The Decline of Snowboarding

Former freestyle snowboarder overlooks sunset for backcountry action following the decline in attendance and participation.

During a 1979 Snurfer competition, Jake Burton Carpenter participated with a variant of his own design, winning the race, inventing snowboarding, and shifting the landscape of winter sports ever since. In the decades that followed, snowboarding faced persecution, grew into a major seasonal trend, influenced ski culture and even the structure of skis themselves, and became the basis for 11 Olympic events. However, by the time of Burton’s passing in 2019, snowboarding had faced a significant decline.

Snowboarding Turnout in the 21st Century

By the 2010-2011 winter season, snowboarding hit an all-time high, with 8.2 million participants throughout the United States. However, by the 2012-13 season, ski resorts were averaging 5 million riders. Correspondingly, while snowboard sales reached their apex in 2008-9, just one year before the most popular season, they sunk around 25% by 2013. Overall, snowboarding, after seeing immense popularity throughout the 2000s, dropped in participation by 28% from 2003 to 2013.

After interest in the sport dwindled with hobbyists and amateurs, some professional athletes suffered financially. In fact, major sponsors have dropped some past Olympic snowboarders, with some professionals competing in events without displaying corporate logos.

Clearly, less snowboarders are scaling slopes via charlifts, rope tows, and gondolas designed and maintained in accordance with American National Standard ANSI B77.1 than there were just ten years ago. Before looking at the potential causes to this decline, it is important to wonder if there had been a stagnation of snowsports in general.

The Decline of Skiing?

According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), the ANSI-accredited standards developing organization responsible for the development of ANSI B77.1, the 2010-11 season ranked #1 for snowsports visits in the United States, surpassing 60.5 million. The years since have remained lower when compared with the previous decade. However, this does not necessarily indicate a downturn in winter snowsports as a whole. The 2019-20 season in particular, which ranks #32 in snowsports visits since 1978, suffered significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Downhill skiing took a hit in recent history, seeing a 10% decline in participants from 2003-13. While significant, this is substantially less than the decline with snowboarding seen in the same period. Furthermore, skiing is an old sport, ancient, in fact. Fragments of ski-like fragments first appear in the archeological record around 6000 BCE in northern Russia. Over the years, skiing has seen share of difficulties. For instance, in the 1970s, the largely stagnant ski industry recovered through the adjustment of the average ski sidecut.

As Snowboarders Get Older, Maturation is a Factor

Snowboarding, on the other hand, is still a young sport. Reaching profound fame in the 1990s and 2000s, snowboarding appealed to a younger, primarily male audience. This audience, however, has grown older.

The dangers of freestyle snowboarding are one component of deterring an older audience, but, as riders grew older, compounded responsibilities made them less likely to regularly head up to the slopes. Many turned to skiing or a combination of both sports, and others abandoned the practice entirely. Experts consider the aging out of snowboarders as the key driving factor behind lower snowboarding attendance at ski resorts. Many view this as a maturation for the industry.

Other Factors Leading to Less Snowboarders

When snowboarding became mainstream, its following burgeoned due to a certain rebellious credibility it maintained among a younger demographic. With this group growing older, that specific appeal has dwindled. Skiing, however, has long maintained numerous specializations, ranging from downhill, cross-country, slalom, and freestyle (which emerged largely due to the influence of freestyle snowboarding). Snowboarding does have many of these variations as well, but for years, the freestyle component of the sport has eclipsed them all. With this singular interest sinking in popularity, snowboarding had suffered.

Furthermore, the vehicle by which snowboarding first drove its mainstream appeal bears far less of an impact throughout the last decade. When the Winter X Games first were televised in the late 90s, they put snowboarding in homes across America, encouraging participation. With cable TV no longer the sole medium for television, this inspiration for snowboarding has lost much of its impact.

Areas of Growth for Snowboarding’s Future

Fortunately, not all hope is lost for the young winter sport. As many experts view the adjustment in attendance as a maturation for the sport, moving out of its infancy, snowboarding is expected to see greater specialization and developments similar to those comprising the modern ski market. Backcountry snowboarding is already popular among an older crowd. Furthermore, during the years in which snowboarding attendance faded, participation by women over 18 grew. Just as skiing and ski technology developed over the years, with modern skis incorporating wider, shorter models and twin tips inspired by snowboards, snowboarding may embrace the components of the sport that extend beyond the freestyle obsession.

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