Snowboarding’s Rebellious Teenage Years Are Over

There’s no question about it: the snowboard industry is struggling. We talked to Shaun White, Todd Richards, and others about where the sport goes from here.

by Liam Gallagher
May 10 2016, 6:29pm

The Legendary Banked Slalom. Courtesy Liam Gallagher

The White Salmon Lodge at Mt. Baker is maxed out. Every seat is taken. There's barely room to stand, and it's starting to get uncomfortably stuffy. Too many bodies, not enough windows to crack. It's a fire marshal's nightmare, and every snowboarder's dream.

The awards ceremony for the thirtieth Legendary Banked Slalom is about to begin, and the roster of riders waiting on the call includes some of the best in snowboarding—a collection of local guys, industry heads, rising stars, top pros, and even a few Olympic gold medalists. Winning this race ranks among snowboarding's top honors, though no one takes home money. Instead, riders leave with limited edition Pendleton blankets, custom Carhartt jackets, hand-made native artwork, locally forged axes, and a variety of other curated collectibles. But the most coveted trophy is duct tape. The top three finishers in each of the 16 categories take home gold, silver, and bronze spray-painted rolls.

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Only one other snowboarding contest has been around as long as the Legendary Banked Slalom, or LBS: the US Open, which has moved locations several times. The LBS, though, has been held at Mt. Baker from day one. It's become the definitive gathering of the tribe, and from the looks of things inside the lodge, it'd be easy to assume the tribe has outgrown its gathering place. This year, the race turned away 1,000 hopeful riders.

Amy and Gwen Howat are front and center on the makeshift awards stage. Both work at the resort and are helping emcee the ceremony. Their father, Duncan, owns and operates the Mt. Baker Ski Resort. He's the dude who first gave the green light to the race 30 years ago, and he's about to help hand out this year's awards to an anxious crowd.

A casual observer of this scene, perhaps an LBS first-timer, might think that the snowboard industry is thriving, that the subculture is growing. But when Gwen takes the mic, her tone alludes to a different truth.

"We all know that snowboarding is aging," she said. "Everything has its cycles, right?"

She goes on to explain that Mt. Baker, which for the past 30 years has been a Mecca for snowboarders, currently enrolls 10 skiers for every one snowboarder in ski school. Although the statistic probably surprised many of the snowboarders on hand, the new trend is that snowboarding isn't trending like it was a few years ago.

2010 Olympic gold medalist Maëlle Ricker with her winnings at the LBS awards ceremony. Courtesy Liam Gallagher

Simply put, the snowboard industry has flattened out. According to the 2015 Snowsports Industries America report, total equipment sales in snowboarding were down 4 percent last season. Last year, SIA counted 7.6 million snowboarders, about 337,000 more than the season before but nowhere close to the sport's peak of nearly 8.2 million riders in the winter of 2010-11.

Has snowboarding reached it's peak?

There's no shortage of evidence to suggest this could be the case. In March, Burton Snowboards laid off 40 employees from its staff of 950. Snowboard magazine announced in February that it would cease production of its print magazine after 13 years of publication. At least one Olympic gold medalist can't find a sponsor, and even The New York Times reported on the sport's "crash."

There's no question about it: the snowboard industry is struggling. The real question is whether the latest contraction in the industry is a permanent change or a merely a down period that it can bounce back from.

"It's still a very young sport," said Brendan O'Dowd, who ran the Shakedown competition in southern Quebec for the past 14 years. "Snowboarders were the black sheep for a number of years. As time went by it got a little more mainstream. Then it went boom. It became an Olympic sport and then our moms and dads and uncles and aunts were snowboarding. Then, with that younger generation behind us, snowboarding just wasn't the cool thing anymore."

O'Dowd's Shakedown was one of snowboarding's premiere freestyle events and a staple of the East Coast competition circuit. But this year, O'Dowd couldn't find the money to host it. He sees the lack of funding for the Shakedown as yet more evidence of an industry in decline.

"It's basic mathematics," he said. "We're 95 percent funded on sponsorship dollars. We've had a lot of trouble over the last few years with industry sponsorship, and unfortunately this year the math just didn't add up."

Don't get him wrong. He's still in love with snowboarding and he thinks there's still a lot of dedicated snowboarders who share his passion and dedication. But, what's different now is that the mainstream appeal seems to be waning.

"It's not like people don't like snowboarding anymore," he said. "It's just that there's not that buzz anymore. And there's a lot of other things that are steering people away from the slopes."

O'Dowd faults a few weak winters of little snowfall as a factor in the sport's recent flattening, which is reasoning that others, including the SIA report, have echoed. On top of that, he says, people are simply spending their money elsewhere, which is cutting into gear sales.

"The financial reality is, people have XBoxes to buy, they have iPhones to buy, they have iPads to buy," O'Dowd said. "And a human only has X amount of money to spend every year, so they don't have enough money to buy new equipment. That's keeping them away from retail, which is slowing down sales, which is hurting brands. And then production levels are going down and, at the same time, production costs are going up. So, it just costs a lot more money to make less money these days."

Brendan O'Dowd. Courtesy Brendan O'Dowd.

Even stars like Shaun White can vouch for snowboarding's recent rough patch. White has been the face of the sport in the mainstream since he was dubiously dubbed the Flying Tomato at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Not surprisingly, he's long been a high-value athlete for corporations both in and out of snowboarding, like Macy's, Target, and American Express. Over the years, his stake in the sport, as well as his personal fortune, have grown.

But White says that after the last Olympic Games in Sochi, he wasn't offered endorsement deals like he was in the wake of Olympics past. So, he started investing some of his own money in the industry instead.

In January, White became a part owner in three California ski resorts: Mammoth Mountain, Bear Mountain, and Snow Summit. White learned to snowboard at Bear Mountain, and when he heard it was up for sale, he wanted to buy it outright from Mammoth Resorts, which owns the three mountains. Instead, he made a seven-digit investment in the company.

"It just made sense to me," he said. "I mean, I'm a snowboarder at the end of the day. I go to the mountains, it's my home resort."

White says that he's looking to take a stewardship role through his involvement in the mountains. He wants to get snowboarding back to where it once was, he says, with plans to revamp the resort villages, tweak some on-mountain features, and try to recreate the festival-in-the-base-area vibe from the '90s.

He'll also use the opportunity to cross-promote the Air + series, a circuit of big air competitions held in stadiums around the world and often coupled with concerts. White became a majority owner of the series in 2013 and now has plans to turn the events into a world tour that will expand to include slopestyle and halfpipe events.

White sees the lack of a world tour offering many different snowboarding events as one of the factors limiting the sport's growth right now. He thinks the current competition circuit is stale—boring for the competitors and disconnected from the audience. It's time to rethink the paradigm, he says.

"And that's what I'm trying to do with Air + Style," he said. "Something new, something different. And I really feel like it's working. We had amazing attendance here at the Air + in L.A. We were trending on multiple social media platforms. There are a lot of eyeballs that wouldn't normally see snowboarding that are now seeing it and getting excited about it."

The Air + competitions will also offer free lift tickets to Mammoth and Bear with the purchase of a ticket to the event, and small man-made snow slopes at the venues will allow kids to strap in and try snowboarding.

"The idea is that the kids come, see the event, see what's possible, plus they can actually try snowboarding at the event," says White. "And then you have a free ticket, so it's like, 'Hey let's go to the mountain.' Maybe they get into it. Maybe it becomes their new thing."

Whether 10-story jumps built out of scaffolding and man-made snow or stadium-style events that rely on corporate sponsors are good for snowboarding in the long term remain to be seen—questions that aren't lost on White.

"To be honest, it's a tough situation to be in," he says. "Obviously you want to grow, but you want to keep the core ideals. I think things are changing no matter what, and anybody that's sitting around and trying to stop the progression of things is the one that's going to be left behind."

Shaun White and pro skater Ryan Sheckler. Courtesy Shaun White Enterprises

Change is to be expected when any subculture grows big enough to flirt with the mainstream, and it was perhaps inevitable that snowboarding would struggle in the aftermath. Surfing and skateboarding have endured similar cycles of booms and busts.

"We're going to go through this shit," said Todd Richards, a former pro snowboarder and pioneer in the sport.

Richards emerged in the salad days of snowboarding. He rode the first boom. He invented a trick. He competed at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, in snowboarding's first Olympic appearance. He started his own snowboard brand and is firmly established among the legends of the sport. Richard's acknowledges that external factors, like warm winters without snow, may be part of snowboarding's current problems, but he also thinks that the sport is facing some identity issues.

"I was lucky enough to come in in the age when snowboarding had a little bit more of a backbone, and you had to fight to be recognized, you had to fight for legitimacy," he said.

Richards' generation of riders helped establish snowboarders' place on the mountain. Some people even credit snowboarding's rapid growth in the late '90s and early 2000s—that first boom—with saving the ski industry. Back then, snowboarders were scrappy. They were the outcasts of the mountain community. Those are the roots of the sport, but playing up the outlaw punk image today seems contrived to Richards.

"This anti-establishment bullshit, it's not real," he said. "You're not getting spit on anymore as a snowboarder. You can get your grandmother snowboarding in a day. There's no 'Fuck you' in Nana being up on the hill. C'mon."

Snowboarding has moved past its rebellious youth, he says, and while the industry is in transition, he doesn't believe it's in danger. In fact, Richards is optimistic. He welcomes the end of one phase as the beginning of another. While it's true that established brands like Burton have struggled, several small, rider-owned startup brands, like D-Day Snowboards and Public Snowboards, have also emerged.

"I see it as a metamorphosis—a change in what snowboarding is using to drive itself forward," he said. "It's DIY at this point. Just do what you do best. Don't try to be all things to all people, because you can't. Do what you do best and let the chips fall where they fall. And what does snowboarding do best? Be fun."

Blue Montgomery agrees. Montgomery is also a former pro snowboarder and president of Capita snowboards, one of the leading manufacturers of snowboards today. He founded Capita 15 years ago, when snowboarding was entering a similar trough. Since then, big-name sponsors like Nike have come and gone, and the industry has grown and contracted in response. As for the core companies, they aren't going anywhere.

"You can pick any one of the major non-endemic companies—when they're here it's great, but when they leave, it doesn't mean that snowboarding is dead," he said. "Anybody that wants to say that snowboarding is dead has never been to the Legendary Banked Slalom."

Blue Montgomery, far right, with the Capita pro team at The Mothership in Austria. Courtesy Blue Montgomery

Back in the White Salmon lodge at the LBS awards ceremony, Gwen Howat is on the mic again and making the case for the snowboarding. Like others, she talks about the roots of the sport and the comings and goings of money, brands, and fads. But the LBS, she says, has been a fixture.

"There's something to be said about this Banked Slalom," she said. "The Banked Slalom has been an ember. Maybe it sounds a little corny, but let's call it that—an ember in the industry. And it's burned on through all the big pipes, through all the big airs, through all the free-ride competitions, through all the things that have been tried."

"What I see in snowboarding now," Gwen continued, "is that you almost have to risk your life to get into the high end of competitions, and that's cut out almost a whole generation in some way. But the Banked Slalom remains one of the few places where a 'next gener' can race on the same course as Seth Wescott and Maëlle Ricker, both gold medalists. Or Terje Haakonsen.

"These are the greatest people in the sport. Where else in the world can you have an Olympian, a next-gener, and a 65-year-old competing on the same course, the same day?"

Without offering payouts to competitors or death-defying feats for spectators, the LBS has filled its roster every year, simply for a timed race down a banked slalom course. It's all about turning, which was the first trick in snowboarding.

There's no doubt the success of the LBS is due, in part, to its simplicity—any snowboarder can turn, from the next-generation kids to the old farts. That is why we're seeing banked-slalom races pop up all over the world, organized by resorts and riders. It's a different vision for snowboarding than Shaun White's Air+Style extravaganzas, but one that seems no less important to the future of the sport.