If you pay any attention to the boring business side of the snowboard industry, you’ve probably heard some pretty dismal stuff. Forum is dead, Quicksilver is cut everyone but Travis Rice, and Jeremy Jones says we’re all going to lose our jobs. Winter is doomed!
Well, not exactly. I’m not saying that things are all sunshine and handjobs, but we’re going to be fine. The biggest reason why things look so bad is because even though snowboarding isn’t the youthful newcomer it once was (the Snurfer turns 48 this winter), we really haven’t done a good job keeping records of what has happened before. Which is how you wind up with shitty graphs like this peppering any and all reporting of the snow industry.
Okay, now I am about to break some statistical analysis, so if you get bored easy skip ahead a few paragraphs to where there are some good bits with cursing and Todd Richards. Let’s look at the first graph – showing a dramatic decrease in average number of visits (industry speak for days on the hill) per rider over the last decade and a half. It goes from near the top of the graph to the bottom of the graph! But if you look at the labels on the side of the graph (we’ll call them axis because that’s what they are) and you’ll see that the decrease over that fifteen year period only breaks down to a loss of 0.1 days per year. Still not great, but we have to remember those numbers include a group of people we all kind of forget exist. There are some people who don’t love snowboarding. I know. It is hard to imagine such creatures existing, but they do. There are just some people who don’t care as much as we do, and can’t be bothered to ride more than two or three days a year. And you know what, that’s fine because even if they only ride one day, they still contribute to lowering our lift ticket prices based on the economy of scale. (To oversimplify things, the costs of operating a lift are more or less fixed. They pay the same to send 10 people up as they would pay to send 100 people. So, by spreading the cost out over more people, gapers and Joeys help our tickets cost less.) So some part of that number doesn’t represent the same people riding less, but more people riding overall.
The next graph shouldn’t really worry anyone, it just shows snowboarding stabilizing around one third of annual visits. Since most marketing is aimed at recruiting new riders rather than converting skiers, no one should be surprised. And the third graph, if anything, is good news. Instead of showing a sport slowly being infiltrated by soccer moms, it shows people sticking with the sport. Instead of giving up, getting married, and leaving the mountains forever, people are staying strapped in. It is also likely that the growing number of “grown up” riders is responsible for part of the shrinking number of annual visits; from what I can tell it is hard to find time for park laps when you’re running the play date circuit.
If the statistics don’t paint a particularly terrifying picture of the state of snowboarding, why is the article it comes from so glum? Honestly I don’t know, because this isn’t the first time the snowboard industry has faced a difficulty. For example, consider the 1998 Olympics.Â When it was first announced that snowboarding was going to be an Olympic sport, everyone thought it was going to completely change the industry. People would be taking private jets to contests, Ross Rebagliati would get on a Wheaties box, snowboarding was going to go mainstream! So, anticipating a groundswell of new riders eager to give companies their hard earned money, everyone overproduced and had warehouses full of goods waiting for the orders to fly in. But that isn’t what happened; here is how Todd Richards described the state of snow after the lackluster response at the Nagano in his book Parks, Pipes, and Powder–
The Olympics were supposed to ignite a growth explosion for the snowboard industry, but the lack of coverage was more a fizzle than a bomb. It was a false alarm that made snowboard manufacturers look at their warehouses and say “Hmmm, what in the hell are we going to do with all these snowboards?” The industry had been rising steadily and demographic studies predicted a gazillion new snowboarders on the slopes each winter. But now the market was flooded with companies, too many companies creating too much equipment for too few snowboarders. … Following the Olympics, the snowboarding industry suffered a brief dark period. It trimmed the fat, and the strong survived. Some companies, like Morrow Snowboards, struggled to hang on, cutting costs everywhere in an effort to weather the repercussions of poor management.
So why are we acting like this is the first time? Part of the reason might be that not everyone experiences things the same way. To hear TR talk about it, things were pretty bleak, but not everyone left Japan with the same impression. I asked Bonfire Founded Brad Steward what things were like after the Games –
For those of us who were actually at the event in Nagano, you could see the difference in the crowds and behavior at the venues between the snowboarding venue and the other Olympic events. I was there shooting for TWS and Times Mirror Corp. Felt like you could look through the lens and see that this sport was going to blow up and bring a new crowd to the Olympic table.
And just like then, not everyone is suffering now. 686 and Volcom keep threatening to add hardgoods the their lineup, Bataleon does apparel now, and new brands like Slash and Lobster show that plenty of people thing there is still room for growth. My point is that in order for there to be any progression in the industry (if not the “sport”) of snowboarding, then sometimes your going to have to fall. That can mean scaling back, changing focus, or completely pulling out, but the fall is still inevitable. Defining success elusively as consistent exponential growth is not only unhelpful, it is also unsustainable. Right now may not be the Golden Era of snowboarding — it probably isn’t even bronze — but that doesn’t mean that this sort of hand wringing is the correct course of action.