The Snowboarding Industry
Over the last few years there has been some concern over the health of the snowboarding industry. Snowboarding gear sales have gone up and down over the last four years while ski sales have stayed relatively unchanged. Likewise, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), snowboarder visits to ski areas have been decreasing since 2004 with an overall 22% drop since the peak hay-days of the late nineties. The ski traffic has gone up slightly in contrast and some of that is due to recent advancements in skis borrowed from snowboard design. Skis now look like skinny snowboards with side-cuts, rocker, twin tips and hefty sidewalls which allow them to have better float, carve easier, and have switch riding capabilities. One might assume that this accounts for the increase in younger skiers in the terrain parks.
There are several factors sited for the lack of growth in snowboard sales and participation. For one, snowfall levels have been dropping in recent years, which has a psychological effect. If people do not see snow where they live, then they are not apt to be thinking about going to the ski area. This tends to lower the average number of times snowboarders and skiers visit the ski area in a given year. Another factor is that after the peak years in 2000-2001, the average number of new snowboarder participants has steadily been leveling off. There are still increases each year, but in relation to the gains made through out the mid to late nineties they are considerably less. The combination of fewer average visits to the ski area and lower average gains in newcomer participation has probably led to a stall in growth.
To put things in perspective, the average snowboarder visits to ski areas is still, percentage-wise, more than the average skier visits. That said, snowboarder visits have been steadily declining since the late nineties from an average of eight days a year to about six days a year now. And skier visits have pretty much followed the same trend over this period of time. This could suggest there is more of a leveling off in the snowboard market growth rather than a precipitous fall into oblivion as some industry personalities have suggested. Looking at some of the data available on the topic it is easy to see that the overall decline is one that involves the entire snow sports industry and not just one sport within that group.
Nonetheless, there are some interesting facts that go beyond changing weather patterns (which tend affect single seasons and not decades of activity). The three factors that have become most talked about are: aging snowboarder generation, gender gap and the under 14 crowd. Let’s have a closer look at these issues.
- Age: A great number of snowboarders entered into the sport during nineties. They came in their teens and twenties and now a lot of them are starting families and/or working on careers. These people tended to be very dedicated and spent multiple days a year snowboarding. Then, as life situations changed those days on the hill dropped. Also, a lot of these people started as skiers and switched over to snowboarding. So what looks like a huge decline in snowboarding is probably more of a leveling off, or decline, in the overall snow sports industry.
- Gender Gap: Female riders make up roughly 34 percent of active snowboard participants. The male to female ratio for skiing is relatively the same, though there are more women skiers than snowboarders. Again, these trends are reflective of the snow sports industry as a whole, not just snowboarding. While it is clear snowboarding has a much higher percentage of males participating, it is also true that there are a good number of elite female riders who are taking snowboarding to the next level. These women are more than just role models for girls in the park- they are setting goals for an entire generation of girls to target, and this is great for snowboarding.
- 14 and under crowd: A lot of industry people feel that snowboarding is a youth driven sport because they are the ones who will be involved in it the longest. But the average age of snowboarders entering the sport is increasing as the sport gets older. This does not mean, however, that there are less youngsters participating. That number trends up and down depending on a number of factors including regional weather conditions and economic stressors. The good news is that over 2 million kids between the ages of 6 and 17 are participating in snowboarding activities this year.
So what are some possible factors affecting the growth of snowboarding. Well, as we touched on earlier, a good deal of the original generation snowboarders have started families and careers and do not have the time to get out and ride as much. Another factor is the economic downturn of 2008, which we are still trying to recover from. Lift passes are not getting cheaper, although there are a good number of online resources that offer discounted tickets and ski areas sell season passes cheaper the earlier you buy. There is also the fact that snowboarding is just part of the larger snowsports industry which has been experiencing turbulent times since long before snowboarders were even allowed on ski areas.
The Future of the Snowboarding Industry
As far as the future is concerned, if you look at some of the recent data put out by Snowsports Industries America (SIA) it seems that snowboarding is not on some downward death spiral but reacting to changing times like any other sport does. Furthermore, there are some really exciting things happening in snowboarding that are keeping it fresh and exciting. For example, you have boards that incorporate some really innovative eco-friendly technology that is changing snowboard design and construction (Niche, Arbor). You have new binding tech by companies like NOW that redefine how bindings interact with the rider. And you have apparel brands like iNi that are building their companies from the ground up based on sustainable materials and manufacturing methods.
Splitboarding has also been effectively “re-introduced” by Jeremy Jones. His movies Deeper and Further (and soon coming Higher) have put the focus of snowboarding on exotic places around the world where the terrain and conditions are as much a part of the filming as is the riding. And he has shown that you do not need lift service to access great terrain and have fun.
Snowboarding will continue to grow financially and creatively as the industry finds new and innovative ways to move forward. And there will always be a contingent of riders that will do whatever it takes to get to the hill and shred, whether it is in the park, backcountry, street or wherever else there is snow to be found. There will also be over-commercialism, frivolous trends, climate change and economic pressures creating a drag at the peripheries. But despite what may happen in the snowboarding industry, for those of us focused on riding every year, every day we can, for the rest of our lives- things will continue to remain the same.