Legends: they are acknowledged as household name, revered by peers, and celebrated by brands. In surfing, we have the likes of Tom Curren, Rob Machado, and a steady hierarchy of older gents who in one way or another approached the wave in such a way that it will be long (if ever) before we no longer appreciate their progressive athleticism or simple lifestyle choices which helped define the culture. In skateboarding, the same — mention Gonz or Kosten and paychecks go out as quickly as salutes go up. Because these men and women bestowed such a bounty of gifts (often at great personal sacrifice) to those who surf and skate, they are ultimately rewarded in kind.In snowboarding, there are those legends as well, but their names are more likely spoken by weather-beaten veterans rambling on at the local dive then whispered in company headquarters, let alone seen on magazine covers. Besides your Terje Haakonsens and Jamie Lynns, many of our most innovative pioneers are hardly supported by the industry they breathed life into. And what this does is denigrate snowboarding as a whole.
But is that fair… to scrutinize snowboarding at large for the lack of reverence and celebration for its legends? I wasn’t all that sure myself, so I set about considering the arguments I most often heard.
1. Snowboarding is young and “legends” are only now getting to that age.
We are basically on our fourth generation of riders. First there were the guys in the eighties, Terry Kidwell and Tom Sims, who not only brought skate and surf style to the snow, but also had the unenviable task of working out the kinks of the now archaic equipment dilemma. Then came the nineties, in which Shaun Palmer and Terje showed what snowboarding was all about — on and off the mountain. By the 2000s, the progression of riding was marked by guys like JP Walker and Gigi Rüf in the freestyle arena, and then there was a growing movement into the backcountry most notably pioneered by Jeremy Jones. This brings us to present day when the kids coming up are only about half the age of those who moved the sport not so long ago. So really, only in the last ten years have we started to see our forefathers granted those “old dude” medals of honor.
2. The bubble burst a few years ago and… SNOWBOARDING IS DEAD!
Once there was a time when snowboarding ruled the action sports world, a fantasy land where budgets were bottomless and everyone, including mainstream mega-brands, desperately wanted to be hip as they shoveled out loads of cash for even the slightest of slices. Then reality hit — the industry overshot the jump, and everyone (including those mega-brands) realized that snowboarding wasn’t really that big and didn’t necessarily have the staying power to maintain its initial blowup; furthermore, it takes money to do it, and much of that edgy youth culture it primarily capitalized on didn’t and doesn’t typically have the amount of cash a setup and chairlift and $20 bowl of chili requires. Consequently, when the economy imploded in 2008, the industry was left emaciated with a less than elementary education in self-sustainability. Supporting legends? They could hardly support themselves.
“What happened to Kevin Jones?” Nothing! He’s still shredding as hard as ever, but he has to support it with a real job. He’s no longer strapped with that sponsor budget to gallivant around the world on said company’s dime. That may seem unfair for a snowboarder who did so much for the sport, but I suppose there are worse fates.
3. It’s bad for business.
With such an emphasis on the youth, the lion’s share of marketing budgets are allocated towards the kids. With that in mind, promoting old dudes doesn’t make much sense. Thankfully, though, this is changing. Ten years ago, no matter how deep you dug, it was basically tabloid stories of a youth gone wild. Now, however, that demographic of snowboarders are shifting into their thirties, and with that shift comes the understanding that there is a maturing market out there supporting the industry and, most importantly, shopping. This is also a generation who is hard pressed to understand the freakish talents and sketchy look of today’s younger riders. Instead, they admire the timeless style of the now old dudes they emulated when they themselves were young.Recently we’ve seen an emergence of rider driven brands like Homeschool and YES. coming in with a no-nonsense old school approach to branding and business.
4. Many companies that gave birth to and subsequently bred those innovative pioneers are gone.
From Sims and Barfoot to even Forum, the companies that once supported the world’s best riders are like snow in California — no more. Think along the lines of association: you think of Chris Roach, Santa Cruz comes to mind; Ingemar Backman, Atlantis. Unfortunately, in a sport like snowboarding with all those cultural implications that are as important as they are, many times when the brand hangs up its hat, so does the rider, whether they were ready to or not. Beyond that, the companies that survive and have the resources to pull those riders out of retirement are the same companies that prioritize more youth-oriented strategies, easily giving legends the boot.
And that is a shame. If you don’t gauge someone like DCP or Johan Olofsson as the barometer for snowboarding and where it is today, you are missing the mark by a mile, if not more. Maybe us simple snowboarders just have higher expectations and different values that business minded folk, but so many brands are doing just that and ignoring them, effectively implying that they either don’t see and respect the barometer, or more likely don’t have time for it. Yet if snowboarding is going to continue developing as a sport, then these brands best recognize as to not completely lost sight of on what and how snowboarding began. Many of these companies would not be where they are now at without the contributions of these legends. However, the truth of the matter is that to many brands a good rider is essentially a good marketing campaign, and when that campaign runs its course (or blows its ACL or reaches an age that is no longer as marketable), a new campaign (read: person) is implemented.
5. Media. Yep, us. And the press relation pimps breathing down our necks.
It is the media’s responsibility to accurately portray snowboarding, or at least attempt to portray snowboarding as seen through the eyes of snowboarders. That said, when you pick up a magazine or scroll through a website, you’re more likely to see and read an edit or story filtered through the lens of the brand behind said edit or story. These days, snowboard and action sports titles are more a lookbook then an “editorial” publication. This is the filthy roach motel in which the brands and media pimp their message. If the brands wanted to sell the stories of these legends, we would no doubt be seeing a lot more of them. But because of the already fragile state of affairs, most media can only afford to publish content with money behind it, directly or otherwise.
Isn’t it curious that every single product you read about is literally “the best”? Afraid to have an opinion for fear of losing those advertisers’ big bucks, the portrayal of snowboarding has become homogenized in the name of safety. Unfortunately this have had repercussions across the board with many young professionals groomed with the nit comb of these safety standards consequently dulling the fine line between the death and glory attitude that used to define the sport… and in turn, give rise to truly legendary riders.
There are many things that have led to the underappreciation of our legends. And let me clarify, when I say underappreciated, I mean underexposed and undereducated, and both brand and media alike are to blame. Those of us who have been around know who Michi Albin is. We also know JP Solberg, Martin Gallant, and Mark Frank Montoya. And we not only know them but realize how invaluable their contributions to snowboarding were and still are. But snowboarding has proved to be more fickle than surfing or skateboarding. Those are lifestyles in which almost anyone can engage. Snowboarding is limited to various mountainous regions and costs a ridiculous amount of money to participate, not to mention is wholly dependent on a very unpredictable weather pattern.
The worst part of all this is that while I have my own personal thoughts on the denigration of snowboarding and the cultural problems that have led to it, the loss of our legends might be more easily explained in the removed context of any Business 101 course — like any other form of capitalism, it is the bottom line that matters. And the people calling the shots these days are often businessman, not snowboarders.
So when brands like Drink Water emerge, and institutions such as Lib Tech and Volcom refocus their energies on snowboarding’s roots, that is a damn good sign. Because to these people, and to most snowboarders, the bottom “line” invokes how they made it down the mountain, not a spreadsheet.