SAN ANTONIO — Last November was a mirror image of November 2002 at Southern California’s Mountain High ski area. The same amount of terrain was open for the same number of days — and under nearly identical weather.
But in November 2002, the 80 percent snowboarder-filled Mountain High swarmed with almost 80,000 visits. Last November, the 290-acre ski area saw barely 42,000 visits.
“We just don’t see the fanaticism anymore, with people coming out every day, all day,” said Mountain High president Karl Kapuscinski. “It’s a maturing sport. It’s nothing we’ve done. The parks and terrain are better than they’ve ever been. But we just can’t expect to keep that level of fanaticism going forever.”
young, on-fire fellows who swelled snowboarding’s ranks in the 1990s and surfed the resort industry through its darkest decade are not visiting their ski areas as often. And now, two consecutive seasons of declining snowboarder visits and a host of other statistical warning signs are worrying resort leaders who have long leaned on passionate ‘boarders.
“We got used to snowboarding becoming this giant engine of visitation, and they were our saviors. They are not anymore, and we ignore that at our peril,” said Nate Fristoe, director of operations at Boulder’s RRC Associates, who last week in San Antonio presented members of the National Ski Areas Association with research showing snowboarding not just leveling but falling.
Snowboarding soared from a mere 7.7 percent of visits to U.S. ski resorts in 1991 to 32.6 percent in 2009-10. The rapid growth buoyed a resort industry business that struggled through the 1990s, and snowboarding is largely credited with saving skiing. But the number has fallen over the past two seasons to 30.2 percent.
with declines in nearly every region and sector of snowsports, the sustained tumble in snowboarding stretches across several statistical planes beyond visitation.
Today’s snow surfers are getting older: from an average age of 23.5 in 1996-97 to 27.5 in 2010-11. They are spending fewer days on the hill: from a high of 7.6 days a season in 1996-97 to 6.1 days in 2010-11. For years, skiers averaged 5.7 days a season, and resort leaders expect snowboarding to continue its slide to a similar level of seasonal participation.
Fewer snowboarders are buying boards: down from a record high of 556,055 in 2008 to 497,605 in 2011, according to data from Snowsports Industries America.
Essentially, snowboarding is growing up as it enters its late 20s. Time to get a job and start a family. The percentage of snowboarders with kids grew from 18.8 percent in 2010 to 23.4 percent in 2011.
Perhaps most troubling, the number of kids 14 and younger who first enter snowsports riding snowboards has steadily declined since 2003, from a peak of 42.3 percent of all 14-and-younger snowsports first-timers to a 12-year low of 35.7 percent in 2011.
The sustained stall in snowboarding across every snowy region of the country has triggered fresh worries as the resort industry continues to see the aging baby boomers who ballooned skiing in the 1970s and ’80s leave the sport. In fact, a higher percentage of snowboarders are leaving snowsports than skiers.
According to Fristoe’s research, doing nothing to stem the decline would see snowboarding drop from 14.9 million visits in 2012-13 to 12.9 million in 2020-21.
“This is a very real issue for us,” said NSAA president Michael Berry, who had projected long-term industry growth using the once-reasonable assumption that snowboarders would eventually account for 35 percent of all visits. “It’s a complex problem.”
To solve the problem, Berry focuses on boosting the number of days snowboarders spend riding each season. Resorts should work hard to address why females leave the sport, maybe by hiring more female instructors and providing female-focused rental gear. And resorts should strive to remain relevant to an apparently increasingly ambivalent ‘boarder.
Kapuscinski, a pioneer of multicultural marketing who regularly hosts 500,000 visits a year at his tiny hill, said the problem is not something that can be fixed by flipping a switch.
“I think the worst thing we can do is have a bunch of 40-, 50-, 60-year-old white guys try to fix this,” he said. “Snowboarding is still a growth model as we move into different ethnicities. We just have to understand how it is maturing and mature with it.”
One strategy is to make it easier for snowboarding parents to introduce their kids to the board.
Jeff Boliba can do that. As Burton’s global resort director, Boliba’s job is to create easy learning environments at resorts so that first-timers are set up to succeed from the moment they strap in.
Boliba designed a leashed board that enables instructors to teach the fundamentals of balance and edging while pulling the board-strapped rider. The Riglet board has spawned an entire collection at Burton, with tiny boots, boards and bindings specifically made for kids.
The company is cultivating its Experience Snowboarding program, which develops mini-terrain parks and Star Wars-themed learning centers for introducing kids to surfing on snow.
Boliba said the lack of data from the under-8 crowd — and Fristoe acknowledges his statistics lack perspective for that younger set — paints too dark a picture of snowboarding’s future.
“The biggest growth I’m seeing isn’t reflected in those numbers,” said Boliba, a father of three who travels the world helping resorts tune their snowboard-introduction programs. “Resorts that are reaching out to younger kids, they are killing it. That’s how we fix this.”
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374 or firstname.lastname@example.org