Roger Marolt: Roger This
August 7, 2009
The model for ski racing in this country is broken. Since Aspen is the critical mass of the skiing universe, I think we have an obligation to fix it.
Let me explain in as much detail as necessary why the model is on the fritz: Its parts are cumbersome and way too expensive to maintain. Oh, and it was designed in Europe around Y1.9K.
In case your child chooses to play basketball or some other sensible sport during the winter months rather than ski race, let me summarize what a young alpine skier is up against – picture a wall made up of hundred-dollar bills. After the tally is in for club dues, travel, parent participation deposits, entry fees, ski passes, equipment, team uniforms, speed suits, and wax, a kid in middle school can expect to pay about eight or ten-thousand dollars … per year. That’s a lot more than it costs to join the soccer program and slightly less than making the traveling European equestrian or trans-oceanic sailing teams. And, this is for children that have not reached puberty. It gets more expensive in high school.
For those of you unwilling to put down your coffee cups to do the math, I’ll do it for you. By the time your fifth-grade junior racer walks across the stage of the Benedict Music Tent and flips the red and black tassel on her mortarboard, the experience of participating in our town’s sport will have cost you frighteningly close to a hundred grand.
The good news about this is that, if your kid has learned to ski really well, you probably won’t have to worry about paying for college. The bad news is that your kid probably won’t be going to college. That’s right. In the current busted model for ski racing, the best skiers more often than not (i.e. always) choose to go the way of the U.S. Ski Team and join their development or “D” team. The experience – priceless. The charges on your Visa card – another $25,000 per year.
Nope, you read that right. It costs money to be on the U.S. Ski Team until you make the big time or wash out into the real world in your mid-twenties with a short resume highlighting that fact that you “can go really fast on skis.” Do you need me to point out what is wrong with this picture? As an athlete you spend your youth busting your tail and your folks’ bank account so that you can become one of the best young ski racing prospects in the country in order to skip college and spend an additional mini-fortune every year to keep your place on the national development team.
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In the real world, kids who get really good at throwing baseballs, smashing tennis balls, dunking basketballs, or playing just about any other game you can think of get to go to the college of their choice … for free! That includes room, board, equipment, travel, and all the Nike sweat suits a closet can hold. When you graduate you either go pro or land a nice job. This is the way it’s supposed to work!
Now then, let’s just suppose for a foolish argument’s sake that you understand all of this about ski racing and you’re still all good with it. Why should you care about fixing the model?
How’s this for starters: The current model has severely diminished the sport. Currently in this country about as many people give a damn about alpine ski racing as about caber tossing or log splitting contests. It is holding onto the fringe of fringe sports by the thread of a Lycra speed suit. Advertisers and sponsors aren’t any more interested than anyone else. Without sponsors and advertisers, there is less money supporting the sport and the cost to participants goes up even more. In short, the current U.S. model for skiing is driving the sport into the ground. Not that anyone will notice when it disappears altogether. Get it? As a supporter of ski racing you better care, because nobody else does.
For years, the ski racing world has futilely struggled to figure out different formats that will make the sport appealing to television viewers. What they really need to do is get the masses to make a connection with it. That comes from mass participation, not marketing nighttime dual-slalom events on obscure cable channels.
More participation means a deeper talent pool. Deeper talent means more exciting events. Exciting events draw more fans. More fans attract sponsors. Sponsors finance expansion of the sport. It’s a model going in the other direction!
“But,” you say, “as a country we are successful at ski racing.” Come on. Look in the mirror and repeat this statement: “The United States of America is nearly as good as Austria.” Yes, it’s OK to laugh out loud. In no athletic endeavor should we be measuring our success relative to a country that is roughly the size of Maine, period.
Convinced? OK then, how do we fix the broken piece of junk?
For starters, local clubs need to survive with fewer infrastructures. Special racing arenas, clubhouses, and ski jumps cost millions of dollars to build and tens of thousands to maintain each year. They benefit mitted handfuls of athletes, not bunches. The money dumped into structures could be far better spent opening up the sport to new participants, and I’m not talking about a Saturday morning baby-sitting program that most kids drop out of by fourth grade. I’m talking about a sport. You know: a fun, competitive ski racing program.
Secondly, enlist the help of volunteer coaches. Every other youth sport in this country does. Yes, the quality of coaching goes down, but with more athletes participating the quality of competition goes up. You tell me which is more important.
Third, reduce travel. With this change alone more families will get involved. With more racers right in town, the less need there is to travel to find quality competition. A local youth ski racing program should imitate our adult Town Race Series. It’s easy. It’s cheap. It’s fun. And, the competition is incredible.
Fourth, change the mindset from trying to get kids into slots on the U.S. Ski Team to getting them college scholarships. Going to college on a full-ride skiing scholarship might not be as glamorous as racing the World Cup circuit in Europe, but on average it pays a whole lot better.
Finally, don’t be afraid to innovate. Doing things the way they have always been done has just about done in the sport. It can’t get much worse, so why not try something new? It’s our model to make.
Got it? 5-4-3-2-1-Go!
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