Who's hot to watch in 2000?
by Derek Taylor, Winter X Games skiing researcher
As of November 1999
"Free Skiing" to "Skiing." What's in a Name?
Free Skiing is no longer "free", it's just Skiing. The term free skiing, when applied to the Winter X Games skiing events, has been a misnomer from the very beginning. While for the layman the name Free Skiing has helped set the Winter X skiing events apart from Olympic and World Cup-style race and freestyle events, from a strictly literal point of view, the name was never really appropriate. Skier X, after all, is a race, and Big Air is simply a variation of freestyle aerials (thereby contradicting the very essence of the word "free"). Free Skiing, used in its purest form, still means skiing for fun. When a skier isn't competing, he or she is free skiing. In essence, all skiers, good or bad, are free skiers. A professional free skier is someone who skis well enough to make a living skiing for photographers and flimmakers. Use of the term "free skiing" to describe competition became prevalent in the early to mid- nineties, spurred largely by a movement of talented skiers who weren't interested in racing, yet wanted to make a living skiing. "It was a big push to be able to make a living and be successful at what they love to do," says Lhotse Merriam, Vice President of the International Free Skiers Association. "Expression contests like extremes, half pipes, slopestyles, and skiercrosses are what came of that." At the time, snowboarding was booming in popularity, largely because it was promoting free riding-riding for fun, whether it be in backcountry powder, or in a terrain park-rather than racing, where skiing's traditional marketing focus has been. Skiers of the early nineties were also hoping to move away from the eighties marketing buzz-word "extreme," which many felt had become passT, if not a cliche. Extreme skiing competitions became known as "freeskiing" competitions, and skiers known for skiing steep, difficult, backcountry terrain began calling themselves "free skiers." As snowboarding-influenced "jibbing" events like skiercross, slopestyle, half pipe, and big air began to gain popularity, they too began to fall under the freeskiing umbrella as well. These contests turned to the International Free Skiers Association (IFSA) for sanctioning, largely to avoid the kind of suffocation freestyle experienced at the hands of skiing's traditional governing bodies, the FIS (International Skiing Federation) and USSA (United States Skiing Association). These jibbing events are still a part of the competitive free skiing family. For example, the U.S. Open of Freeskiing is the nation's premiere open skiercross, big air, and slopestyle event, and does not include a true free skiing event. Why is "Skiing" a Better Title for Winter X?
Part of the appeal of the Winter X Games to the athletes is the vast collection of talent from different sects of skiing. WX is one of the only events in the world to feature racers, bumpers, aerialists, and free skiers together in the same event. It is the only event to put a championship aerialist like Trace Worthington in the starting gate next to a downhilling legend like Rob Boyd, a mogul gold medalist like Edgar Grospiron, and a free skier like Shane McConkey. The Industry
The Numbers: Sales of jr. equipment booming
On paper, alpine skiing continued its decade-long decline. Wintersport Business reports that wholesale sales of alpine equipment are once again down, by 9.6 percent. This coincides with a five percent increase in snowboard equipment sales. A large portion of the decline in alpine sales can be attributed to the apparel segment, which dropped by a staggering 20 percent. Snowsports Industries of America (SIA) attributes the drop in apparel sales to a mild winter in the East and Midwest, which is a short-sighted assessment at best, considering the increasing popularity of snowboard apparel brands among skiers (Boardwear sales are up 27 percent, despite the mild winter). The future of the ski industry, however, is looking surprisingly bright. Sales of junior alpine ski equipment are up a remarkable 42 percent ($44 million, up from $31 million last year). Sales of junior alpine skis at specialty shops are up 16 percent, while chain stores sold 70 percent more junior skis. The actual percentage of juniors entering the ski market, however, could potentially be higher when you factor in the number of people under 17 years old who ski on adult equipment. While snowboarding is still gaining ground, skiing continues to dominate the snowsport industry. There were 686,200 units of alpine ski equipment sold last year, compared to 151,400 units of snowboard equipment. (Source: SIA). Of the 52 million visitors to US ski resorts last year, over 70 percent were skiers.
While the ski industry still talks about shaped skis as if they are something new and different, industry trends show that they are now the norm, as opposed to the cutting edge. Of the more than 150,000 adult skis sold last year, only about 8,000 were traditional skis. The rest were shaped, fat, or twin-tipped skis. The new technology applied over the last few years has changed the way skis are made. Just as skis once featured wood bases, instead of P-tex, today's skis are fatter, shorter, and have bigger side-cuts. Simply put, skis in 2000 are shaped. Just about every major ski maker has added fat skis and twin tips to their quiver. Fat skis were once considered useful only in deep powder. In the past few years, however, they have proved a quality tool for all-mountain, all-condition skiing. Twin tips, the newest addition to the ski market, are currently considered solely as a terrain park tool. Twin tips are shorter, and are just now being perfected as more athletes try them and send feedback to the manufacturers. At least two companies, however, are making twin tips in lengths over 180 cm (the Salomon 1080, the most popular twin tip, maxes out at 177 cm). The Dynastar Concept, which is similar to the ski Candide Thovex debuted in his fourth place finish in the '99 WX Big Air, and the K2 Enemy are being pitched as twin-tips suitable for the whole mountain. Line Skis offers the Ostness Dragon in a 193, the longest of the twin tips available. "Our twin tips are going ballistic," says Line founder Jason Levinthal. "They're selling like crazy." For twin tips to catch on with the general public, this is the direction manufacturers need to go, since most recreational skiers only own one pair of skis. A Resurgence in the Mainstream
In the early nineties, skiing all but disappeared from Madison Ave., replaced by its newer and more dynamic cousin, snowboarding. When skiing was featured in ad campaigns, it was more often than not portrayed as an adversary to snowboarding. At the turn of the century, skiing has returned to corporate marketing strategies across the nation. Skiing is no longer being disrespected as an older and geekier version of snowboarding, but is being used along side other extreme sports like surfing, mountain biking, and snowboarding to promote everything from sport utility vehicles to wrist watches to alcoholic beverages. A prime example is the Dewar's Scotch new $6 million ad campaign featuring Igneous Skis founders Adam Sherman, Niki Singlaub, and Bryce Roberts. The ad is appearing in 20 magazines, including Rolling Stone, GQ, Outside, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated. Igneous highlights another trend in skiing-the birth of small, grassroots ski manufacturers marketing product for the hardcore expert skier. The Jackson, Wyoming, based Igneous has found an niche making custom skis for Jackson's passionate locals. The Salt Lake City based Evolution Skis have found a similar niche in Utah, only with a more aggressive marketing strategy (The idea for the scotch ad was Dewars'). Evo made an appearance at WX '99 by sponsoring big air competitor Jim Moran. This year, look for women's Skier X competitor Heather Paul to make the switch from K2 to Evolution. Line Skiboards has also entered the ski market with its flagship twin tip, the Kris Ostness Dragon, and there has been talk for over a year that Palmer snowboards might soon enter the ski market. After picking up snowboarding for 1985's A View to a Kill, James Bond returns to skiing this year in The World Is Not Enough. Making Movies
A few years ago, it was almost required for ski movies to feature snowboarding, or else risk alienating the largest growing segment of snowriders. There were snowboard movies, which featured only snowboarding, and there were ski and snowboard movies that featured both. In the last two years, that trend reversed. Snowboard filmmakers like Mike Hatchett have begun including short snippets of skiing in their movies, while a whole new breed of filmmakers have emerged with movies that feature just skiing. MatchStick Productions, whose last two releases have been skiing-only, have not felt the ill-effects of leaving snowboarding out. Sick Sense, the 1998 release, sold close to twice as many copies as 1997's Pura Vida, which did have snowboarding. While this can't be attributed the snubbing of boarding, ("We expanded out marketing by a huge degree for Sick Sense," says MSP partner Murray Wais), it shows that the core ski market is healthy. "I think it helps us differentiate from other ski movie companies," says Wais of the decision to forsake snowboarding. The GBSC: Skiercross Grows Up
Skiercross pioneer Chris "Uncle E" Ernst recently formed the Governing Body of Skiercross Competitions (GBSC) the first true sanctioning body just for skiercross. The purpose behind the GBSC is to bring consistency and safety to skiercross competitions, which have boomed in popularity since the first Skier X at WX '98. Uncle E's Lord of the Boards tour experienced a 170 percent increase in participation from 1998 to 1999. The GBSC also launched the first Skiercross World Championships, which was an open competition with 65 competitors and a $10,000 purse. The event was won by Winter X silver medalist Darian Boyle, and U.S. Ski Team racer Daron Rhalves. Among the safety precautions recommended by the GBSC are:
It seems the GBSC's tactics are working. The 1999 Lord of the Boards tour featured the fewest injuries in its three year history. There were only four injuries in the four-event tour (cuts and bruises don't count). The successful safety rate at the Lord of the Boards highlights an important aspect for Winter X organizers. The Winter X Games
The UltraCross was founded in Tahoe, CA, in 1998 by Global Event Management (Skier X organizers), and is essentially a skiercross-boardercross relay. Competitors use the same course, with the snowboarders out of the gate first. As each rider passes through the finish, an electronic signal is sent to the starting gate, opening it for the skier. The third annual Red Bull Ultra-cross takes place at Squaw Valley, CA, on January 16-17. The event is popular among athletes, who rarely have the opportunity to compete in the same competitions. Says snowboarder Adam Hostetter, "Although we live in the same towns, we just don't hang out in the same crowds. It's killer to get to know one another." For the Winter X UltraCross, the top 16 finishers from Skier X and Snowboarder X qualify, and will be paired together by random draw at a party the night before the competition. The adversarial relationship between skiers and snowboarders is dead, and the animosity that did exist was largely generated in the marketing departments of entities looking to exploit the conflict, whether they were snowboard manufacturers or resorts that wouldn't allow snowboarding. Sure the attitude still lingers on the fringes-in places like Houston and Atlanta, and on unenlighted Comedy Central game shows-and there are still entities trying to capitalize on the bigotry of the few. But in ski towns and other core circles, skiers and snowboarders hang together, play together, and generally respect each other. At their essence, the two sports are the same. This has been no more apparent than at the past two X Games, where skiers and snowboarders not only shared the 110-foot jump, but cheered for each other's jumps and supported each other in the staging areas. It will be apparent again this winter in the UltraCross. New Big Air Format
The Big Air format has undergone some changes since WX '99. Replacing last year's numerically scored, three-jump competition, will be a head-to-head, single-elimination tournament. The skiers will be judged on a single run consisting of two hits--the first off one of three big air jumps, and the second off a quarterpipe hit at the bottom. One skier advances from each pair. The first jump will carry more weight in the scoring than the quarterpipe, probably 80 percent-20percent. The quarterpipe will be important because it puts greater emphasis on landing the top jump cleanly. If a skier doesn't stick the landing, he won't be set up for the quarterpipe. The format is similar to the one used in Riksgranson, Sweden, for the King of the Hill, and based on athlete comments at WX '99, this should be popular change. The Skier X Course
Course design for the Skier X is a constant learning process. For the 2000 WX, sport organizers are going to attempt to design a more technical course, where competitors will have to work harder to keep speed and rely on technique more than mere courage. The object is to provide an event dependent upon good, clean skiing, as opposed to mere survival. Another factor during the past two seasons has been snow conditions. At the last two Winter X Games, skiers were forced to share the course, first with snowboarders in 1998, and then with the mountain bikers in 1999. With Mount Snow's elaborate snowmaking system, organizers hope to have the resources to tailor a course specifically for skiers. Hopefully these changes will appease athletes, who commented at WX '99 that the course should be either more wide-open, so that competitors would be more spaced out heading into the tight sections, or more technical, so that they would have to work harder to keep speed. The 1999 Winter X Medalists
Skier X, Men
Men's gold medalist Enak Gavaggio returned to France after WX and spent the winter skiing for photographers and competing in free skiing competitions. He took third at the Scandinavian Extremes, and finished in the top fifteen at a controversial World Extreme Skiing Championships in Alaska (the comp was controversial because competitors only got one run before weather shut the contest down). A photo of him that appeared throughout the continent was voted best free skiing photo in Europe. Shane McConkey (silver) continued to secure his place as the clown prince of the ski world. Though the Saucer Boy character was allowed to die after two seasons, Shane continued his antics in MatchStick Productions Global Storming and Scott Gaffney's 1999. As with the Saucer Boy character, skiboarders once again took the brunt of McConkey's humor. "There are probably a lot of snowlerbladers (skiboaders) out there that want to kick my butt," Shane says. Shane recently lost his BASE jumping mentor Frank Gambalie, who drowned this spring while fleeing rangers after jumping from El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. (X Games folk will remember Gambalie as the guy who jumped from a San Diego high-rise during the 1998 X Games, a stunt that McConkey filmed, and was arrested for his involvement in). BASE jumping is forbidden in the park. McConkey was also present this summer, when a protest of the ban backfired horribly. One of the protesters died when her chute failed. A protest designed to overturn the ban merely added fuel to it. Bronze medal winner Jeremy Nobis has stepped away from judged competitions like free skiing contests. The former Olympic racer (9th in GS in 1994) clearly prefers to have the clock be his judge, and spent his winter doing legends downhill races and filming with Teton Gravity Research. Women