Jake Burton still bullish on boarding
DENVER -- Three decades after snowboarders barged their way onto the mountain, Shaun White is a household name and the sight of an iPod-wearing teenager carving turns down the hills of a family resort doesn't even raise an eyebrow.
Those are good things, industry leaders say, because snowboarding is now firmly entrenched in the mainstream it once disdained.
Those are bad things, those leaders also say, because snowboarding is susceptible to the same ups-and-downs other snow sports face -- especially since the Great Recession hit in late 2007.
Recent studies by industry groups show snowboarding is no longer growing at the relentless pace that defined much of its first 30 years. Sales in 2011-12 fell between 19 and 31 percent, depending on the region of the country studied. Participation fell 7.5 percent nationwide.
Jake Burton, the man who perfected the modern-day snowboard and brought it to the masses back in the 1980s, recently sent a letter to his employees stating his concern about the trends but downplaying the well-circulated idea that snowboarding is losing its edge.
"I take exceptions to some of the comments and people trying to reach conclusions," Burton said in an interview with The Associated Press at the annual Snowsport Industries America Snow Show. "Last year was an incredibly rough year for snow sports in general. It just didn't snow anywhere across the country. Skiing took a hit. Snowboarding took a hit. Everyone took a hit."
Indeed, warm weather and light snowfall around the country caused a big downturn in snow sports; participation in alpine skiing also fell -- by 11.4 percent, according to a study by RRC Associates, also known as the Kottke National End of the Season Survey.
Burton, however, also recognizes the need to be more active in bringing people into snowboarding.
"We were relying for so long on just this magnetism of snowboarding," he said. "Now, we've got to work harder to figure out how to get more kids in the products and more women into the sport. It's a wakeup call."
The SIA statistics show 65 percent of snowboarders are males, while 72 percent of the boys are between 13 and 34.
Eleven percent of skiers fall in the 6-12 age group, while that group makes up 10 percent of snowboarders.
There are no statistics for kids under 6. Burton wants to see on snowboards almost as soon as they can walk.
As the core group of Burton employees have grown older and had kids, they've looked for ways to realize that. Among them is a contraption called the riglet -- essentially a leash that parents can attach to their young children's snowboards to keep them close and help them stay upright.
The snowboards themselves are being built smaller, geared for young children. New, kid-sized terrain parks are also being added at some resorts. The main message here: Snowboarding is hard to pick up and the industry has to do more to help kids get involved.
Another factor in snowboarding's lower numbers is that all the edgy pastimes that used to be exclusively for snowboarders have made their way into the ski world, as well. Skiers ride on halfpipes, go down slopestyle courses. The curvier, sidecut technology that was once unique to snowboards made its way to skis, as has much of the sensible, young-looking gear that used to be exclusively for snowboarders.
While White goes for his third straight gold medal in the halfpipe next year at the Sochi Olympics, he'll share the halfpipe with skiers, who will make their debut there. Slopestyle is being introduced for both snowboarding and skiing. In short, action sports are, more than ever, the domain of both skiers and snowboarders, not only the latter.
"I think there was a huge wave of popularity for snowboarding, probably a decade ago," said Chris Stiepock, the vice president of ESPN's X Games events. "Then, the ski technology changed, so you had twin tips and skiers could start to ski backward and go into jumps backward."
Tom Wallisch, the 2012 Winter X Games champion in skiing slopestyle, represents the highest level of a growing number of athletes who experimented on skateboards and snowboards as a kid, but eventually found he could enjoy all the same opportunities on skis.
"Skiing is the only thing I've ever been truly good at in my life," Wallisch said. "On skis is where I'm the best I can be. It's where I feel most comfortable."
Burton figures there's no use fighting that trend. Yes, he says, skiing has co-opted some of its advances from snowboarding.
"But what can we complain about?" Burton said. "Skiing gave us all these resorts. They gave us steel edges. We certainly grabbed our share from them."
The RRC Associates study caught the eye of many in the snowboarding industry and created some angst.
"Today, there is every indication that the growth in snowboarding we took for granted has stalled, and visitation from snowboarding is headed toward a path of substantial decline," wrote Nate Fristoe, RRC Associates director of operations, in the National Ski Areas Association Journal.
That triggered Burton's letter to the employees at his company, based in Burlington, Vt. Burton has between 40 percent and 70 percent of a market, depending on the sector, that's valued at somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion each year, depending on whether apparel is included in the math.
The message: No reason to panic.
"We just have to keep nurturing our sport and lifestyle as best we can," he wrote.