Photo: GEPA pictures
Inspired by Formula One’s Miami Grand Prix, FIS President Johan Eliasch drives to attract new audiences through Aspen, Palisades Tahoe World Cup races. Aspen and Palisades Tahoe, formerly Squaw Valley, will again welcome the world’s premier men’s ski racers next February and March. New opportunities to market and promote the sport Stateside are abounding with four U.S. venues on next season’s calendar.
The men’s World Cup returns to Aspen and Palisades Tahoe next winter. Certainly, there is no denying the fabled ski racing history that graces both iconic resorts. However, many believe modern twists and revamped marketing strategies can captivate new fans and draw younger audiences from the competitive U.S. sports marketplace.
“It’s always been an ambition of the FIS to find a way to, let’s call it, crack the American market,” says International Ski Federation president Johan Eliasch. “Ski racing is big in the U.S., but the FIS is not on the map the way it should be.”
Making it happen in the U.S.
The new ski boss promised more major U.S. races in his manifesto. While some disapprove of Eliasch’s initial moves and reforms during his first year in office, leading to a revolt at his re-election, he has quickly delivered on his red, white and blue guarantee.
Men’s World Cup tech races at Palisades Tahoe are on next season’s schedule for Feb. 25-26, followed by America’s Downhill races returning to Aspen Snowmass, March 3-5. These events are a refreshing addition to the annual Birds of Prey World Cup speed races at Beaver Creek in early December and to the Killington Cup women’s races at Killington Resort in late November. The last time the tour visited four different U.S. venues in one season was in 1996-97.
Eliasch sees potential in the states
“The reason is that in March, after the World Championships, interest for World Cup racing in Europe declines, whereas in the U.S. there is still significant interest in skiing as the season is a bit later,” says Eliasch.
“In the beginning, people were saying why on earth are you going back to the U.S. for a second time?” he continues. “When people saw what happened with the Formula One race in Miami and Drive to Survive, even the Swiss, Austrians and Germans said maybe this isn’t such a bad idea after all.”
Formula One’s latest U.S. endeavor inspires Eliasch, referring to the first-ever Miami Grand Prix, which compelled audiences and made a huge splash, with creative organization, including an imaginative, albeit pseudo marina, on May 8th. And it wasn’t just diehard racing fans who showed up to see F1 drivers navigate the 19-curve, 3.36-mile circuit. A VIP crowd from the world of sports and entertainment included soccer legend and Inter Miami owner David Beckham, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and the Williams sisters – everyone soaking up the Florida sunshine while taking in a largely unfamiliar sport.
The posh, traditionally European sport has quickly been fast-tracked for the U.S. market, influenced by the hit Netflix series Drive to Survive, drivers posting on Twitch and Instagram, and a Miami meets Vegas overhaul to target new fans.
Attracting additional U.S. fans
Using a similarly aggressive marketing approach and enhancing the entertainment value, Eliasch envisions that FIS can significantly increase the U.S. interest in ski racing. He proposes more festivities at both the start and finish areas and a more visible, improved digital and broadcast component. Palisades Tahoe and Aspen seem ideal locations to kick out of the gate.
“I think we have a great product, and I think it is better than Formula One,” says Eliasch, who spent nearly three decades marketing skis and tennis rackets to new audiences as the CEO of HEAD. “We can create a much more powerful format to make each race count – that is the mission here.”
Aspen hosted the 1950 FIS World Championships and also held World Cup races for the first time in March 1968, with Billy Kidd winning a slalom. Subsequently, Aspen and was a mainstay on the men’s tour between 1981-1994. In addition, the iconic Colorado Rockies Resort last hosted races at World Cup Finals in 2017.
“That was a great success – people loved it,” Eliasch says of the March 2017 races where Mikaela Shiffrin hoisted her first large crystal globe. Still, Eliasch believes there is untapped potential for future races and a golden opportunity to attract a larger fanbase throughout the U.S. “We also need to have (better) television shows and engagement, not just at races,” he adds.
Excitement in Aspen
Aspen Snowmass, Vice President of Communications Jeff Henle, says that Aspen is onboard with Eliasch’s vision for American ski racing, however, minus the palm trees and fake marina that was part of the elaborate production at that other race.
“I don’t think there is any lack of interest in our community, but it’s not the same sport that it is in Europe, and we need to keep spreading the gospel of ski racing,” Henle tells Ski Racing Media.
“It’s about creating an event that is more than just a ski race – a party, a celebration, with beer gardens and concerts. Once we get them here, they’ll be blown away. If we can take what X Games has done with the younger generation, we’ll be hugely successful.
“It will help us that this event is happening in March when our resort is packed with skiers from New York, Chicago, Miami, L.A., and Dallas.”
A proven track record
Consecutive men’s downhill races preceded by a super-G will be contested on Ruthie’s Run at Ajax Mountain. On this renowned piste, stars of the ’80s, such as Peter Müller, Todd Brooker, Bill Johnson and Pirmin Zurbriggen, all charged to downhill victories at the Aspen Winternational.
“We have a legacy in ski racing. And even in years where we have an absence of World Cup racing, we still embrace ski racing,” Henle says. “We have a very high-level ski club with many participants. In addition, we host international teams coming to train before Beaver Creek and Lake Louise at our Highlands training venue. Certainly, we remain a passionate ski racing community despite the glitzy, glamorous, glittery exterior.
The world’s top racers will make not one but two overseas U.S. trips next season. And it will include an exciting return to Aspen.
“We’ve been there before – we’ve done downhills, we’ve done super-G’s and we can do something fun there,” Eliasch says. “This is a start, a trial, and we need to get it right.”
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