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Reinventing Cool

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“In the early ’90s,” says Mike Douglas, one of the modern-day saviors of skiing, “the ski industry was largely controlled and run by the old guard—by people who came from alpine-racing backgrounds.” Douglas had competed and coached in World Cup and NorAm mogul events for the Canadian Freestyle Team during the old guard years from 1991-1994. “There was this unwillingness to change, almost like an exclusive country-club attitude where people were like, ‘we don’t need to change ’cause we’re great.’”

At least that was the case in North America. Comparatively, Europe and its ski-centric roots schussed right along with ski racing and multi-day backcountry tours as the recipe for success. By intuitively ignoring image concerns mostly due to cultural differences, European skiers avoided North America’s identity crisis. More specifically, Europe cultivated renewed interest by hosting World Cup events in their respective backyards. Germans, Italians, Swiss, Austrians, and Frenchmen watched the best ski racers in the world in person at nearby resorts. But North Americans rarely experienced the live, in-person opportunity to watch the world’s best on a regular basis. Nelson, a former Division I alpine racer at the University of Colorado and retired Goldman Sachs partner, realized the need for live exposure to skiing in the States in order to renew and generate interest in the sport. “What got me into ski racing as a kid was just that—seeing it. It was like, ‘Oh my God, I want to be one of those guys.’”

Acknowledging the void, Nelson made it a point to attract World Cup ski races to the States as a board member of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. “A couple of things were really obvious to me. Sponsorship money was down. Prize money was down. Alpine skiing was becoming more and more, not less and less, a European sport. We didn’t have enough events in the U.S. for the public to get exposed to on a live basis.”

Skiing enjoyed a great spurt in earlier years, stimulated in part from Aspen’s hosting of the alpine skiing championships in 1950. Then the glamorous Kennedy family spurred interest in skiing during the early ’60s. Filmmakers Dick Barrymore, Warren Miller and Greg Stump documented the lifestyle and action of skiers and made skiing seem fun and edgy. But the adventure slowly stagnated. Despite the fame of exciting skiers like Scot Schmidt, the Mahre brothers, and Glen Plake, the key figureheads in the industry remained ignorant of the one key demographic that has challenged complacency through the test of time: the youth.
 

Standing in the Warm Springs lift line, a short snowboarder, no more than 13, with baggy, neon pants, shuffles forward until it’s his turn to load onto the next chair. But instead of loading the chair with two others, a salty Sun Valley ski instructor with snow-white hair and race-stock skis deliberately holds out his arm, blocking his client from getting on. “I don’t ride chairlifts with snowboarders,” he remarks to his curious client. “They’re just a bunch of punks.” And this was 2006 with the newly shaped Sun Valley halfpipe just up the slope from the lift.

Whether the old guard accepts it or not, much of the ski industry’s growth in numbers and resort development today is largely due to the “punk” snowboarders. Either crossing over from skiing like East Coast snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton or bringing the skate and surf culture of Southern California to snow, snowboarders rebelled against the decaying, elitist ski scene. “For anyone under the age of 25, snowboarding looked a lot more fun at the time,” asserts Douglas. And you can’t blame them. If you didn’t have the money to race or come from a family with connections, skiing was too expensive and, hence, elusive to the dissident youth. According to John Fry, former editor-in-chief of Ski Magazine and the author of the extremely comprehensive 2006 release, The Story of Modern Skiing, snowboarding rescued the ski industry from business disaster. As skiing endured its worst season in skier visits in 1990 since the NSAA commenced collecting data, with only 46 million participants, snowboarder visits increased by 270 percent.

“Before snowboarders showed up,” says skiing legend and Ketchum resident Mike Hattrup, “we all wore suits for S.I.A. (Snowsports Industry of America), it was so professional,” referring to the annual ski and snowboard trade show. “The snowboarders came in and were drinking beer, wearing jeans and sweatshirts, with long hair and smoking pot. Because of snowboarders, I have like 16 suits in my closet that I never use anymore.” Hattrup was featured in Powder Magazine as one of the “48 Greatest Skiers of Our Time.” He’s seen a lot in his 19 years in the industry, all while being a part of the K2 family where he’s currently the director of the Telemark and Alpine Touring division. He, too, cites the snowboarding establishment for triggering change. “Snowboarders brought halfpipes to the mountains and created terrain parks, which eventually led to twin-tip skis.”

“The ski industry recognized that snowboarding put the youth back on the map,” declares Aspen Skiing Company Senior Marketing Manager Steve Metcalf. “When snowboarders, in regards to popularity, were passing skiers, it was obvious something had to be done to stop that.” >>>

 

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