A few weeks ago, there was a series of interesting articles on slopefillers.com about "growing skiing". Numbers have been pretty stagnant lately, whether due to the economy, the climate, or some other reasons. There were a lot of good ideas by a lot of smart people, and you can read this post that neatly summarizes all of the different points. I liked the views, but I didn’t get really an overarching story or a specific vision for the future. So, I came at the problem in a different way – by comparing skiing to other popular sports:
Why are bowling alleys still around? What a dumb sport. You roll a ball and knock over a few pins, then you do it again. But, bowling has a few things going for it. First, you can wear your regular clothes. Second, the equipment isn’t really complicated – a ball that anybody can use, and a pair of shoes that are really cheap to rent (I think shoe rental was like $4 last time I went bowling). Come to think of it, bowling is a pretty cheap sport in general, and sometimes they have “All you can bowl” nights for $10 or so. Third, bowling is easy to get to. Chances are, there’s a bowling alley in your town and you probably don’t have to drive more than 20 minutes to do it. Also, you don’t have to be a crazy athlete to bowl – anyone can roll a ball. In fact, you can even drink while you do it. Finally, there are leagues. Leagues bring people to the bowling alley on nights where they might not go otherwise. They buy beers, buy food, and generally have a good time getting better at a sport they enjoy.
I play a lot of golf in the summer. I hate paying for it, but I like certain aspects of golf. First of all, courses are unique. My home course is wide open, other courses are narrow and require more shotmaking, courses in the Adirondacks offer amazing views, certain courses are quirky, or difficult, or have a good bar. Also, there is a hierarchy of courses. People usually begin at a driving range or a miniature golf course, from there, they graduate to a pitch and putt course, a par 3 course or a little nine hole course close by. From there, they go to larger public courses or country clubs, and then, finally, there are the destination resorts of Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Scotland, etc. As for cost, golf isn’t cheap. But there are ways to practice without paying a greens fee. You can tool around on the putting green, or hit a bucket of balls on the range. Finally (again), there are leagues. There are a lot of Mondays in the summer when I’d rather be riding my bike or sitting by a pool, but I’m walking around a golf course in sweltering heat or pouring rain. And then I buy beers at the bar afterwards.
My main summer sport is biking, and most of the advantages are obvious. First, on my road bike, I can go right from my house. If I’m just looking to put in some quick miles, this convenience factor is impossible to ignore. But I don’t really like road biking (I hate dressing up in spandex like a superhero, I hate dealing with traffic, etc.). I prefer mountain biking and, while there are a couple of places that I ride to from my house, I usually load up the car with my bike and gear and drive to a trailhead. The trail systems I drive to are generally about 20 minutes away, but I also take longer trips (and pay money) to ride places like the Kingdom Trails, Millstone Hill, BETA, and other places. Initial cost is high (bikes are expensive), but most of the trail systems I ride are free or cheap.
LESSONS FOR SKIING
These three sports are in various stages of life. Bowling is dying, Golf is stagnant, and Mountain Biking is on the rise (no data to back this up, just personal observation – in reality golf and bowling might increase as baby boomers age, where mountain biking might decline). But there are some lessons to be learned in each case.
1. Make it cheap! Not only lift tickets, but rentals, too. Keep older equipment around longer if you need to. We’re trying to give the feeling of sliding, and we don’t need super rockered, super shaped, super wide skis to do that. Sure, they help, but so does a beginner area of a mountain with some berms, rollers, and fun contours to play on. Ski boot rental should be priced like bowling shoes (I realize the cost difference in producing these items, but once again, solid older equipment could be used).
2. More XC equipment, Snowshoes, and XC trails at Ski areas. Anybody can bowl. Anybody can hit a golf ball (not good, but they can hit it). Almost anybody can ride a bike. We’re trying to get people outside sliding on snow. As baby boomers age, they’re not going to be into getting rad on terrain parks, they’re going to be into having a fun experience outside. Whether that means cruising the groomers or just navigating some cool XC trails, they are more interested in the enjoyment and exercise than capturing gnarly shit on their GoPros.
3. Make it close. People need to be able to get to skiing easily. Sadly, a lot of local hills are dying off, and people have to drive further and further to go skiing. This trend has got to be reversed if we are going to grow the sport. Like driving ranges or bowling alleys, there should be small sledding/skiing/tubing hills really close to (or within) every town. Like the local ice rink, they should rent out ski equipment for super cheap (hand me downs from larger resorts?). They should be lit at night for a fun little nighttime activity. Build a few jumps, and you’re golden. I look at Dynamite Hill in Chestertown as a model.
4. Develop a hierarchy. Small hills as described above should feed into larger hills. A slightly larger hill could handle races, bump runs, and small terrain parks. From there, skiers could graduate to a bigger mountain, and then to a “destination resort.” If we just siphon every skier to a megadestination resort right off the bat, I’d imagine that people would get overwhelmed and confused by everything going on. That happened to me at Telluride, and I’m pretty steeped (haha) in how ski areas work.
5. Get people to the mountain on days they would otherwise be unlikely to go. Leagues, Programs, Lesson packages, gimmicks, whatever it takes. Every medium sized local ski area needs snowmaking, lights, and grooming (yes, these things are expensive, but with increased efficiency and green energy, hopefully prices will start to decrease). But it also needs middle school ski clubs, high school race teams, master’s racing programs, a freestyle team, and solid events that draw people to the mountain. Obviously, you need the mogul contest, the rail jam, etc., but what about thinking outside the box? Outdoor winter concerts, scavenger hunts, wine tasting ski tours of XC trails? It seems like there hasn’t been a new idea in the ski world since the 70’s. I mean, I like the torchlight parade as much as the next guy, but shouldn’t we have come up with something better by now?
6. Beer. I’m calling for outdoor areas at all ski mountains (Dynamite Hill to Whistler/Blackcomb) with fireplaces that you can sit by and drink beer. Doesn’t matter if your mountain is big or small, you need to be able to drink a beer while you watch your kid race, or rest after a few runs, or just relax and enjoy the view.
7. Stop making fun of gapers. I don’t like dressing up in spandex to bike, but I still do it, and I feel like a tool when I do. Even I see road bikers and immediately think “Look at this douchebag”. But people who are just starting out in a sport (or only do it a couple of times a year) don’t want to be made fun of by a bunch of pricks who judge them purely based on their clothes or equipment. While fun to point out the ridiculousness, it’s better to just smile and help them navigate the area – especially because bigger ski areas are intimidating places.
8. Be Happy. Every time you’re at a ski resort (big or small), be smiling, be energetic, be pumped up and be happy to be there. Everyone has a better time at a place when the people around them are stoked. There are a lot of problems in the world. Be thankful that you’re outside, enjoying an awesome day of skiing with the people who matter most in your life.