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Sports biz: Skiing gets a second life

Been skiing yet this season? Then you might have already noticed something’s different: There aren’t as many snowboarders zooming down the slopes.

A sport that seemed to be on an unstoppable growth track now seems to be declining. Just over 30 percent of U.S. ski resort visits came from snowboarders last season, compared with 32.6 percent in the 2009-2010 season, according to an industry survey by the National Ski Areas Association. The average number of days snowboarders hit the slopes has dropped to 6.1 per season from a record of 7.6 in the sport’s late 1990s heyday, NSAA says.

And – cover your ears, Shaun White – there’s a generational tilt: A report by skiing industry analyst RRC Associates found the percentage of children under 14 who start on snowboards hit a low of 34 percent last season, compared with a peak of 42 percent during the 2003-04 season.

It’s a trend line Mark Neel has seen firsthand, both as the father of a 15-year-old daughter and the longtime owner of an independent sporting goods shop in downtown Castle Rock, Castle Rock Bike and Ski.

“Five years ago, almost all of my daughter’s friends were snowboarders,” Neel says. “Now it’s more like 50-50.” Neel sees the shift reflected both in retail sales and in equipment rentals, with a rising number of younger customers now choosing skis over boards. “Snowboarding as an industry pretty much peaked in 2009,” he says.

That’s a stark realization for a category that seemed to almost single-handedly reinvigorate the skiing industry by attracting big numbers of what Neel calls “non-traditionals” to the slopes starting 20 years ago. But it’s a trend line that now has ski industry executives on watch.

“Today, there is every indication that the growth in snowboarding we took for granted has stalled, and visitation from snowboarding is headed toward a path of substantial decline,” wrote Nate Fristoe of RRC Associates in a much-quoted report published last fall.

Ski industry analysts have lots of thoughts about why snowboarding may be running out of momentum, and many of them are cultural: The first generation of boarders has grown up, the sport has lost some of its rebel luster, and women in particular are abandoning boarding as they age.

Those may be valid contributors, but another big factor has to do with equipment, says Neel. Advances in ski design – especially the movement to shorter, shaped skis – have made it easier to become proficient in an activity that has a long reputation for tormenting beginners. Snowboard design and technology, Neel says, have lagged behind.

Improved skiing technology also has propelled skiing into the realm of extreme sports once associated almost exclusively with snowboarding. Some of the most jaw-dropping halfpipe stunts now happen on skis, not boards. Reflecting that, halfpipe skiing will make its international Olympics debut at next year’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Every time a skier squeezes one more revolution out of a trick than a boarder can muster, it brings more credibility to the thrill-seeking snowboard demographic that used to sneer at skiing’s genteel reputation.

That may be good news for Colorado ski industry participants like the Broomfield-based Vail Resorts Inc., because it suggests a downturn in snowboarding may not necessarily translate to fewer paying customers. Even as boarding has declined, average skier visits have held steady at 5.5 times per season, according to national statistics. And although Vail Resorts suffered a 12.1 percent decline in total ski visits last year, the company attributes the decline to a lack of snow, not a change in the ski-snowboard mix.

The upshot here: Don’t be surprised if the next time you see a 16-year-old bombing down Powder Keg at Copper Mountain, iPhone blasting and hair flying, he’s got skis strapped onto his feet and a snowboard stuck up in the rafters of his parents’ garage at home. After all, a dude’s gotta stay hip. 

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Stewart Schley

Stewart Schley writes about sports, media and technology from Denver. Read this and Schley’s past columns on the Web at cobizmag.com and email him at stewart@stewartschley.com

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