‘The Collection’ breaks free | VailDaily.com

‘The Collection’ breaks free

Ryan Slabaugh
Shane Macomber/Vail DailyKelly Clark flies high above the crowd Saturday during the women's superpipe final at the Winter Gravity Games at Copper Mountain. Clark finished in fourth place.

COPPER MOUNTAIN – Snowboarders have never been timid about the business side of the sport.In fact, at Saturday’s women’s snowboard halfpipe final, winner Gretchen Bleiler’s mom wore a T-Mobile hat and her dad wore a Napster cap, all the while cheering on her daughter. Bleiler, whose uncle is the CEO of Napster, wore the logos of both companies on her helmet in an event that marks its “out of bounds” lines with sponsor banners, and has its announcer plug corporations in the moments between each run. This week the base of Copper Mountain has turned into a village of corporate sponsors, each offering something free – from fliers to candy to drinks. And so, in many ways, the sport has fallen into the same pattern as professional football or basketball, whose athletes have been known to put sponsorship before team or country.Like the tricks on display in the halfpipe, the business side of snowboarding is starting its own pattern of progression. A group of former U.S. Snowboard Team members created “The Collection,” and found a major sponsor, a promoter and now have an alternative way to pay for the enormous expenses – tens of thousands of dollars – to travel the world.”The Collection” – the brain child of Ross Powers, Andy Finch, Kelly Clark and Gretchen Bleiler – signed autographs Saturday afternooon at Copper Mountain during the Gravity Games, and found a line of 30-40 kids waiting for their signatures.

“It’s a way to get new sponsors to find new opportunities for the sport,” Finch said. Snickers is their main sponsor, and pays for travel expenses, food and other amenities that create the dividing line between wannabe snowboard professionals and those easily able to travel the world circuit. “This is something snowboarding needs,” Finch explained. “We didn’t want just any sponsor. Snickers is sick.”Octagon, the Gravity Games promotion company, also promotes The Collection.Powers, the superpipe gold medalist in the 2002 Winter Olympics, branched off from the U.S. Team well before his podium in Salt Lake City. For years, he traveled and spent a little time qualifying for the Olympics (the U.S. Team says you must have a top-25 World Cup finish to make the Olympic team), but he missed some of the benefits he used to have.So, the foursome kicked around ideas on how to keep the benefits and remain in control of the money, the coaching and the schdule. The Collection was born, and a year after its incarnation, “we’ve already exceeded our expectations,” said Finch, silver medalist in the pipe at Winter X Games Nine.

Finch said he and his teammates provided the ground rules to Snickers, a sponsor they helped choose. “All the money’s staying in the sport,” Powers said. “Camps, events and a development program. On the U.S. Snowboard Team, all the money’s going to skiers.””There’s a lot of risk in doing this, though,” Finch added. “Because we’re in control of it.”The crew just added a new member to its roster – 14-year-old Luke Mitrani. Mitrani likely won’t just be another “Fifth Beatle” – and he could prove to be the best of the bunch. He’s already placed in the top 10 at the 2003 U.S. Grand Prix in Breckenridge, and placed second in a rail jam in the 2003 Grand Prix in New Jersey.The team has also signed a coach – former world champion Ricky Bower – and added a physical therapist, team manager and a custom-designed team motor home.

While the team is shy about saying it’s an “alternative” to the U.S. Snowboard Team, it’s what they’ve become to the elite riders in the country.”If it wasn’t for the U.S. Team, we wouldn’t be here today,” Powers said. “But just being part of such a huge program, it can hold you back.”With the sponsor in tow, The Collection next will travel to Park City, Utah, and Stratton, Vt. They won’t be hard to find. Everywhere they go, said David Barkoe, the team’s on-site promoter, “You’ll see our tent there. They’ll sign autographs. They really want to work with junior teams, and find those next big riders. That’s what their focus is – growing the sport.”And next year, what we’re doing will be even bigger.”Vail, Colorado

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