Why Skiing and Snowboarding Need New Recruits

To remain relevant, skiing and snowboarding need to appeal to a broader audience. Here’s what the industry is doing to ensure the longevity of the sport—but is any of it working?

A bus stops at Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond, Vermont, and unloads 16 kindergartners from a local public school two miles away. Barbara Ann Cochran, a gold medalist whose family owns the hill, starts teaching an hourlong lesson on the beginner slope. It’s a cold but sunny midwinter day, the perfect setting to introduce eager kids to the sport of skiing. The scene, part of a program called Snow Motion, repeats until every kindergartner—203 kids—in the local school district gets a chance to ski.

“It’s a comfortable atmosphere to try something new,” says physical education teacher Brian Godfrey, who launched the Snow Motion curriculum five years ago. The program has grown from 50 fourth-graders to 400 students, kindergarten through fourth grade. Lessons run four days a week at Cochran’s through January and February. Students don’t pay for gear or instruction. “We remove other barriers, too. There’s free transportation and it’s during the school day, so 100 percent of kids participate,” says Godfrey.

The program uses a grant from the National Winter Sports Education Foundation to buy rental gear from Killington Resort for Snow Motion students. The ski area charges schools just $5 a day for each child. Godfrey plans to expand Snow Motion to include every elementary student in the district. “Generations of Richmond families have never been to Cochran’s,” he says. “I want to give them an opportunity to try what’s around them.”

A program in Richmond, Vermont, seeks to introduce kids to skiing. Photo Credit: Snow Motion.

Although Vermont boasts 20 ski areas, only 9.9 percent of the state’s population skis, according to SnowSports Industries America (SIA). It’s not just Vermont, either: Across the country, due to a growing number of reasons, skiing and snowboarding simply don’t have the appeal they once did. According to data from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), snowsports participation numbers have been generally flat for the last 20 years, with no major increases despite rising population numbers. The obvious hurdles are cost and proximity—it’s expensive to ski and with more people living in urban centers, it’s not easy to get to the mountains. But it’s more than just that.

“There’s a hierarchy based on class and race that has to do with the history of the sport,” says Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, a founding partner of the Avarna Group, which works with outdoor groups on diversity, inclusion and equity. “These barriers make it really hard to bring in new folks. But that doesn’t mean the industry should stop trying.”

Warmer winters and decreased snowfall are sending people elsewhere for outdoor recreation. Families aren’t passing the tradition of skiing and snowboarding onto their kids and besides, children these days have an endless stream of other sports and engagements. People are already overbooked with other commitments and snowsports can feel too time-consuming.

When it snows a bunch, people go skiing. SIA’s 2017 participation study showed a 5 percent increase in winter sports participation last season from the year prior, with some 24.7 million Americans taking part in alpine or Nordic skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. “When it snows, everyone wins, and you always see spikes in the numbers,” says SIA President Nick Sargent. “California was back on the map. They had been in a drought situation for five years, and last year was an epic winter.”

But when it doesn’t snow? Numbers dip (see, for example, the latest findings from a recent Protect Our Winters study). The snowsports industry is realizing it needs to grow and remain relevant—no matter what weather the winter brings—in order to survive. Vermont’s Snow Motion program represents an increasing industrywide effort to get more people, across all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds, into the sport. Why? Because growing the sport and reminding people it’s still a fun thing to do is critical to securing its economic future and making it a sport that generations can continue to enjoy.  

Twenty years ago, Ski Utah, a trade organization that promotes skiing in Utah, introduced what they called a “passport” to give in-state fifth-graders free access to nearby resorts. Other nonprofit and tourism organizations followed suit, and today, 11 more passports are available from Idaho to Maine, serving kids from fourth to seventh grade. Since 2009, NSAA has promoted January as Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month. This year, more than 100 resorts tailored rental and ski school packages to first-timers; the program has delivered 900,000 lessons over the last decade.

Ski resorts are working with nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA and SOS Outreach to get young people from urban centers like Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle into the mountains. SOS Outreach, an organization that’s helped more than 50,000 youth experience the outdoors since the organization’s founding in 1993, offers free, learn-to-ski programs in Colorado, California and Washington and in 2017, they launched a new program aimed at getting at-risk youth from Detroit on skis at Mount Brighton, Michigan.

At SOS, the main goal isn’t to convert these people into skiers—although SOS Outreach Development Director Rebecca Gould says many of their participants end up cultivating a love for the sport and some even wind up working in the outdoor industry—but rather to offer opportunities, provide mentorship and boost confidence in underserved youth populations. “The mental and physical health benefits of skiing and snowboarding are undeniable,” says Gould. “We are enhancing the sense of belonging of participants and learning to work together.”

In New Jersey, a defunct ski area reopened as the nonprofit National Winter Activity Center in 2016. CEO Schone Malliet says he’s worked with Tri-State youth groups to get 4,000 kids on snow.

“I moved from fear to enjoying the sport to being a student of it. The key to not just growing but sustaining lifelong participation is community.”

Take Malliet’s learn-to-ski story, for example. A former Marine captain from the Bronx, his first ski experience wasn’t positive. Colleagues brought him to Park City, Utah, and immediately took him to the top of the mountain. He had improper gear, like jeans and thin gloves, and no lesson. He was turned off from the sport.

But later, while living in California, he reconnected with skiing—and stayed involved in it—through the National Brotherhood of Skiers, which started as a club for African Americans 43 years ago, and now counts 3,500 members in 56 clubs nationwide. “I moved from fear to enjoying the sport to being a student of it,” Malliet says. “The key to not just growing but sustaining lifelong participation is community.”

At Echo Mountain, the closest ski area to Denver and one of the most affordable resorts in Colorado’s Front Range, new owners are focused on offering full gear rentals, including items like jackets and pants, at a reasonable price. It’s $35 for an adult full-rental package, including skis, boots, poles and a helmet, which is helping to draw in visitors and families who might not otherwise try skiing. “A surprising number of folks come to see Denver without a lot of winter gear, much less plans to go skiing,” says Echo Mountain general manager Frederick Klaas. “This way, you don’t have to commit the whole day or a couple hundred dollars. It’s a great way to augment a vacation and try a new activity.”

Companies like Burton Snowboards are working with schools to get more kids on snow. Photo Credit: Burton.

Gear manufacturers are doing their part, too. In 2014, Burton Snowboards partnered with Vermont resorts and schools to develop physical education curriculum called the Riglet Program. Ski companies like Head and Elan have offered first-timer gear packages at major discounts through learn-to-ski programs at resorts like New Hampshire’s Loon Mountain and Minnesota’s Afton Alps.

Maybe these efforts are paying off? NSAA reported 54.8 million resort visits in 2016–17, a 2.4 percent increase over the 39-season average. A slight bump, for sure, but growth nonetheless.

Mary Erickson, executive director of the Doug Coombs Foundation, a nonprofit in Jackson, Wyoming, that offers free snowsports programs to the area’s low-income children, says she’s seeing more effort in recent years to make skiing more approachable—and it’s working.

“There’s a big movement within the outdoor recreation community to try and diversify. They realize the demographics of the country are changing, and they need to become more accessible and welcoming if they’re going to survive,” says Erickson. “And it’s really important to create opportunities for kids to just be kids together. Skiing is a tool to make kids feel more a part of their community.”

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