Is Snowboarding Dying?

Credit: Stefan Schuetz / Getty Images

When sporting goods giant Nike quietly announced last week that it was dropping snowboarding, it seemed like yet more confirmation of the sport's downward trend that got so much press last year. After all, participation peaked a decade ago, and has declined 31 percent since, according to figures from the National Sporting Goods Association.

So is snowboarding, credited with reviving snowsports in the 20th century, cooked for the 21st

Industry sources understandably claim the concerns are overblown. Snowboard icon Jake Burton spoke to that feeling last month in an interview with action-sports industry website Shop-Eat-Surf, saying, "A lot of haters jumped on it as an opportunity to take a shot at snowboarding and I think a lot of it was really misguided." 

Pro boarder Jeremy Jones agrees, but also admits boarders have to face the numbers. "There's no denying that there are fewer boarders out there than there used to be; that's the reality of the sport," says Jones, who is also founder of Jones Snowboards. The question then is what's driving the decline and whether it will continue. 

Snowboarding faces several obstacles. It's almost impossible to learn the sport without falling a bunch, which isn't true of skiing. And for various reasons — including equipment availability and basic physical development skills like balance — most resorts' lesson programs start as young as three years old for skiing but only five or older for snowboarding.

So for families who go to the mountains with young children, it's natural to put them in ski programs first, Jones points out. That sets a path that can be difficult to switch. "For a five-year-old kid (who started off on skis) to then say, 'I want to snowboard,' he's back on the magic carpet again (the surface lift used for beginner lessons)," says Jones. "He really has to want it."

With snowboarding's explosive growth phase over, it's natural that big, outside players like Nike will back out. For a publicly held company, growth is key. Snowboarding just doesn't have it, and Nike said as much. "Nike SB will focus its innovation, design, and marketing resources on its biggest brand driver and growth opportunity, skateboarding," the company said in a press release announcing the move.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Core snowsports companies, at least, aren't going anywhere. The sport may not appeal to Wall Street, but for any brand that's deeply invested, they can rely on the Wall Street mantra that grew out of the recession: Flat is the new up.

And there are some encouraging signs. First, the numbers aren't as bad as that 31 percent participation drop seems to show. Skier and boarder visits dropped to a 20-year low in 2011-12 but have rebounded roughly 10 percent since, according to stats from the National Ski Areas Association. So if there are fewer riders, they're going more. And equipment sales overall remain, dollar-wise, within easy reach of the $2 billion peak in 2010-11.

Also, 80 percent of snowboarders are under 35 (compared to 61 percent for skiing) and half are between 18 and 34. When those snowboarders have kids, they'll finally have a way to get their toddlers on one board first instead of two: Burton's Riglet program is centered around gear for very small kids (think munchkin boots and boards barely longer than a resort cafeteria lunch tray). Kids can start without bindings so they can easily step off rather than fall; a towing reel lets parents or instructors pull them at slow speed to learn basic balancing skills.

Riglet started small a few years ago, but Burton now counts permanent "Riglet Parks," a kind of kid-specific snowboard playground, at 41 ski areas in North America. Additionally, Burton holds special "pop-up" parks at events across the country, including urban areas. Jeff Boliba, Burton's VP of Global Resorts and the Riglet's primary ambassador, points out that the Riglet setup isn't resort- or even snow-specific. It can be used anywhere, even on grass in your backyard. You can't directly correlate success to Riglet, but it's worth noting that sales of kids' snowboarding gear rose last year, including a 36 percent jump for girls' gear. The key, then, is how to keep kids on boards.

Jones would like to see a shift in how the sport markets itself, broadening the terrain park-centric focus to include styles of riding he thinks are more sustainable for people as they get older. "I see a 50-day-a-year rider in the (terrain) park and I think that by the time they're 30, half of those kids will be out of the sport," he says. "The 50-day-a-year rider I see in the lift line on a powder day, in all confidence when he's 50 years old, he'll still be on a board."

One of the biggest issues for snowboarding is one that also plagues skiing: the weather. In the midst of an awful drought that saw snowpack around Lake Tahoe at a third of historical averages, snowsports visits to Pacific resorts dropped to 8.5 million, a level not seen since 1991, according to NSAA figures. 

Is this global climate change? Quite possibly. According to NASA research cited by Protect Our Winters, a snowsports group Jones helped found, spring arrives in Tahoe two weeks earlier now than in 1961. But even if weather is simply more erratic, that's a problem, as Jake Burton pointed out in the Shop-Eat-Surf interview. If people don't feel winter is coming, they won't buy gear and they won't go to the mountains.

Lost in all the hubbub about the demise of snowboarding are two simple facts. While most headlines about Nike last week focused on the snowboard aspect, the company also pulled out of skiing. And from its 2001-02 peak, the drop in skier participation was 21 percent. Not exactly a boom there, either. If there's a problem in snowsports, snowboarding isn't alone.