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Whither the snowboarders?

New technology contributing to loss of shredders, more skiers

Snowboarding could be going the way of Bill Clinton, the rock band Pearl Jam and Yahoo Mail – still around, but not quite as relevant as in the 1990s.

Snowboarding’s popularity has slipped across the nation as younger skiers embrace modern twin-tip skis that are easier to turn and more maneuverable.

Snowboarding participation fell 4.5 percent during the last five years, while skiing grew 6.7 percent, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Snowboarders fell to 30 percent of resort visitors in 2011-12, down from a peak of 33 percent in 2009-10.

Ski industry insiders attribute the drop in part to ski manufacturers taking some pointers from snowboard makers. Modern skis are wider, with rocker shapes, deep side cuts and other innovations that originated in snowboard designs. Twin-tip skis have curved-up tips and tails.

“Definitely, skiing has benefitted from snowboarding,” said John Agnew, owner of Boarding Haus, a Durango retailer of snowboards and skateboards. “They saw how we were floating around, playing on top of the snow, moving through the trees, and they kind of took notice.”

Rosanne Pitcher, vice president of marketing and sales at Wolf Creek Ski Area, agreed.

“It really made the ski manufacturers look into their products more,” she said. “The skis have just really changed, and they’ve made it a lot more fun. They’re almost like snowboards on each foot.”

At Wolf Creek, sales of the snowboard beginner’s special fell 16.5 percent last winter after rising the previous season.

Snowboarding, although it still makes up a significant chunk of the market, lately seems to be missing some of its cool.

“Since snowboarding has been around for a little while now, maybe it doesn’t quite have the hype it used to have,” Pitcher said.

Snowboarding first reached mainstream notice in the 1990s, but its roots trace back at least to the 1970s. Burton Snowboards, an industry pioneer, was founded in 1977.

Snowboarding’s growth rose sharply in the 1990s and early 2000s before plateauing in the mid-2000s, according to National Ski Areas Association data.

Early snowboarders fought for acceptance amid fears that descending a mountain sideways on one plank somehow was malign or dangerous.

Agnew grew up ski racing, but he switched to snowboarding about 20 years ago and never looked back. That was when snowboarding was not widely accepted.

“I do recall being a third-class citizen when I started,” he said. “People were yelling and cussing at me.”

Early on, some resorts banned snowboarding, but most eased off when the sport attracted more paying customers. Now, only three resorts still ban snowboarding: Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, and Mad River Glen in Vermont. Taos Ski Area was a notable holdout before relenting in 2009.

Agnew said snowboarding has “kind of flattened out a little bit,” and local shops have noticed the trend.

Ski Barn employee Rick Macewen said he’s renting “a lot more skis than snowboards.”

“With the advent of twin-tip skis, a lot more kids are interested in using skis than snowboards,” he said.

Ron Thompson, general manager of Second Avenue Sports, said skiers increasingly have gravitated toward park tricks.

Skiers “can add one more step of gnarliness when you’re doing tricks,” he said. “You can flip and spin, but with skis you can cross them.”

Snowboarding has one advantage: a lower entry price.

Decent skis cost about $650, but a comparable snowboard can be had for about $300, Thompson said. Ski boots cost about $600, while snowboard boots run $150 to $300.

Thompson said he couldn’t explain the price difference between skis and snowboards.

“It really doesn’t make much sense,” he said. “The construction’s the same, the materials are the same. Somewhere in the industry, they decided skiers were supposed to be rich. It’s an expensive sport. I blame it on Aspen and Vail.”

Dave Byrd, a spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, said snowboarding may see a resurgence after the Sochi Winter Olympics in February. Olympian Shaun White has been perhaps snowboarding’s most notable ambassador.

“There is going to be renewed interest in snowboarding, particularly if the American athletes do well, and they’re expected to,” he said.

Thompson said it boils down to personal preference.

“It’s all fun, man,” he said. “It’s just whatever way you want to be facing when you’re sliding down the hill.”


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