For a decade snowboarding took ski slopes by storm but now the industry it spawned is sliding downhill faster than an Olympic champion.
The sport that brought a rebel surfer’s attitude to snooty ski resorts and the Winter Olympics is in crisis due to changing weather patterns, a fall in equipment sales and fading interest from advertisers, sponsors and, most importantly, boarders.
Innovations in the rival pursuit of Alpine skiing such as shaped, dual-tip and fat skis, have made the traditional sport easier and more versatile, partly by adopting technologies from snowboarding. Ski manufacturers have refreshed their branding by tapping into the outlaw swagger that made snowboarding cool in the first place. Skiers with dual-tip skis can now jump backwards and carry on down the slope.
Snowboarding’s popularity peaked in the 2010-11 season when nearly 8.2 million Americans slid down mountains, according to the trade group Snowsports Industries America. Numbers dropped in each of the next three years, rallying slightly last year as women and young teenagers took up the sport.
Sales of snowboarding kit are down $60 million a year since 2007, says the National Sporting Goods Association, which tracks retail sales in America. Early figures from this season indicate that sales rose by a quarter in the west where there have been heavy snowfalls after four years of drought in California. However, they are still down 4 per cent nationally.
Observers say that the rapid multibillion-dollar advance of the snowboarding industry left it vulnerable to a drop in demand as the sport matured.
“It got oversaturated,” Marie Case, the managing director of Board-Trac, a lifestyle research and marketing company specialising in action sports, told The New York Times.
Unreliable snowfall has also been part of the problem. A quarter of American snowboarders live on the west coast where there has been much less snow in recent years. This winter snow has been scarce in the northeast, another population centre.
“The original challenge is the weather dependency,” John Lacy, the president of Burton Snowboards, an industry pioneer, said. “To not have snow across the east coast for this current winter really has an impact on getting people’s mind-set on getting up to the mountain,” he told The New York Times.
The decline in the sport’s popularity is affecting even the elite snowboarders. Iouri Podladtchikov, the 2014 Winter Olympics halfpipe champion from Switzerland, won his gold medal in Sochi riding a board bearing a logo for Quiksilver, the board-sports clothing company that filed for bankruptcy protection in September.
Last week he competed in Oslo at the X Games, the annual event for extreme sports, with his own artistic design on the bottom of his board because he no longer has a sponsor.
Louie Vito, a 2010 Olympian and double Winter X Games medallist, used to be sponsored by Nike but when the company scrapped its snow sports division two years ago he lost his backing.
“A few bad winters and Nike pulling out meant a lot of good riders without a boot sponsor and an outerwear sponsor,” he said. “It was a problem.”