Jan 11, 2012
Author: Richard HIller | SBC Business Magazine | Winter 2012
Snowboarding, considered by many to be the saviour of the slopes over the last 20 years, has become so big that a full circle effect has taken place. In some strange ecological, Mother Naturesque way it has helped spawn the craze of freeskiing. Now the two sports live in perfect symbiotic elegance, both using the same terrain in different ways. Can this continue? Will nature’s balance prevail? Or will one fall to the wayside via man’s trend-conscious hand?—Mike Prangnell
We sat on the chairlift, figuring out what lines to hit next. It was a brisk Saturday in February with a lot of fun shredding to be had as we shared some riding stories and dreams of other mountains we’d love to explore.
Snowboarding had created a unique camaraderie among us, becoming not just a sport or recreation but a lifestyle that we could identify with, through which we could find common ground. And we loved it.
It came as a surprise then, when my 15-year-old cousin Jake had told us he was thinking of picking up some skis the following season. His brother Jordan and I looked at each other, wondering why, and it was only when we began preparing for the 2011/2012 season that he explained his reasoning.
“When I was snowboarding,” he said, “I felt so limited in what I could do. But when I ski I feel free and more in control. I also switched because I found that park skiing was more exciting, and you can do so much more. I also feel that skiing is an easier sport to pick up, but more challenging to become better at. A lot of my friends were skiers and I thought it would be more fun to ski. I think that skiing looks like a cooler sport and is just more fun to do, and I think a lot of people are skiing these days because it has become more of a trend. More famous people are skiing, too and so many younger kids want to try it.”
This particular reasoning, for a young and active guy switching to skiing, raises a lot of concerns for the snowboard industry. After all these years of fighting for space and respect on the mountain, have the tables turned? Is freeskiing becoming the dominant sport? Is this one particular and unique case or a wider trend and observation? Is freeskiing killing snowboarding?
The Snowboard Shops
Between shops, brands, riders and resort staff, there are many eyes keeping tabs on the evolution of both sports. And while future predictions are impossible, we all can see that change is happening.
Scott Macdougall of Island Snow, a core snowboard shop in the interior of B.C., has definitely noticed the trend.
“It’s tough to point out what it is exactly,” says Macdougall. “A lot of it has to do with the changing of the norm. I think there’s so much snowboarding going on. Look at the mountain, where maybe 15 years ago, you were running a ratio of 70 skiers to 30 snowboarders. But it’s grown so much in the last 15 years that it’s almost a full reversal. I think the kids see that and they automatically go towards limited edition stuff, things that nobody else has or nobody else does.”
As a snowboard shop, Island Snow gets its fair share of skiers looking for snowboard brands, but Scott is confident in snowboarding’s strength and growth.
“I’ve been here for 10 years and have run this shop for seven,” he says. “It’s happening but I don’t think it’s going to effect much.”
Similarly, Brett Sandford of The Source in Calgary believes in the strength of snowboard culture. “Snowboarding means something to each person working here,” he says. “I think that’s how you build a reputation.”
One of the big questions for a snowboard shop is how their staff look to the future, on carrying ski brands and catering towards style-conscious skiers.
“It seems like freeskiers have been wearing snowboard stuff out here for as long as I can remember,” continues Sandford. “From a purchasing standpoint it’s not something we take into account, so we haven’t entertained any ski-specific brands.”
The Ski Shops
While the core snowboard shop owners stick to their guns, the brains behind a few ski shop have seen an opportunity to reach out to freeskiers and deliver a unique service.
“People like coming into my shop because they know everyone here skis and they know the ski market,” says Phil Belanger of D-Structure, a core ski shop in Montreal. “Yet it’s not exploding yet, and that’s why you don’t see a lot of shops like mine.”
All the same, Belanger sees reasons for the boom in freeskiing. “Out here we don’t have as strong of a skateboarding/surfing mentality as they do out west. Now, with freeskiing, people who started skiing first will continue rather than switch.”
Steve Saranchuk runs Fresh Sports, a core ski shop in Calgary. He has noticed and taken advantage of the trend, but still sees a lot of room to move forward.
“Fresh Sports is still called a niche shop—I have no idea why,” Saranchuk says. “But we also have quite a lot of people that do both [freeskiing and snowboarding], or are looking to do both. And we are increasing sales every year, even during periods of recession. We’re happy with what’s happening. The reason I opened up was because when I did, there were absolutely no freeski shops. Maybe some that carried skis and boards, but none that catered specifically to the freeskier. And now there are brands like Orage, Oakley, Armada and North Face. A lot of skiers are looking to those brands and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll buy that stuff because it’s quality, it’s not copying the snowboard brands, and I like the product.’”
Orage has been around for 21 years, establishing itself as a core ski brand that core shops like D-Structure and Fresh Sports are proud to carry and promote.
“Orage has always been into skiing,” says director of sales David Milette. “We’ve never tried to diversify or move away from what our roots were. That’s why we always stick to skiing. We’re really recognized as a core, authentic ski brand. Even when freeskiing wasn’t too cool, our roots were always there, and we never stopped hammering that nail. The thing with the consumer is that they’re just realizing that, ‘Hey, these guys are legit.’”
On the completely opposite side, however, there are brands like Quiksilver, which have been around forever. Despite the observation that people other than board riders are wearing the brand, its staff focus solely on its roots as well.
“Although I have no doubt that skiers wear our outerwear and our clothing,” says Quicksilver marketing coordinator Natalie Farrell, “the basis for our marketing campaigns are still centered around snowboarding and the snowboarder lifestyle. Yes, the dynamics of the industry may be changing and we may see more skiers in the park and on the mountain, but the foundations of Quiksilver are still in snowboarding.”
While members of the industry see brands like Orage and Quiksilver hold fast to their origins and convictions, there are still company owners that see things differently, believing mountain culture and brotherhood to be of more importance than the demise of either skiing or snowboarding.
“When we started building our brand it wasn’t about creating a strategy for how we can sell more clothing,” says Darren Rayner, co-founder of Voleurz Design. “It was more of what we did at the time, and today we’re still a group of skiers and snowboarders. We never had an animosity, and always had a collaborative stoke for each other.”
Like the staff of other brands, Rayner has also been paying attention to the changing times. “I think it’s primarily the old mentality from the ’90s that’s still kicking around. But I have noticed that there’s been some change with skiers and snowboarders. On the mountain, everyone’s shredding together.”
“We’re different because we put our hearts first and making money second,” he continues. “I think if we had focused on just one when we started we would be substantially larger, but that’s just not who we are and not what we believe in. We’re going with what works and our core brand.”
There are the staff of brands, however, that identify with snowboarding but also recognize the talents of up-and-coming freeskiers, and are looking at ways to drive the personality of their brand forward.
Daryl Trinidad, Canadian marketing manager of Spy Optics is very clear on this: “The main thing with our company is that we are completely personality-based. We believe in the athletes that we have; we back them and they represent everything that’s Spy.”
“I think that the influence will still be snowboarder-driven,” Trinidad continues. “The main influence will be from snowboarding, but we have a strong ski community coming up. That’s where the line is blurring. I definitely see that and respect it. Doesn’t matter what you’re doing—people are doing something on the mountain.”
The staff of other companies like Sessions, while maintaining a strong presence in snowboarding for some time, have now embraced skiing from a slightly different perspective.
“About 10 years ago I faced that challenge because we were considered a core snowboard brand,” says Sessions CEO Joel Gomez. “But it came to a point where it’s like, ‘Nah, it’s all good on the snow.’ Now we have good relationships with shops. It’s a different vibe, and shops on both sides are requesting product. Even though we’ve had and do have a strong presence in skiing, we still love to cater to snowboarders.”
A Look At Some Numbers
If we take a look at North American 2010/2011 hardgood sales, we see an interesting story. It’s certainly clear to notice freeskiing’s rise. Twin-tip ski sales have seen a dramatic increase from appx 81,462 units sold in 2009/2010 to approximately 102,657 units sold in 2010/2011. Snowboarding sales on the other hand, despite making four per cent more in revenue, saw a four per cent decrease in units sold.
However, according to SnowSports Industries America (SIA) Research numbers, snowboard-specific brands like Burton and Ride are far outselling freeski twin-tip brands like Armada and Line. In 2010/2011 Burton took in approximately $107,500,979 in hardgoods with Ride taking in approximately. $36,355,499. Line took in $12,590,638 and Armada a mere $4,194,528. But sales don’t tell the whole story.
On The Mountain
While the shop and brand owners certainly have a unique perspective on trends and purchasing habits, it’s not until you get on the mountain that you really see snowboarding’s strength and sustainability.
“Is switching over to freeskiing the new snowboarding?” asks Alterna Films president Carlo Wein. “No. I don’t believe that. The truth of the matter is that it all stems from skateboarding.”
“Everything is just a branch of something else,” Wein continues. “And I don’t think snowboarders are going to go into freeskiing. I don’t see much of a divide either, and I don’t see it being that much of a big deal. We’ve partnered up on some of our shoots with ski film crews, building the same set-up, and I don’t care if they put it in their film. I don’t see much of a crossover in snowboarders watching ski films, and that’s why I wouldn’t care about sharing a park shoot with a ski company.”
Mike Douglas, a producer for Switchback Entertainment, takes a similar stance in regard to skiing.
“I think if we look back to the ’90s, snowboarding was almost ready to kill skiing, honestly. The young people were jumping off the [skiing] boat so hard back then. I’ve always been a skier. Back then I loved the energy of snowboarding, but I was a skier. I wanted to keep skiing. With Switchback, our roots are in skiing, and our biggest contract is for Solomon Freeski TV, so pretty much the whole winter is spent doing that.”
Steve Petrie, owner of Arena Snowparks, worked for Whistler Blackcomb for 11 years and now constructs features for the Olympics such as The Arctic Challenge and Camp of Champions. He has a keen eye on the progression of both freeskiing and snowboarding.
“What I’ve found, especially in Whistler, is that there’s not really that whole skier versus snowboarder thing going on. You’ll see posses of kids with skiers and snowboarders, and it’s kind of cool seeing that.”
“Snowparks are highly influenced by snowboarding, and it almost seems that there’s a certain segment of skiers doing a lot of snowboard-like tricks,” Petrie continues. “They’re kinda trying to prove that they can do everything that you can do on a snowboard, and you see that with the clothing styles as well. For design and construction, we’re just trying to put together the best park that we can, taking feedback from both skiers and snowboarders.”
“Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, snowboarding came, for most of us guys in Canada, through skateboarding,” says Flynn Seddon, director of terrain parks and outdoor events at Big White Resort. “So to take that love and connection to skateboarding and be able to put it onto the mountain was a phenomenal thing.”
“It was easy then for people to switch from skiing to snowboarding,” he continues. “I think a lot of kids who grew up in the ski culture five or 10 years ago would switch into snowboarding—that was the link to the park. But since then it’s evolved in the last five years. Now, the young skier doesn’t have to make the huge culture shift.
“If you’re looking specifically at the park and specifically at Big White, I think our numbers are still a little stronger in snowboarding,” Seddon concludes. “But the number of skiers is probably realistically 65/35, depending on the day.”
Interestingly, looking at snowboard participation numbers supports these observations. Overall, snowboard participation in the U.S. grows at a rate of about four per cent each season. Between 2008/2009 and 2009/2010 the core group who participate nine days per season or more grew from 2,486,000 to 2,784,000—a 12 per cent increase. In 2007/2008 the number of snowboard participants was estimated at 6,841,000 and in 2010/2011 that number was at 8,196,000.
Simon Busque, terrain park manager at Mont Tremblant, has seen a slightly more aggressive rise of free-skiing.
“I’ve been in the park for over 10 years and there’s definitely been a rise.” he says. “There are maybe a few people who have switched from snowboard to skiing, but it’s still pretty rare. What happens is that kids will start with skis and then when they get to the park they would switch to snowboarding. But now what’s happening is that some of the kids will just stick with skiing, which is probably why there are more skiers. But it’s still probably 50/50. That’s not precise, but it’s what we’re seeing.”
The Pros Sound Off
Even pro skiers and snowboarders share a similar mindset.
David Carrier-Porcheron is constantly in meetings with both snowboards and skiers at The North Face. “I love those guys. They are great dudes and I respect what they do. And the funny thing is that they say they’re all inspired by snowboarding. Some of them even skateboard.”
TJ Schiller is appreciative, too, and concludes that both sports are strong and are here to stay. In his mind there’s not really any threat whatsoever, and instead perhaps a new beginning.
“I think kids who pick up skis or snowboards just see a chance to be creative, hang with like-minded people and get gnarly. Some people were meant to go sideways down a hill and some go straight or backwards. I don’t see either sport necessarily taking over. I wouldn’t want that to happen. It’s good to have both doing their own thing. It allows for different styles and innovation leaking into each sport.”
At the End of the Apres
We’ve arrived at a point in the industry’s brief history where snowboarding has grown into its own, where there is little rivalry on the mountain and for the most part respect is echoed throughout. What’s essential for the progression of both sports is for both the freeskiing and snowboarding industries to understand where they came from, how they’ve been influenced and have shaped each other along the way, to remain committed to their roots and, most of all, to listen and pay attention to what either side is doing.
Freeskiing and snowboarding are not killing each other. The observations and numbers speak to that. If anything, they’re helping each other along, as skiers, riders, manufacturers and retailers will testify. But this a change in the tide from what we’ve grown accustomed to over snowboarding’s history.
Things are not completely smooth; there is more work to be done. From the bottom up there is opportunity for both freeskiing and snowboarding to grow, each into their own while sharing the mountain. And this is something that must permeate companies and retailers, from marketing to mission statements to the personalities supported.