terry Kidwell. Burton was not impressed. He was sure that the future of snowboarding would be alpine racing and backcountry.
Burton’s prophecy did not pan out, and he reluctantly embraced the freestyle market. Profits increased every year Burton was in business from 1978 until 2002.
Today, Burton has the largest share of the snowboard market, an estimated 30 to 40 percent. The company also sponsors the two half-pipe gold medal winners of the most recent Winter Olympics, Kelly Clark and Ross Powers.
But financial times were tough for snowboarding manufacturers, even in the late 1980s. The sport grew slowly, and new board manufacturers came and went. Only the companies with deep pockets remained solvent.
Initially, Sims had an edge over Burton in the freestyle sphere, but this edge did not produce enough capital for his snowboarding business to survive, so he borrowed from his skateboarding business. When the skateboard industry took a dive in the early “80s, he licensed his skateboard company out to Vision Sports and devoted himself to snowboards.
While Jake Burton was able to obtain financing at this time, Sims was not as successful at convincing banks that snowboarding was not a fad. In 1986, Sims licensed his snowboards to Vision as well, believing that this move would provide him with the needed capital to compete with Burton.
As Burton slowly climbed in sales, Sims/Vision slid into bankruptcy, and, while fighting in court to win his name back, Sims was not producing enough boards to meet the demand when boarders finally won the right to ride the lifts at most major resorts.
The resulting growth explosion, heard round the world, had every sports retailer wanting snowboards, and Burton was the only one that could deliver.
And as snowboarding experienced a giant growth spurt, the multitudes jumped on the bandwagon. Everyone wanted to get their hands on a snowboard and everyone and their second cousin were selling or manufacturing them.
There were dozens of brands of boards. Retailers couldn’t keep them in stock and could command top dollar for any board, regardless of how questionably it was constructed.
Most manufacturers were continually out of stock throughout the winter season. Innovation and free-thinking ruled, and one would see everything out on the slopes.
Of course, all out-of-control times must come to an end. The industry matured and manufacturers figured out how to keep up with demand. As the market settled down in the mid-1990s, smaller companies disappeared and the big ones grew bigger.
K2, originally a ski company that began making snowboards in 1987, gobbled up Ride, Morrow, 51/50 and Liquid to vie for second place in the pie slicing.
Today Burton commands 38 percent of the hard goods market, with K2 (including Ride) taking the next biggest share at 31 percent. Lamar has seven percent, Salomon six, Rossignol four and Gnu three.
Cindy Kleh lives in Keystone. She is an avid snowboarder, author of snowboarding books and a freelance writer.