The vibe at the Whitetooth Brewing Company in the working class town of Golden, British Columbia, near the confluence of the Columbia and Kicking Horse Rivers, is undeniable. Puffy jackets, Gore-Tex parkas and beanies adorn skiers and snowboarders as they shuffle into the microbrewery for the initial athletes’ meeting of the Freeride World Tour’s Kicking Horse stop. Golden, west of Banff and Lake Louise on the remote Trans-Canada Highway, is a railway town come new resort destination (Whitetooth Resort was reopened as Kicking Horse in 2000). And the mountain is a worthy tour stop–it’s a similar size and feel to Jackson Hole.
The athletes are here to get the download and I’m in the crowd, listening to officials give them details on snow conditions and safety. The Freeride World Tour is in its 12th year and is unique to the ski and snowboard world–in freestyle or big mountain, there isn’t another viable tour that crowns a world champion. Founder Nicolas Hale-Woods started the FWT in 2007 (born from the Verbier Extreme which began in 1996), raised the initial capital and tells me the event has to be run on a break-even platform because they don’t have endless financing. They are a small business, started in Switzerland that has managed to do big things in the mountains–namely crown world champions on a yearly basis.
I caught up with Hale-Woods over beers on a brisk, snowy evening in Golden.
How are you feeling about the FWT’s health and where it’s at right now?
We’re super-happy, especially the development of the grassroots with over 90 junior events around the world and over 3,000 licensed riders. Seventy qualifying events with over 2,000 riders, that makes the whole world tour legitimate on the sports aspect. We’re also very happy to see guys coming from the freestyle world, bringing their tricks into big mountain, which makes the whole sport progress at a really fast pace. Those two indicators make us feel that the world tour is healthy. We also have a multi-year contract with (different) destinations while renewing corporate sponsorship with Audi and Peak Performance. Last but not least, the development in Asia especially in Japan where this year we have nine events when three years ago we had none: one world tour event, four qualifiers, and four juniors.
So what is the financial model that makes these events work?
Here in Golden there are three partners: Kicking Horse Mountain, Golden and Destination British Columbia. It depends country to country. Destinations usually cover 50 percent of the event budget. We’re not quite there in North America yet but this is the model that works in Europe and Asia and Japan. I’m pretty solid on the finance side even though we’d like to grow and offer more prize money and to have more production and content resources but in general, I have a very good feeling.
From the grassroots level its seems that developing stars from within is key. But at the same time you continue to bring in wildcards for the star power. Can you talk about your strategy there?
The number of wildcards should be limited because it is a bypass compared to people that are battling on the junior and qualifying side. But when guys like Travis Rice or Gigi’ Rüf say, ‘I’m interested in participating.’ You just say, ‘yes’ and I think it’s accepted by the whole community just because it brings attention, grows the audience, and that is a way to grow the world tour. As long as it’s not half wildcards and half qualified riders, which would be unbalanced. We have to be careful how many wildcards we give out.
Do you feel pressure because of those wildcards? Do you get push back from qualified athletes?
We have a couple of times, but it’s not general that we have unsatisfied riders. They also have to understand that when you have an event in Japan, you need a Japanese rider. When you have an event in Andorra, and the biggest market is Spain, you need a Spanish rider. That’s part of the marketing of the event and as long as we don’t hand out wildcards to guys or girls that have nothing to do with those competitions, but on the contrary include athletes that have (the resume) it’s accepted.
Logistically, the easiest comparison to what you do is the WSL. There is a similarity, but I would argue that the logistics might be a little tougher for the FWT just because of the mountain environment, the danger, getting different camera angles. Do you find yourself fighting the logistical battle all the time?
Yes, the WSL is a benchmark in many ways.
The FWT is a tough sport to organize and to showcase but with the years of experience, I think we’re not bad at optimizing the conditions. We have some epic days. Obviously we have, not shitty, but very average conditions sometimes too. And you have to live with that. It can’t be the dream tour with powder and sun all the time. That also shows which rider is an all-arounder and can adapt to snow conditions, and sometimes tricky snow conditions. It is a challenge but it’s worth it. Because when it comes together it is pretty magical. Just like the WSL, sometimes they surf in shitty Trestles and sometimes unreal Teahupoʻo and that’s part of our sport.
It seems that perhaps the X Games has lost some of its cache of relateablity. Are you guys banking that all skiers and snowboarders know what it’s like to ride a line and can relate to that? Or the Freeride World Tour being more relatable in this modern era?
For sure. And we see that when you look at the Verbier finals, the spectators there are from seven to 77-years-old. Any skier or snowboarder can relate to a turn in powder snow and then you have different levels but it’s not completely out there and unrealistic to see yourself doing it. There’s also the whole lifestyle and travel aspect that is a big part of our sport. Typically that’s something we’d like to showcase more and tell the story about what these guys and girls are doing and who they are and to build stars like you rightly said. Yes, there is a sound base. It is the original discipline of skiing. When we were in Hakuba (Japan), you have early 20th century black and white photos of Japanese freeriders on wooden skis and leather shoes. This culture is real in many countries. Again, people, even at 80 years old, can relate.
There’s more of a success story for the Freeride World Tour in Europe. Are you guys in catch-up mode in the United States? Is that a priority?
That’s our priority number one because if we’re not strong in North America than something’s wrong. Now as a European based (brand) with limited resources it’s very tough for a small company to build something in North America. But there are ideas of collaborations with resorts, with riders that could help us in this sense. It’s one of our challenges. Coming back to our model of working with ski resorts, when we approach a resort in Asia or Europe we can collaborate on world tour, junior or qualifying events and give them the price tags, and show the return on investment for each category. Resorts with means would usually like to position themselves with (our top league).
But it’s different in North America?
Usually in North America, the answer is, ‘we’ll do a junior event because if we have 200 juniors in qualifications on day 1, and 120 in semis on day two and 60 in the finals on day three, and if every junior comes with at least one parent or coach that’s at least 1,000 nights and if we sell them at $200 a night lodging plus ski pass, basically we’re doing direct revenue.’ On the other side (from the resort’s perspective) you’re asking us to pay for a world tour event and North American resorts don’t see why they should. Same problems for FIS, in Lake Louise (Alberta), it’s not a self-financed event. It’s financed by European sponsors. I don’t know all the details, but a lot of sports are struggling in this sense.
In the U.S., a lot of people would love to see you take over something like Kings and Queens at Jackson or go to Crested Butte where freeride started in the States. Is there a chance to see you at a Jackson or a Big Sky or a Crested Butte?
Yes I really hope so. We need three events in North America. One in Canada, one in Alaska and one in the U.S. But we’re not there yet and we know we have to work on that. It’s feasible when you have a big title sponsor like we did with Swatch until three years ago. Now we are less dependent on one big sponsor. But we don’t have boom!, half a million to $800,000 to go to Jackson and say we’re going to do it even if you just host us for the welcome dinner. To find additional corporate sponsors to then go to a resort and maybe have a joint collaboration with a partner of theirs that could also be a partner of the event and they pay us to come. That’s the model we want for the future.