When Did Snowboarding Become Cool?


Back in the late 80s when snowboarding was still all about neon pants, duct-tape and boards shaped like ironing boards the media (and by media I mean everything from Time magazine to your local news channel) saw it as their next cash cow. For a while it went unnoticed by just about everyone in the sport until you started seeing Suzuki ads plastered on the sides of a few half-pipes. All the sudden people starting seeing snowboarding in TV and magazine ads with the dreaded word “extreme” attached to it. Snowboarding was not alone in this either. Surfing, skiing and skateboarding all to some degree got sucked into this media hyped vacuum too. But it was snowboarding that really stuck around. Surfing was able to deflect a lot of the brunt of this and remain isolated until a few years ago. Skiing was accepted, but at the time the image of a 40 year old stock broker in a red one piece Obemeyer ski outfit didn’t seem that extreme. Sure you had guys like Glenn Plake and Scott Schmidt doing some sick stuff that would become the ground work for what is now called “freeskiing”, but they for some reason only got minor acceptance by the media (even though Glenn Plake’s mohawk did more for skiing in the late 80s early 90s than anything else). Skateboarding was never going to be truly accepted because of it’s counter-culture / punk rock roots, it was to really stay a southern Californian thing.

This quality stock photo is just one example of how much cooler snowboarding was before it was cool.

It was only us, snowboarders, in our neon pants and duct tape boots doing methods in just about any magazine ad or TV commercial for products from soda to cold medicine. We seemed fresh, young and new. We were the 90s version of the sidewalk surfing 60s. For a few years the snowboarding industry flopped around direction-less, bring made to look stupid by media as a whole. The around the spring of 1991, or so, jibbing became the big thing in our sport. The snowboard industry finally had something to latch onto and try to mold into their own. We looked to skateboarding for all of the answers, from tricks to clothes to attitude. Every kid became the worst inner city ghetto child on the mountain, bringing the lack of respect and attitude that so don’t belong at a ski area. We were like the worst, most obnoxious kid the classroom, giving everyone the finger and not even knowing why, just that we were cooler than you. The media saw this and dropped us like a dead weight or in some instances clung to the late 80s vision of the sport even though it was already very out of date.

That was when snowboarding became cool. Every kid and his brother sold their skis (can you blame them though at the time of double daffys and 210cm skis) and bought a pair of big pants, the latest Nirvana album and a snowboard.The sport exploded more than it ever had before but at the same time ran into a lot of problems because of all the kids who didn’t have the first clue how to conduct themselves in public. Ski areas that once allowed snowboarding closed their doors due to all of the complaints from skiing families (with the money) and ski areas that were close to opening to snowboarders didn’t because they saw all the problems at other areas. Riders started trying to vibe each other over who was “core” and who wasn’t. Snowboarding for the next few years became the ultimate expression of teen angst, more than any Marilyn Manson album ever could.

Then around 1997 it all changed again. Snowboarding in a way moved on from the direct skate influence, assimilated it and for the first time really started to mold itself into it’s own entity. The media world in general saw this and once again latched onto us, but this time to a more receptive
society interested in leaving the cities for the weekends and driving their huge gas guzzling SUVs to the mountains while eating “extreme” tacos from Taco Bell and “doing the Dew”. Snowboarding was reduced to a buzz-word for society. It was becoming an Olympic sport and again getting a warm and fuzzy public image, at least it looked that way until all saw how snowboarders were treated at the 1998 Olympics (granted some of the riders didn’t help anything at all) . You started seeing snowboard competitions on TV regularly, and not just on cable this time, on major channels like NBC on Saturday afternoons. It seemed like everyone not involved in the sport found their newest and greatest thing. The board technology was finally there making the equipment beginner friendly and easy to ride. Major sponsors really started dumping money into the sport and sponsoring large competitions and teams or riders.

One of ESPN’s best attempts at snowboard coverage, The X Games. Chris Englesman. Photo Brooke Geery

But while all this was (is) happening the media still hadn’t figured out how to deal with it really, even the so called snowboarding media was not innocent. ESPN found out they couldn’t just take guys who covered football and stick them in a booth in front of a pipe and have them announce it on TV, so they started finding riders to do the duty of announcer. Everything became “big-air” and “full of amplitude”. Lots of money was spent on promotion and sponsorship deals while in many respects snowboarding was ignored and just milked for all they could get out of it. Snowboarding media was left clueless and tried to find a voice and they settled on the lowest common denominator of the 16 year old suburban male. Snowboard magazines became filled with ads for JNCO jeans and the Navy while every other magazine became filled with ads for snowboarding. The snowboarding media forgot all about the majority of riders who are not teenagers and who could care less about the latest teen craze. The general media had no clue what-so-ever about anything snowboard and already by late 1998 started becoming tired with snowboarding and latching onto their latest craze of “freeskiing”.

I dont blame the media world for anything, they do what they do and don’t know any better really. It is the snowboarding media world I have disgust for. Why when I pick up a snowboarding magazine must I be confronted with something on about the same maturity level as a frat party. Every thing is about who is cool and who isn”t, we are right you are wrong. This is one of the reasons that when I want to read intelligent articles about resorts or ski trips I pick up a ski magazine. Ski magazines are not written for your average 16 year old, they are written for people interested in reading intelligent and informative articles about what is so great about sliding on snow. At the same time the general media world has tried to wrap all so called “extreme” winter sports into one big sport and slap the letter “X” in front of it much the same way things about the internet have “E” or “I” in front of them.

It was all rather funny to watch for the first few years but now it is just tiresome. The snowboarding industry really needs to grow up, snowboarding media needs to change and media in general needs to get a clue. There are a few companies out there, Burton being at the forefront, doing all they can to promote the sport in a responsible way, which is great to see.

We should all bring back these days. Screw being dope.

Now I am focusing on one negative aspect of snowboarding and it’s history. Over the past twenty years so much good has happened in the sport. From the level of riding to the technology in the equipment. Snowboarding remains a great sport because of one simple reason, it is fun to slide down a hill strapped to a board. However the media world tries to mold snowboarding into
something else it will remain fun. It is great to see guys like Palmer get the general respect for being the athletes they are, for the riders who do the competition circuit to finally be making some good money (thanks to sponsors like Nike and Chevy but still way below what other professional athletes make) and yes to finally see snowboarding in the Olympics. The riders are better than ever and being a pro level rider in most instances means quite a bit (not like the days when anyone who could do an indy was sponsored). The riders will keep the sport going, all of us, from the 12 year old kid learning to link his first turns to the powder junkie who has been riding for twenty plus years. We all ride for the same reason, it is fun and we enjoy it, not because the media says it is cool.