Marolt: The insipid demise of snowsports, right before our eyes
February 17, 2017
Last week I broke the bad news to snowboarders ("Knuckle draggers and the devolution of skiing," commentary, Feb. 8, Snowmass Sun).
Their sport is a terminal case. Understandably, they took it hard. Denial. Anger. Actually, incredible anger. The mourning process is rough. I hope skiers buck up and bear it better.
I live and work in a ski town. I embrace the lifestyle. My kids have grown up around the sport. I love skiing and don't want it to die.
Nonetheless, here are the vital statistics, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, as reported by The Associated Press: From its peak of popularity in 2003, snowboarding participation dropped 28 percent through 2013. Skier participation fell by 10 percent over the same period. Supplementing this with data from SnowSport Industries America that runs through the 2015-16 ski season and interpolating a bit to compare oranges to tangerines, the numbers moderated a bit the past three seasons so that we can infer, to date, snowboarding popularity has dropped by about 25 percent and skiing by about 5 percent since 2003.
Not dire enough for you? According to National Ski Area Association data, snowsport visits (skier days) have increased just 5 percent in 38 years. That's 5 percent in total, not annually. It's a paltry average growth rate of 0.13 percent per year. For perspective, consider that the population of the United States increased by roughly 100 million people (about 44 percent) over the same period. In a very generalized way, almost exactly none of those 100 million new Americans took up snowboarding or skiing.
In defiance of the grim reaper, snowboarders were quick to boast that their sport was responsible for the revitalization of skiing. This is delusion. Looking at the flat line of snowsports participation, it is impossible to point to a place in time and say, "This is where the revitalization began." This is because there has been no revitalization of any kind!
Snowboarding did not breathe new life into snowsports, despite great expectations in the beginning. Neither did shaped skis, high-speed chairlifts, cozy gondolas with great views, first-class kids' programs, velvety-smooth trail grooming, gourmet lunches in slopeside lodges, expanded terrain, or exclusive private clubs on top of the mountains.
The major effects of these "advancements" was to make snowsports easier — possibly a failed attempt to attract new customers, but more likely an effort to keep an aging customer base engaged — and to set the cost of participation skyrocketing. This is what I call the devolution of winter mountain sports.
Do you dream of new ski areas and expansion of terrain? Don't. Our participation numbers are so weak that we lose more of the political clout necessary to pull that off every day.
An axiomatic saying in our technology-driven world is "innovate or die." Is it then fair to say, if snowsports are dying, we are not innovating? The numbers don't lie.
Now, are you ready for the heady stuff? Let's throw climate change and rapidly expanding income disparity into the mix.
It's no secret that wealth is becoming more concentrated in the hands of the already wealthy. While certainly not its most serious consequence, as it relates to the topic at hand, it allows the ski industry to keep doing what it has been doing in order to thrive with a stagnant customer base. They figured correctly that if you can't sell more product, you have to sell it at a higher price to keep the margins up.
This strategy doesn't usually work. Most of the time competition keeps prices reasonable. The exception is when there is no competition, real or perceived. Luxury brands create the illusion of no competition through image branding. An example — there is only one Gucci, even though many manufacturers can make purses of equal quality and style. The perception they have created rules and the more they charge, the more those who can afford it want it. They sell 10 purses for a thousand dollars each, while Target sells a thousand for $10 apiece.
Sound familiar? Resort operators could sell many more tickets at half the price, but why? We are sold on uncrowded slopes, so we gladly pay the freight — all the way up until we can't anymore. This is the way the snowsports industry has survived for decades while growing far slower than the general population. If the trend continues, snowsports may exist in 40 years, but our grandchildren will not be able to afford them.
That is, of course, if there is snow below timberline during the winters when I'm a grandpa. As I write, the February rain and sunshine rot the midwinter snowpack, and I'm already reminiscing about what a wonderful January of skiing it was. Alas, nothing lasts forever.
Roger Marolt sees the ski bums going extinct and wonders if the ski yuppies will be next. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.