Is the inevitable rising cost of competitive skiing only an American problem to face?
VAIL — Peter Lange, publisher of Ski Racing Media and Alpine coach of youth up to the World Cup level for more than 35 years, remembers a day when Dynastar used to send money to get kids to ski camps.
“That is so gone,” he laughs. “Equipment and access and all these things cost money and yes some people can afford it and have an advantage, but that is true in other sports. How important is the car in Formula 1? It’s part of the sport.”
A veteran of covering and coaching the sport across the globe, Lange has noted that the cost issue in skiing is not unique to the U.S.
“The reality is, it’s true everywhere,” he said. “The expense of ski racing is rocketing all over.”
Given the sport’s inherent relationship with technology, the equipment piece of the puzzle is bound to only get worse.
“The equipment has to get more expensive,” Lange prophesied. “The companies are not making the kind of money they used to. There’s more technology, higher priced materials and more engineering.”
Even though sticker shock might discourage would be participants, in the overall scheme of things, the major factor in the cost battle — particularly for Americans — is travel.
“Our particular problem is amplified because we have to have overseas flights to Europe,” Lange explained, noting that cost of equipment probably plays the smallest role.
“Let’s not forget, this is a European-centric sport and the European model, because of the close proximity to year-round skiing, it’s very expensive for people to get a lot of volume at a young age,” added Dan Leever, who spent thousands of hours interviewing many European thought-leaders, athletes and coaches on the topic of development in producing The Leever Study.
The prevailing opinion given to him was the U.S. shouldn’t simply copy the European method. Easy access to snow was a big reason.
“For us to ski in the summer, you have to get in an airplane and go somewhere,” he said.
Intentional skill acquisition on snow, at an early age, was one of the irreplaceable tenets for success Leever uncovered in his research. Along with a myriad of other club and competition-related costs, Leever feels U.S. Ski and Snowboard has not effectively told parents what they’re getting themselves into when their daughter claims she wants to be the next Picabo Street.
“So, we historically have not communicated well to parents of upcoming skiers just what the path requires if you want to take it to an Olympic level. And that requires a lot of volume young. There’s just no other way around it,” he said.
Some nations, such as Switzerland and Austria, don’t have to worry about travel and training camp costs because year-round access to snow is abundant and proximal to team members. Meanwhile, U.S. skiers ring up large bills living what Lange said is “the hotel and restaurant life.”
“That adds to our expense when we’re talking about the top,” he said.
Even with their geographical advantages, financial problems have hindered Alpine-rich nations. Slovenia put out one slalom racer on the Europa Cup circuit this past season.
“That is shocking,” Lange said. “It is an Alpine ski nation. They don’t have enough people who can afford the sport to produce more than one qualified athlete. There was two, and one quit. It’s the same reason — it takes so much resource.”
Lange believes U.S. Ski and Snowboard would love an answer to the cost problem.
“There’s been all sorts of initiatives to take cost out of ski racing by some very wealthy people in the industry. It’s such a difficult one to solve,” he said, adding that it isn’t helpful to resent those with more resource or talent.
“There have been people trying to answer this question with resource. It’s not like it’s not being considered and looked at or that people aren’t aware of it, but the answer is not an easy one.”
Few have invested the kind of resource into the topic as Leever, who watched two of his sons progress through the Alpine pipeline and spearheaded the aforementioned study on trends in elite development in Europe.
“Typically, most elite programs for development in Europe, if not free, are very inexpensive and underwritten oftentimes by the government,” he said. “As a result, it’s much less expensive to pursue an elite track in ski racing.”
Leever doesn’t expect the price of the sport to ever go down.
“That’s never going to change. It’s always going to be expensive by its very nature, but there are a lot of things that can be done to make it less so,” he said. “And some of those things are a matter of educating families.”
An exaggerated focus on traveling and racing is one area families have been led astray.
“Mikaela Shiffrin raced very little growing up,” Leever pointed out. “A dozen times per year compared to kids doing 50 times per year. That’s just a waste of money. It’s been proven over and over again that the skill acquisition is more important than the ‘learn-to-race’ aspect.”
To achieve elite performance in skiing, Leever believes there’s a “well-proven pathway,” that parents have sometimes been sheltered from.
“The U.S. didn’t really articulate that,” he said of the route to the top. “I think that many people, or at least some people in the U.S., knew it but they were afraid to tell parents for fear that nobody would do it at all because it was too big of a commitment. And it is the type of commitment that one typically buys into over time.”
Leever has seen some initiatives, particularly in Vail, that have worked wonders in bringing the overall cost down.
“There are clear amazing initiatives, and I think (Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy) is one of them. Where the school district has created a ski academy that’s free to the students, that’s for the local kids, is part of their options available to them,” he said.
“The other thing that’s a big deal, particularly in Vail, is the amount of charitable support that’s available,” he continued. “The kids who ski in Vail, if they’re not well to do, have amazing support available to them. As much as 100% of the total cost of ski racing can be absorbed by scholarships and grants. That’s typically not available anywhere else. So that’s a very powerful model that we have.”
Lange also believes charging its national team athletes was never a part of U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s plan, but the alternative would have been worse.
“It just got to the point where they didn’t have enough support or sponsorship to do it,” he stated. “So, rather than cut the number of athletes on the team, they offered the team, but at a price.”
As idealistic as things were in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the way Leever and Lange see it, those days are gone.
“The days of equipment being free or largely free are over,” Leever stated. “The reason for that is that the skiing market matured and the lack of growth just didn’t provide the funding from the ski manufacturers to be able to give away a lot of equipment. It’s just a different world today than it was 20 years ago.”
Lange agrees, noting that for better or for worse, the days of $100 club fees are in the rearview mirror.
“Back in the day — those days are gone,” he said, noting that the sport’s evolution has fueled the arm’s race as much as disillusioned parents, believing they have to pounce on every opportunity possible, have.
“We make parents and athletes feel like, ‘God, you gotta participate at the NorAm or the FIS level,'” he said. Lange thinks all levels of competition — Buddy Werner, CHSSL, FIS, USSA and NCAA should be validated in and of themselves.
“It itself, standing alone, Buddy Werner is awesome. Not because its a pipeline to the ski team. High school, in itself, is valid. USSA is valid, not because it’s a pipeline to NorAm,” he outlined. “The problem is that parents in their own mind don’t think they’re valid because they know somebody with some money whose kid is on the NorAm circuit and now their kid is going to get the scholarship to the University of Denver,” he hypothesized.
Leever echoed Lange’s sentiment that elite-level skiing shouldn’t be the ‘be-all-end-all.’
“There are pathways for everyone in this sport that can be fantastic. If you’re not looking to achieve an elite level, you want to ski for a high school team, you don’t have to ski year round for that,” Leever said.
While Lange applauds those searching for answers and has shepherded athletes from grassroots to the World Cup, the way he sees it, the focus should be on the journey, no matter what hierarchy it takes place on.
“The top is in and of itself not valid,” he stated. “It’s only the journey that got you there and the friends you made along the way. Relationships are the only lasting value.”
At the end of the day, Lange, who has observed the sport from multiple angles for decades, says there is no easy answer to widening the base and increasing international performance.
“We’re facing headwinds that are real and the solution is not simple.”