In 1998 snowboarding was nearing the end of another decade of unprecedented growth. The 1980’s and 1990’s were a time of abundance for the snowboard industry and mainstream media, advertising and sporting events took notice.
The pinnacle of the mainstream’s attention and acceptance came when snowboarding made its debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Of course, ESPN had debuted the Winter X-Games the year before in 1997, and snowboarding had graced the pages of mainstream magazines. However, its inclusion in the winter games felt like the final step in taking snowboarding from a small fringe lifestyle activity into an official and widely accepted sport.
Not everyone was thrilled about the attention and for good reason. The Olympic committee, which has been grilled for its widespread corruption for decades was put on the hot seat when it decided to allow the FIS (Federation Internationale De Ski), skiing’s governing body, to oversee Olympic snowboarding.
Many snowboarders including Terje Haakonsen, who at the time was the undisputed favorite for winning the Men’s Halfpipe contest, took issue with the IOC not choosing the International Federation of Snowboarders or IFS to oversee snowboarding’s inclusion in the Games. In fact, Haakonsen would go on to boycott the 1998 Olympic Games because of the ongoing governance issues, which surely leaves an asterisk in the record books next to the names of the three medalists from that year’s event.
There’s no doubt that snowboarding was included in the winter Olympics to help declining interest and viewership in the winter games, especially amongst the highly sought-after teen and young adult demographics. At the point of inclusion, it certainly felt like the Olympics needed snowboarding more than snowboarding needed the Olympics, a sentiment now shared by many skateboarders, including Tony Hawk, about skateboarding and surfing’s introduction into the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan.
And much like snowboarding the IOC has once again fumbled in choosing the governing body for Olympic skateboarding. Instead of choosing the ISF (the International Skateboard Federation), whose board is a who’s who of skateboard legends including Tony Hawk, Neil Hendrix, Eric Koston and many others, they chose USA Roller Sports (USARS) the American coalition of the Federation Internationale de Roller Sports (FIRS). The European-based FIRS is the governing body of rollerblading and rollerskating, it has no experience in the marketing, course design or governing of skateboarding.
According to recent reports, the ISF will have some involvement in the direction of skateboarding in the games, but FIRS will still be the lead governing body, which is already drawing concerns from heavy hitters within the industry. Again the IOC seems to be more interested in making money from youth-orientated sports that can draw revenue and viewership, than representing them in a way that makes the industry at large proud of its inclusion.
The last two Winter Games have been plagued with problems including a host of weather and condition-related issues at the 2010 Vancouver event, and everything from course safety to unfit lodging conditions at the Sochi Games in Russia. While the problems that plagued Cypress Mountain in 2010 were largely weather related, the Sochi games were largely criticized by Olympic athletes for being subpar for elite competition. In fact, the course conditions were so poor that snowboarding’s most famous and marketable athlete, Shaun White, withdrew from the Slopestyle event claiming it was too dangerous for him to compete.
This sentiment of disapproval and disappointment reverberated through both the halfpipe and slopestyle events, with almost every athlete complaining about the poorly designed and maintained courses. Competitive snowboarding is at such a high level that having a poorly designed or managed course might not only lead to disappointed athletes but could prove fatal. It certainly seems as if it lead to at least one injury in Sochi, with medal favorite Torstein Horgmo breaking his collarbone during a pre-contest practice run.
South Korea isn’t the first region that comes to mind when talking to most snowboarders about iconic winter sports destinations. While professional snowboarders have traveled to South Korea, it was certainly in more of an effort to experience new cultures and grow potential markets than to ride world-class terrain. Pyeongchang, South Korea, won the bid to host the 2018 Games in what will be the second Olympic Games held in the country, as it hosted the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.
Apart from weather concerns, once again Olympic athletes will be paying close attention to course quality as many saw the FIS’s not hiring Snow Park Technologies, the world’s foremost competitive snowboard park builders, as a blunder in Sochi. SPT is well known for the course design and maintenance at world-class events such as the X-Games and Dew Tour. With Big Air making its debut in South Korea the stakes are even higher, and not having an experienced crew to build safe features could be disastrous. When I wrote this piece, SPT had still not been contacted by the FIS or IOC in regards to the 2018 Games.
With questions looming about the 2018 Games and South Korea’s and the FIS’s ability to build trust between snowboarders and the IOC, many in the industry are calling for a boycott of the 2018 Olympics, the biggest of all being snowboarding’s de facto cultural gatekeeper Pat Bridges, the Editor-in-Chief of Snowboarder magazine. Shortly after the Sochi games, Bridges and Henning Anderson, who is notably Terje Haakonsen’s partner in the Arctic Challenge, another premier event, published an article calling for the boycott of future games.
While there is some speculation in the article in regards to snowboarding’s overall viewership in the Winter games, it makes a pretty compelling argument that elite competitive snowboarders need to pressure the IOC into accepting a new governing body run by snowboarders, as snowboarding viewership is still a major player in overall viewership and clearly outperforms its skiing counterparts. The large draw of the men’s and women’s snowboarding events would certainly give the athletes leverage if they decided to boycott until demands were met.
When NBC released its ratings for the 2014 Sochi Games, it at first seemed as if the ratings were in a slow spiral downward, as primetime viewing was down from 2010 in Vancouver. However, the 2014 Games actually reached the largest audience of any Winter Games prior, one of the main factors was online and social platforms allowing for unique viewing opportunities and a greater global reach.
While this is good news for the overall reach of the Game’s, it certainly will leave mainstream sponsors and advertisers looking for new ways to maximize their return on investment as primetime viewers will surely continue to drop, as more and more people use their computers, tablets and smartphones for entertainment, news and sporting events. This could also create a more a la carte experience for viewers. If this is the case and snowboarding continues to be one of the main drivers for viewership, this could give professional snowboarders the upper hand if they decide to go to the bargaining table.
Snowboarding grew exponentially throughout the 1980’s, 1990’s and early 2000’s, plateauing in the mid-2000’s. After the 2008 financial crises, the participation numbers began to drop for the first time in snowboarding’s short history. In 2008, the industry witnessed a perfect storm of low snow years (especially on the West Coast), recessions and a slow uptick in the number of snow sports enthusiasts returning to skiing. Meaning that for the first time in more than two decades, snowboarding’s unprecedented growth seemed to be faltering.
This was felt by the industry as a whole, while some brands continued to see strong sales numbers and steady growth many companies had to shut their doors, resorts struggled and many once-sponsored athletes found themselves without any brand support. This was punctuated when Nike decided to pull out of snowboarding in 2014, leaving many to wonder if the snowboard industry was in serious trouble.
Even with snowboarding starting to experience a slow participation decline and the industry, like many recreation industries, experiencing slowing revenues during, and then post-recession, snowboarding and snowboarding’s most famous athlete, Shaun White, were still a highlight of the 2010 and 2014 Games, as Shaun’s performance was the second largest live event for NBC drawing in 30.1 million viewers in 2010, and in 2014, White’s 4th place performance became the Olympics second best performing live stream, finishing just behind the Women’s Soccer final in the 2012 Summer Games.
Shaun White, love him or hate him, has been the biggest draw in professional snowboard history. Like Tony Hawk is to skateboarding and Kelly Slater is to surfing, much of the non-snowboarding world’s knowledge of snowboarding is hinged on White’s celebrity. As of now, according to an interview with Access Hollywood earlier this year, White does plan to make a run at the 2018 Gold Medal, even with a subpar performance at the Sochi Games, White’s plan to return in 2018 has to be music to the IOC’s ears.
White, who will be 31 for the Pyeongchang Games, will likely make his final Olympic appearance in South Korea, as he will be 35 when the 2022 Beijing Games roll around. Being 35 doesn’t automatically disqualify you from being an elite competitor, especially when you have the talent and resources of Shaun White, but if he does well in 2018, it seems unlikely that he would make another run.
With White’s celebrity being a huge part of the Winter Games draw, it has to be problematic that White is edging towards the end of his competitive career, especially with no clear predecessor in sight. Sure, there are young and talented riders nipping at Shaun’s heels, but none that carry the star power he has possessed since he was a young child. White was a prodigy, a virtuoso and is the most decorated Winter X-Games Athlete of all time. He has a signature video game, is a guest on late night talk shows in non-Olympic years and appears in movies. There is no other snowboarder in the history of the sport that is more recognizable than Shaun White. So what happens to the Winter Games when White inevitably leaves?
Right now the only feasible answer is 15-year-old Chloe Kim. The Long Beach-born phenom is dominating the women’s competitive circuit leading up to 2018. She’s freakishly talented, has the corporate backing of sponsors like Target (much like White), and happens to be a first-generation Korean American, which makes her perfect marketing material for the Pyeongchang Games.
Kim might not be a household name like White yet, but her star is rising, and with the right marketing effort, the IOC and NBC will likely have another star athlete to help draw viewers to the Winter Games. If the Winter Games hopes to continue dominating primetime and evolving on digital networks, they will have to continue investing in young athletes like Kim, who at 15 is quickly becoming the most dominate women’s competitor in the world.
The two-time X-Games Gold Medalist was the first woman to ever land back-to-back 1080’s in competition at the 2016 Grand Prix in Park City, Utah, and took home gold in both Halfpipe and Slopestyle at the 2016 Lillehammer Youth Olympic Games. While the future of snowboarding in the Winter Olympics might still be on shaky grounds, if snowboarding is the future of the Games, the future certainly looks to be female.
There’s a number of factors that will determine whether or not snowboarding continues to be one of the major draws of the Winter Games, as of right now even with its small decline in industry revenue and participation it is still dominating ratings. However, factors like weather, course design and safety, and the IOC and FIS investing in snowboarding and developing athletes, will all be crucial to the continued success of the Winter Games and snowboarding’s continued involvement.
Snowboarders might one day boycott the games, or conditions might become so dismal that elite competitors stop showing up. Maybe we will never have another Shaun White and it’s possible that snowboarding might one day take a back seat to curling. However, for now, it’s still drawing millions of viewers, and many of them are the most sought after advertising demographic, which means that as of today, the Olympics still needs snowboarding more than snowboarding needs the Olympics.