Undoubtedly, ski racing is an integral part of the birth of the ski business.
The Aspen Times article tells this story well and speaks to the contribution of the Roch Cup to the birth of the Aspen ski area. As lifts were installed and businesses were created, new areas used ski races to draw attention and bring people to these new facilities. Notably, ski races were organized before there were ski areas to host them.
At the time, the daredevil nature of this extreme sport and the risk-taking and colorful personalities participating in ski racing created hype that attracted many to skiing.
Over the ensuing decades, skiing has become mainstream, with millions of skiers worldwide, creating resorts and businesses generating billions in revenue and hundreds of billions in value.
As lifts and trails have become more crowded, closing or dedicating trails for training has drawn more complaints from the skiing public. The high demand for skiing brings crowds that fill parking lots, restaurants and lodging. It has also steadily made it more difficult for clubs to operate, many of which were intricately woven into the founding of the host ski areas and all of which are deeply connected with the history of their home ski hills.
Additionally, rightfully or not, fast or irresponsible skiing is often associated with racers. Conducting training and hosting races has become more difficult and more expensive. This is driving up the costs of the sport and making it more exclusive and exclusionary.
A sport first seen as a draw to bring notoriety to ski areas and attract skiers, ski racing is now sometimes seen as a nuisance taking up space that could be utilized for higher-yielding customers.
Increasingly, supporting racing as a marketing expense, a sport incubator, or a community service has devolved to become revenue neutral and ultimately another revenue stream. As with all revenue streams, businesses often seek to maximize their profits.
An interesting example is public race courses. Selling ski racing to the public was seen as an opportunity. This vision ushered in the birth of Nastar, the Marlboro Ski Challenge, along with other public leagues, pay-to-race operations at resorts, and most recently, Epic Mix Racing, a short-lived Nastar alternative.
In other words, ski racing was monetized.
Interestingly, ski areas consider terrain parks, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to build and maintain, as amenities available to visitors with their pass or lift ticket. At the same time, the racer course set with equipment amortized over many years and little annual cost to maintain is an add-on revenue source. This model persists today with public pay-to-race courses alongside terrain parks and half pipes.
Attempts to monetize terrain parks by selling access failed and were quickly discarded.
The question remains whether skiers and snowboarders attracted to the sport through park riding become passionate sport participants and lifelong customers or tend to age out as soon as their park days are behind them.
History proves that ski racers continue to enjoy the sport as a lifetime pursuit, financially support the communities they vacation in and regularly populate the ski industry in many areas.
If our sport wants to ensure a sustainable industry, aren’t these the passionate customers we want to nurture? Taking the long view, investing in ski racing is an investment in our businesses. Accessibility is critical. If only the children of the wealthy can participate and local kids can’t ski or ride, we both limit the future participant base and employee pool. Never mind the athlete pool to field competitive national teams and win Olympic medals.
Inclusion is possible
There are great examples of where it is being done right. The development of Rotarun, through the efforts of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation and local communities, is bringing free skiing and low-cost programming to local kids. A community-wide weekly free ski day embraces everyone and brings skiing back to the entire community. There are other examples around the country. However, the sport needs more.
Ultimately, we need a system in the competitive side of the sport that not only identifies talent but helps fund those with merit along their journey while promoting a healthy, fun and accessible sport close to home.
Let’s work together. The community can work together to eliminate the unnecessary excesses available exclusively only to well-resourced clubs or individuals. Let’s reform how we structure our sport to ensure that advancement and support are fundamentally based on merit. Over time, those small changes will make a significant difference. It will take all of us doing our share of the heavy lifting everywhere to make meaningful changes.
That’s the shining city on a hill that I dream of.
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