The Modern-Day Snowboard Industry: How Did We Get Here??

Tom Sims. 1986. Photo by Trevor Graves
Lighter Leashes
Mike Estes doubles routine by Bud Fawcett.

Originally published in 2017/18. 

By Cody Liska

The snowboard industry has failed probably as much as it has accomplished. That seems to be the consensus anyway. For better or for worse, the industry is changing, and we’re the ones affecting that change. We being the riders, artists, brands, retailers and consumers. And we’re either one of two things: agents of change or cogs in an increasingly corporate machine.  

One thing that upsets people is that the reason snowboarding failed is because of us. It’s the ‘Who Killed the Kennedys?’ line in the Rolling Stones’ song,” Brad Steward tells me. “We created a bunch of similar products out of a very limited group of factories and we only pushed one or two aesthetic versions of the sport, and they all kind of looked the same… And that’s not an indictment, there’s nothing I would change. I love the people that I have come to know through snowboarding, but if you pull the logo off the top five brands today, you wouldn’t really know the difference… Maybe in our rush to legitimize everything, we somehow brought this to pass—we hurried to make snowboarding big. And I don’t think anybody likes to hear that.” 

In the late ‘70s, Brad rode for Burton. He switched to Sims in the ‘80s because Burton boards didn’t ride backwards. By 20, he was running Sims, until Rob Morrow asked if he was interested in being co-owner of a snowboard company. So, he went to Oregon and started Morrow Snowboards with Rob and his family. The year before he got there, Morrow had sold six boards, they sold 10,000 after Brad came aboard. His job at Morrow lasted two years, until he left to start Bonfire outerwear. “I did Bonfire for about five years, then I sold it to Salomon and launched all of Salomon’s snowboarding business,” he tells me. He took some of that money from Salomon to help fund Nixon watches. He was also part owner of Windell’s Snowboard Camp for a long time. More recently, he worked as a consultant for Nike. 

All that to say, Brad was there, he witnessed that rush to legitimize snowboarding. 

Jeff Brushie, circa 1992 at Stratton. Photo by Trevor Graves

He was there when Jake Burton got on his first surfboard, back when he started his “transformation from a stockbroker to a dude.” Before Jake was ever a candidate to be considered the godfather of modern-day snowboarding. That’s the story you never hear about Jake, Brad says, that he’s an ex-stockbroker from New York City who wanted to do a left turn, that he wanted to be an interesting guy rather than just another rat in the cage. 

And there, in that anecdote, you have everything you need to know about the snowboard industry, that to understand it is to understand its participants.

One of the first things in snowboarding that Brad and Jake supported, in association with SIA (Sports Industries America), was an initiative called “Share A Chair.” The concept was simple: for the snowboard industry to become twice as big as it was, everybody who already snowboarded needed to bring a friend along. It was a marketing strategy, so “no deep consumer ever heard the words ‘Share A Chair,’” Brad tells me. Under the program, ski areas underwent massive infrastructure rebuilds to accommodate snowboarders. One of the most important being accessibility to snowboarders, so Brad and Jake paid for about 500 to 600 loading ramps to be widened at ski resorts.  

“That was the beginning of snowboarding,” he tells me, “and it worked.”

The best marketers, like the best advertisers and propagandists, are the ones who understand that it’s a game of psychology. The better you understand your consumer, their needs and their desires, the better you can sell them something. That’s why the skateboard industry, for example, isn’t really about skateboarding anymore. It’s about looking like a skateboarder—the shoes, the clothes, the identity—because that’s where all the money is. Not everybody skateboards, but everybody wears shoes and clothes. That’s why the best skateboard brands, like the best snowboard brands, reflect the identity of the sport and give it back to the consumer. The skateboard industry is just better at it than the snowboard industry is. 

“One of the things that’s so different from snowboarding and skateboarding is when skateboarding started, all the dudes who started it were rad guys. Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, all the Dogtown guys. It’s a beautiful history book to choose from,” Brad tells me. “In snowboarding, it was so different because you had this massive personality conflict basically between Sims and Burton… Burton was sort of this marketing machine more than it was a movement. And all of the other companies that were really the movement of snowboarding were trying to learn how to be good marketers, and they were scrambling. If you look at the guys who went through the early days of snowboarding, on the marketing side, it was a bunch of snowboarders and then you had the Burton guys who went to like McDonald’s University and worked for private equity firms.”

Mike Estes was one of those snowboarders from the early days. In 1985, while he was working as a nighttime janitor at Timberline Lodge, he had a chance encounter with Tom Sims. Tom was testing out his new pro model and he let Mike take one for a ride. It was the now iconic 1700 swallowtail. “[Tom] was the west coast role model,” Mike says. That was the beginning of his attraction to and subsequent career in snowboarding, which would eventually include three pro models with Barfoot Snowboards (’91 to ’93) and two with Luxury Snowboards (’96 and ’97).

“I’m a product of Chuck Barfoot,” Mike tells me. “Jake Burton was definitely seen as a monopolizer early on. He was an east coaster that was driven by greed… Jake represents, to me, what happens when you’re able to play the corporate game. Chuck and Tom Sims represent the true soul of skating, surfing and snowboarding. I can picture Chuck riding, I picture Jake counting money.”

It’s a common theme that the foundation for much of the corporatization of snowboarding started with Jake Burton versus Tom Sims. Jake representing the corporate end of the spectrum, while Tom represented the raw spirit and passion. The gap between those two camps—core and corporate—has widened and become more pronounced over the years, resulting in a loss of a cohesive identity. Although he doesn’t believe snowboarding will ever die, Mike blames the current stagnation and predictability of snowboarding on “Rolling Stone covers and shit.”

“That whole first part of the journey was people like me out there trying to get it on MTV and trying to get it in music videos and trying to get a magazine to cover it—there wasn’t a TransWorld SNOWboarding [back then],” Brad tells me. “Today, when I look at the snowboard magazines, I’m definitely asking myself, ‘has this thing really progressed? Are there any new boundaries that have been broken?’ And I’m not sure there have been.”

From 1997 to 2002, Mark Sullivan was the editor and chief of Snowboarder Magazine. After five years, he left because he says it was “someone else’s time to inject a new voice into this.” Because of the current state of the job market, we’re in an era where we aren’t always able to make such benevolent decisions, the result being many people in the industry overstaying their welcome. 

“The composition of the snowboard industry now is essentially the same as the ski industry was when I originally rebelled against it,” Mark tells me. “It was a bunch of 40-year-old buzzards who really thought they knew everything there was to know about winter sports, and that we were just punk kids and didn’t know anything… Meanwhile, in snowboarding today, you have those same old buzzards talking to the exact same audience that they were trying to talk to twenty years ago. The problem is, all these people in the snowboard industry rose to their level of incompetence, in that they found a job that they liked and they progressed to the point where they’re no longer contributing to the sport anymore, they’re just trying to maintain their own existence.”

Mark says the first lifecycle of the snowboard industry started in the mid-80s. He credits the invention of highbacks and being allowed to ride at ski resorts. As more ski areas allowed snowboarding, the sport naturally grew because snowboarding was now more accessible. 

“Think about it,” Mark says, “if you have nowhere to snowboard, why would you become a snowboarder? If you could only hike at golf courses and the backcountry, how big is the market for that? Pretty small.”

Mark says the first bubble in snowboarding burst when the industry consolidated a large amount of the smaller brands that originally populated the market. “You had approximately 100 brands of snowboards—these brands have all been gone now for like 25 years. They were all brands that were essentially garage brands that were fighting for a piece of the action. And so the companies who could offer things like customer support and dealer services and credit—especially credit—separated themselves from these small time players.” In the end, the true companies, with their degrees from McDonald’s University and their corporate mindsets, survived and lead the sport. 

A page out of Player Magazine

Because companies and brands are often viewed as faceless entities, it’s easier for people to place blame on a person. Shaun White, probably more than any other snowboarder in history, has been blamed for ruining the sport in some way, shape or form. He is, Mark says, a case in point of someone who has gone through the sport without ever having the rebellious snowboard attitude. 

“Throughout his whole career, Shaun White has been trying to make other people happy. He’s always had this moderated voice in snowboarding because he’s always been one of these professionals,” Mark tells me. “I don’t think he did anything bad for the sport. If anything, he fulfilled his obligation of pushing the progression of the sport… As an athlete, he is a great competitor, but as a voice of the sport of snowboarding, he is a poor representative. That’s why you don’t see people riding Shaun White boards on the mountain, why you don’t see him being as popular [within snowboarding] as Jamie Lynn or even Terje.”

Mark adds: “I don’t think Shaun White had anything to do with becoming Shaun White. I wouldn’t give him that much credit. It was all these people pulling on his strings the whole time.”

In this scenario, Shaun White isn’t killing snowboarding, his puppeteer, aka his agent, is. Before the rise of the snowboard agent, riders were expected to find their own sponsors, make their own deals and manage their own assets. But once snowboarding became a viable moneymaker for non-endemic sponsors, the old ways of snowboarding, and thus the old snowboarder, was phased out. Because of agents, non-endemic sponsors now had a point of contact for what they believed to be an untapped market. Sponsors like Red Bull, Monster Energy, Totino’s Pizza, Stride gum, Wheaties and Nike. 

Trevor Graves came into the industry by way of snowboard media. He was the East Coast correspondent for International Snowboard Magazine (ISM) in 1988. By 1990, he was shooting photos for Snowboarder Magazine as part of their original senior photographer’s staff. For the next ten years, he “chased the snow around the world, documenting snowboarding and the personalities that made the industry what it is today.” In 1999, he founded Nemo Design with the help of Morrow’s in-house team. Over the years, Nemo has worked with Nike on many occasions. 

“Gen-xers hated on Nike back in the day,” Trevor tells me. “I think it might be because the core of action sports built the category of snowboarding and once it was a big enough market, Nike jumped in. That is a business decision on their part. Today, Nike is part of the action sports fabric [and], as any good brand should do, they contribute to the community in a positive way. Nike has been a big backer of skateboarding’s Street League; Nike supports Olympic-bound snowboarders; Nike creates products to help their athletes preform at their best. Michael Jordan is a prime example of that commitment to sport. Nike gives legitimacy to snowboarders and puts them at that Michael Jordan level.”

Tom Sims. 1986. Photo by Trevor Graves

For the core rider, this is the hitch. They don’t want snowboarding to have a Michael Jordan figure for the same reason they don’t want snowboarding to have a Shaun White, because to them both epitomize a mainstream, corporate sellout—everything the core rider is against. However, in the ways that matter to the industry, the core rider only really serves to enrich the identity of sport. They are rarely the economic driving force. For better or for worse, the snowboard industry needs corporations in the same way society needs government, the question is, “how much?”

According to a recent research assessment, approximately 19 percent of the people who try snowboarding for the first time stick with it. Or, to look at it another way, over 80 percent of people who try snowboarding once never go again.

“Do you know Nate Fristoe?” Brad asks me.

“I don’t,” I tell him.

“Nate’s the guy you should talk to. He’s gonna move beyond the anecdotal stuff.”

Nate Fristoe is a statistician and consultant. He is the Director of Operations at RCC Associates, a company he describes as “the numbers keepers for snow sports in America.” RCC has collected participation metrics, demographics and operational metrics on skiing and snowboarding for over 35 years. They’ve worked extensively with the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), and conducted research with over 80 different resorts in both North America and Canada. Every year, they collect about 125,000 individual surveys from on-mountain visitors in resorts throughout the states. In Canada, they collect about 35,000.

“Snowboarding isn’t dying in any way,” Nate tells me. “It still has a robust life, it just needs to tweak some things…one of which is gender-related dropout.”

Us Open 1989. Photo: Travor Graves

That’s the main thing—“the only thing,” he says—that the snowboard industry needs to address. Among first time snowboarders, Nate says the gender ratio is about 50/50, however, as ability level progresses, a significant number of female participants drop out. He says the problem is not insurmountable, but it’s a complicated issue to fix.

“This is where it gets into the weeds,” he tells me. “You have to have equipment offerings that actually meet the needs of this demographic, you have to have instructors…trying to find a female snowboarding instructor is like finding a unicorn…[and] it’s probably not a popular sentiment, but there is somewhat of a bro culture that needs to be toned back in a major way.”

According to a graph produced by RCC and NSAA, with data from The Kottke End of Season Survey and the National Demographic Study, snowboarding participation at ski resorts plateaued in the 2007/2008 season at a rate of between 27 and 32 percent. That means that out of all the resorts surveyed, up to 32 percent of the people at the resorts were snowboarders. Those percentages have steadily declined by one and 3 percent since. The 2015/2016 season shows a participation rate of between 23 and 26 percent.

Rob Morrow. 1991. Photo by Trevor Graves

If the snowboard industry is dying, then the cause is not so clear-cut. Is it a lack of women in the sport? A lack of support for local snow and skate shops? Corporate greed? Is it snowboard media for glad-handing its advertisers? Is it the young bucks and their double-corks and spin-to-wins, or did the old heads set us on this trajectory in their rush to legitimize the sport?

All we really know is that the snowboard industry is changing. That’s obvious. There is no modern-day Tom Sims, Chuck Barfoot, Jeff Brushie or Shawn Farmer. And many of the largest snowboard companies operating today are ones that rode the coattails of other brands and personalities. So, instead of trying to figure out who or what is killing snowboarding, probably a more productive question to ask is, “who will revive it so that it’s better and more inclusive than it was in the beginning?”

“I think where snowboarding is at today, the answer is not behind us, it’s in front of us,” Brad tells me. “I think that kid who saves the snowboarding business is 8-years-old. It’s not some 35-year-old dude in Southern California with a plaid shirt and a trucker hat. It’s an 8-year-old kid sitting somewhere else, right now, who reinvents this thing.”

Lighter Leashes