State of Snowboarding: A Reality Check

Our recent series on the state of competitive snowboarding has included a lot of talk about emulating the ASP world surf tour. Dave Mailman has worked in both sports and offers his own insight.

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Over the last few months here at Whitelines, the never-ending discussion has been heating up again about the role that contests and competitive snowboarding should play within the sport as a whole. Obviously, the temperature goes through the roof when the conversation comes around to that Pandora’s box of professional snowboarding, the Winter Olympics.

What I find bizarre is the majority of people debating the pros and cons of competitive snowboarding actually support snowboarding within the Olympics in some form or another. At the same time, they hold up professional surfing – the antithesis of an Olympic sport – as the example to follow along the path to enlightenment.

As someone who grew up just down the coast from Surf City, USA, and who has literally been bathing in the Surf Industry for the better part of half of my life I am here to tell you that snowboarding can survive without kowtowing to the Olympics.

Professional surfing has grown and prospered since the birth of the International Professional Surfers (IPS) world tour in Hawaii in 1976. Of course, there have been a few bumps in the road along the way...

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The most notable was the wrenching away of the world tour from the spiritual birthplace of the sport by the Australian based Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) in 1983. Then there was the Rebel Tour coup d’état that never came to be in 2009, and most recently the “buy out" of the ASP by ZoSea Media for zero dollars, a deal which will be consummated by a rebranding of the pro tour under the moniker of the World Surf League (WSL) in early 2015. Interestingly enough, the last two takeover attempts were orchestrated by the manager of multiple-time surfing world champ, Kelly Slater. But, more about that later.

Surfers have always been cool with a little competition amongst fellow wave riders.

So, why is it that in the 40-year history of the pro circuit neither the surfers nor the event organizers have made a serious effort to bring the sport of kings into the Olympic arena? How have they been able to go it alone for so long without the Games that the vast majority of pro snowboard people think their sport just can’t live without?

First of all, surfers have always been cool with a little competition amongst fellow wave riders. In ancient Polynesia it was a way of settling disputes between local Kahunas without resorting to the chopping off of heads. In more modern times, even the most anti-establishment surfers, from Miki Dora, Gerry Lopez, Christian Fletcher, and Dave Rastovich to Dane Reynolds have entered and even won a contest or two.

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Snowboarding was brought into this world by skiers, skateboarders and surfers. None of the original sideways snow sliders had an issue with contests (just ask Tom Sims and Jake Burton). Holding contests actually grew hype around the sport and piqued people’s interest in snowboarding in the first place. Blame may be laid at the feet of snowboard video culture and Standard Films’ Totally Board series for showing snowboarders there was another way to make a buck from riding mountains than just bashing gates or spinning to win off jumps of various shapes and sizes. Nonetheless, if snowboarders want to continue growing their sport, they have to come to accept that contests are still the best promotional tool at their disposal. The FIS and IOC wouldn’t go to all that trouble if they weren’t.

If snowboarders want to continue growing their sport, they have to come to accept that contests are still the best promotional tool at their disposal.

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The second most important factor in surfing’s success as a standalone professional sport is that – like Formula 1, Moto GP or tennis – it has one international competitive circuit. While this pro tour may not be perfect, it is a platform understood by the general public in which the elite riders compete no more than 13 times per year. Surf fans everywhere know they can count on seeing their heroes perform without fail – all they have to do is turn up at the beach or tune in to watch the webcast.

It also crowns a World Champion of Surfing. Every year. Believe it or not, that world title is very important in the grand scheme of things. In fact it’s the single most important thing in the world of professional surfing.

Surfing has also succeeded on its own terms because it has its own cache of internationally recognisable stars. The list of surfing World Champions spans almost 40 years and includes no less than 18 different title-holders from six different countries. Of course, 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater is undoubtedly the superstar of the sport thanks to his incredible wave riding ability, mind boggling competitive record and a brief appearance on the now cult TV show Baywatch – which also included a stint dating Pamela Anderson. Yet despite Kelly’s early introduction to a global audience of millions, it has been his yearly quest for the undisputed title of world’s best surfer that has cemented his fame. So too those personalities who have challenged his crown – building reputations and rivalries in the process – have added to the legend and helped define the sport of surfing.

With only 13 elite events per year - Surf fans know they can count on seeing their heroes perform without fail .

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Stories like the competitive dominance of surfing’s first multiple title holder, four-time world champ Mark Richards; the duels between a slew of Australian title contenders and America’s first champion Tom Curren; the rise of Hawaii’s Andy Irons and Aussie anti-hero Mick Fanning, both of whom threw spanners in the works of the second coming of Kelly Slater; and most recently the crowning of the boy from Brazil, Gabriel Medina, are what bring people by the thousands to beaches around the world to watch them perform.

Snowboarding sees crowds of similar size once every four years for a day or two at the Olympics, and once a year at the X Games and at the Air & Style. At all three of the aforementioned events the actual snowboard contest is only one of the draw cards for the general public. There are either other sports helping to attract a larger audience or a big music act targeted at that fabled ‘youth demographic’. At the World Championship Tour surf events it is all about the surfing, and nothing but the surfing.

At the World Championship Tour surf events it is all about the surfing, and nothing but the surfing.

So, let’s recap a little. Surfing has survived on its own terms for the following reasons:

  • Surfing in contests is cool. Or at least, surfers are cool with other surfers surfing in contests.
  • Professional surfing has one internationally recognized world tour, and all the best surfers want to surf on it.
  • Winning the title of professional surfing’s World Champion is the most prestigious accolade in the sport.

Last but not least, every professional surfer on Earth, from the most decorated world champions to the lowliest shop sponsored kid entering a local club contest for the first time, supports the system.

If you were paying attention earlier, you’ll remember I mentioned Kelly Slater’s long time manager, Terry Hardy, being involved in two efforts aimed at severely altering the landscape of professional surfing. The first was in 2009 when he tried to pitch the aptly named Rebel Tour concept to shake up the status quo and bring some much-needed change to the sport. This was done with the backing of the 11-time world champ, and while it didn’t come to fruition it did result in a major revamping of the judging criteria and increase in the amount of prize money of the top tier events – demands the surfers had been unsuccessfully clamouring for. Five years later, Terry came back to the table with a new management team and a believable enough business plan to convince the surfers to vote unanimously to peel the ASP out of the hands of the Surf Industry and hand it over to ZoSea Media for a chance at a new beginning.

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So, why follow the example set by surfing?

As a professional sport it’s much better organized and coherent than pro snowboarding. Competitive snowboarding is a mess.

As every opinion piece that has appeared in this series has pointed out, snowboarding has yet to truly embrace competition. The “best" riders are happiest filming video parts or just don’t think contests are important enough to actually commit to showing up for more than a handful of them. Even if they can make heads or tails of all the different contest series (WST, A&S, X-Games, Dew Tour, and FIS/Olympic qualifiers) snowboard fans, let alone the general public, can’t be sure that should they actually attend a contest as a spectator or happen upon a live broadcast, their favourite riders will be competing.

Most importantly, there is no logical way to determine who the best riders are. Is winning an Olympic medal more prestigious than one from the X Games? Is it better to be the World Snowboard Tour’s Overall World Champion, or to win the WST individual title in Big Air, Halfpipe or Slopestyle? And what’s the difference between the winner of the WST titles, the winner of the FIS world cup titles, and the winner of the WST or FIS World Championships? Nobody knows.

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Apparently, not enough of the people who make a difference actually care. There is no consistent support across the board from all the riders for any one platform. Snowboarding’s biggest star, Shaun White, has pretty much won every contest there is to win, but hasn’t done anything to support the sport as a whole. So while Kelly Slater has been very implicated in the development of the competitive side of pro surfing – putting great thought into new contest formats, helping with progression of the judging criteria and pushing the tour itself in new directions, all the while bringing his fellow surfers with him – Shaun has done nothing that hasn’t served to advance his own career. He wasn’t interested in helping the fledgling TTR/WST develop, he hasn’t used his considerable clout as an athlete to influence the IOC/FIS situation, and now through his recent acquiring of majority ownership of the Air & Style Company – which subsequently abandoned the WST – he’s thrown another spanner in the works of the ongoing battle to consolidate competitive snowboarding under one banner.

The closest thing the rest of the riders have offered to a solution is the Global Snowboarders Alliance. It counts TTR/WST World Champs and World Championship winners amongst its members, but it still can’t convince the rank and file riders out there to back a single unified series of snowboard contests. And for all the ‘FUCK FIS’ and ‘Speak Up Shaun’ stickers plastered across riders boards in the run up to the last Olympics, no one boycotted. Not one rider. And as the contest season kicks off this winter, some of the most outspoken anti-Olympic athletes have already been seen gracing podiums at FIS World Cups.

There is no consistent support across the board from all the riders for any one platform.

Even worse, that rider inaction and complacency is being used by the opposite side as validation for FIS control of Olympic snowboarding. In a recent piece here on Whitelines entitled ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ author Sam McMahon interviewed FIS Snowboarding Director, Roby Moresi who had this to say:

If we are in the position we are in now, it is because snowboarding needed the Olympics. I believe that we both need each other – at least on the competitive side – to make sure our sport is represented at a maximum. It’s the riders who we have to listen to: if other people are saying we don’t need the Olympics, then who cares? But if the riders, who’ve demonstrated they want the Olympics, are keen for it then I trust their opinion."

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Or, as Terje said in his own Whitelines interview:

“They’re just so fucking media whoring, now the only thing they think about is getting their face on the cereal box."

Surfing has survived because through thick and thin everyone has stuck together. Only once since the ASP split from the IPS has surfing faced an existential crisis about where the sport is going. In snowboarding, since 1998 it has happened like clockwork once every four years – and all over a few medals and a couple hours of TV time, albeit watched by an audience of millions. In the end, the only people who benefit from it are fat cats at the IOC, their friends at FIS, the few medal winners and the multi-national corporations whose marketing dollars pay for it all. The sport doesn’t benefit at all.

What frustrates me the most is that snowboarding was so close to touching the holy grail when, for a brief season, the X Games, a USSA Grand Prix, the Air & Style, Burton Opens and other respected events were all included under the same World Snowboard Tour banner. All that it lacked was the Dew Tour to make it a clean sweep of the world’s most important independent snowboarding circuits. A year on, it’s at its lowest point since the ISF went under. Only three events are capable of delivering the level of sponsorship and organization necessary to qualify as “Elite" TTR/WST events to determine this season’s world champion.

The professional snowboarders who count on contest results for their livelihood need to realize that by sticking together they can demand a better deal.

[related_articles]Would I be writing this opinion piece if the World Snowboard Federation or the Ticket To Ride association had been chosen by the IOC to run Olympic snowboarding instead of the FIS? No. If the riders and the independent event organizers who put in all hard work to make snowboarding appealing to the IOC in the first place had been given the choice and decided to team up with the IOC, then I'd say, "more power to them". Although I am staunchly anti-Olympics for a number of reasons, I definitely wouldn’t have taken the time to immortalize my negative thoughts on the matter just for the fun of it. What’s the point? As Roby Moresi pointed out, the opinions of people like me don’t really matter.

So, once again, it all really comes back to the snowboarders themselves. The professional snowboarders who count on contest results for their livelihood need to realize that by sticking together they can demand a better deal than what’s being offered right now by the IOC, FIS, ESPN, Mountain Dew and Shaun White. Or they can accept the status quo and let a bunch of corporate interests decide their future for them. It’s been a decade and a half since snowboarding’s Olympic debut, and it seems that many of the sport’s elite competitors still haven’t learned the lesson.

There’s always hope.

Originally from Southern California, Dave Mailman started surfing on a single fin and snowboarding on a Winterstick. Since moving to Europe he's occupied many roles in the boardsports industry: Editor at Onboard, Marketing Director at Quiksilver Europe, Co-Founder of the Ticket To Ride, President at Association of Surfing Professionals Europe, and event announcer at TTR, ASP, FWT and other action sports events worldwide.