Snowboarding May Have Reached Its Peak

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Snowboarding is no longer new, no longer extreme, and—now that your mom knows how to ride—no longer quite as cool. No wonder snowboard sales and snowboarder visits at mountain resorts are on the decline.

Once all the rage among the young and active, as well as pretty much everybody else who was a newcomer to winter mountain sports, snowboarding appears to be past its heyday. Using data from SnowSports Industries America, the Los Angeles Times noted that sales of snowboards and snowboard gear have slumped 21% over the last four years. Meanwhile, skiing, the sport that snowboarding was supposed to be surpassing—the MySpace to snowboarding’s Facebook—has been on the upswing, with sales rising 3% over that same time span.

As the Denver Post reported last spring, snowboarders represented roughly one-third of all U.S. ski resort visits in the 2009-2010 season, up from just 7.7% of visits in 1991. Lately, however, the proportion has shrunk slightly, down to around 30% of visits over the past couple of years.

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Mountain resorts that hit new business peaks due to an influx of snowboarders have been struggling more than their peers. Southern California‘s Mountain High, which tends to be dominated by boarders, had 80,000 rider visits in November 2002, compared to 42,000 in November 2011, despite very similar conditions for weather and snow. The resort’s leader explained to the Denver Post why snowboarder numbers have been falling:

“We just don’t see the fanaticism anymore, with people coming out every day, all day,” said Mountain High president Karl Kapuscinski. “It’s a maturing sport. It’s nothing we’ve done. The parks and terrain are better than they’ve ever been. But we just can’t expect to keep that level of fanaticism going forever.”

To some extent, the thrill is gone. As snowboarding’s popularity grew and became more mainstream, it necessarily lost some the original edge and attitude. Some of the passion disappeared as well. Today’s riders are older and a lot more likely to have kids than when the sport was emerging. By no small coincidence, they’re also less likely to hit the mountain all that often.

OK, I guess I should admit that I’m one of “them.” I started snowboarding in the mid-’80s, back in the day when you needed to pass a certification test before being allowed to go up the chairlift with a board, and when “knuckle draggers” were regularly bombarded by worried skiers with questions about how the bindings released (they don’t) and how easy it was to break your knees (not easy, though wrist injuries are very common). For several years now, however, I’ve been hitting the mountain on skis, at least partly because it’s easier to balance while I teach my kids how to ski. So I share some of the blame for the decline in snowboarder visits.

In a reversal of a trend nearly two decades in the making, the number of snowboarders in the U.S. has been dropping since 2004. Participating in the sport decreased 22% since then. Kids are less likely to be giving snowboarding a try as well: In 2011, 36% of 14-and-under first-timers at ski resorts were on snowboards, the lowest level in 12 years.

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Skiing, on the other hand, is faring well, even with subpar years for snow of late. Ski sales are up and skier participation in the U.S. has risen by 16% since 2004. Interestingly, young people are more likely to be drawn to skis in recent years because of advancements in ski shape and design that makes them more like snowboards. Today’s skis are used for a lot more than carving turns. They’re fatter and often curved in front and back for cruising down the hill backwards or forwards, just like snowboards. That’s why you’re nearly as likely to see skiers as snowboarders ripping through powder and pulling off tricks in terrain parks. That is, you’ll see skiers there at least until their moms show up.