A recent article from Boston Globe correspondent Tony Chamberlain seems to confirm what snowboarding industry insiders have known for several years: the sport is in major decline.
Twenty years ago, the popularity of snowboarding was growing by leaps and bounds every year. According to Chamberlain, snowboarders represented 7.7 percent of the skier market in 1991; by 2000, this figure had skyrocketed to 32.6 percent. With increased ridership and booming gear sales came widespread acceptance. Skiers began to view snowboarders as their peers (if begrudgingly), and 1998 marked the first time snowboarding events were included in the Winter Olympics.
During the snowboarding heyday of the 1990s, The New York Times reported that snowboarding was on track to completely overtake alpine skiing. The number of snowboarders increased by more than half a million people between 1990 and 1994; during the same period, the number of alpine skiers declined by roughly 800,000 individuals. Not surprisingly, more than half of these snowboarders were 17 or younger.
However, annual sales have been on the downslide for several years. During the 2007-08 season, Transworld noted that 526,747 men’s and women’s snowboards were sold in the United States. This marked the beginning of a steady sales decline that has persisted ever since. The 2012-13 season was particularly dismal; according to the 2013 Snow Sports Market Report, the number of snowboards left on the rack at the end of the season increased by nearly 50 percent from just two years earlier.
Karl Kapuscinski of California’s Mountain High Ski Area (where the number of snowboarders fell from 80,000 to 42,000 between 2002 and 2012) shared his theory with Chamberlain. “We just don’t see the fanaticism anymore, with boarders coming out every day all day,” he said. “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.”
TIME Magazine contributor Brad Tuttle expounds on this idea a little more by noting the cultural perception of snowboarding, and snowboarders, over the last two decades. “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,” he writes, noting that today’s young people tend to prefer skis over snowboards.
Others have blamed the recession, although the sagging economy has not impacted lift ticket sales the same way. Last May, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) reported that 56.6 million skiers and boarders visited U.S. resorts during the 2012-13 season. This was not only an 11 percent increase from the previous season, but also the highest year-to-year jump in three decades. These figures seem to suggest that while folks are still spending money to ride the lifts, they aren’t purchasing new gear.
Another popular theory is that skiing technology is today seen as superior to traditional board models. Ski manufacturers have begun to incorporate the reverse camber into new models; this feature (also called a ‘rocker’) allows users to carve tight turns through the powder. Just a few years ago, reverse cambers (or rockers) were exclusively found on snowboards. Mike Murphy, who manages the Sportworks gear shop in Duxbury, Mass, told Chamberlain that ski sales currently outnumber snowboard sales by a vast margin. “For every 25 pair of skis we sell, there’s maybe one snowboard,” he said. “It used to be 50-50.”
Now that the U.S. economy has begun to upturn, the snowboarding industry is poised to make its first gains in nearly a decade. But regardless of gear sales, one thing seems certain: the heyday of snowboarding culture may be a thing of the past.