SBJ/March 27 - April 2, 2006/This Weeks News

Snowboarding’s Open maintains mystique

Gold medalist Shaun White flies past the signs that
line the slopestyle course at the U.S. Open.

As their Ford Explorer charged north into the darkness of a Vermont night on Thursday, March 16, three recent Penn State grads plotted excuses for missing work the next day.

“Tell them you have the stomach flu,” Jamie Henderson told Dave Allan, a 24-year-old who recently took a job with a home-building company in Washington, D.C.

For three days every March the friends shirk their professional responsibilities out of loyalty to their favorite sport’s original competition, the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships at Stratton Mountain Resort. As Henderson put it, she’d be willing to risk anything — job included — to be slopeside, watching as riders such as Shaun White and Mason Aguirre soar out of a 22-foot halfpipe and spin madly through the air.

“It’s beyond worth it,” she said, looking out over the crowd of thousands dressed in a mixture of electric blue and pink coats, brown and black pants and reflective ski goggles who lined the edge of the halfpipe on March 18. “It’s a great meeting place. It’s better than New Year’s Eve. It’s better than July 4. It’s the best event to get together at every year.”

Since bringing sponsorship and management of the U.S. Open back in-house three years ago, Burton Snowboards, which owns and runs the event, has maintained the Open’s cult status and the dedication of annual attendees such as Henderson. As snowboarding has matured from a sport practiced by thousands to one enjoyed by more than 6 million people, the company has retained those devoted followers, expanded the event and sustained an authenticity that draws twenty-something crowds and families alike to the mountain, despite the professional obligations that stand in their way.

Even rivals admire the loyalty that the U.S. Open commands. “The people who go to the U.S. Open eat, breathe, love and digest snowboarding,” said Chris Stiepock, general manager of the X Games for ESPN.

At the heart of the event and its success lies Burton, a company that enjoys a 40 to 50 percent market share in the $393 million snowboard equipment and apparel sales industry, according to the Snowsports Industries of America, a winter-sports trade association (see One-on-One interview with company founder Jake Burton, page 70). Both Burton and the U.S. Open have managed to stay dominant in a sport that has grown exponentially. The company, the event and the sport have all come of age together, shedding some of their outlaw identity while still remaining committed to the sport’s core value — having fun.

Burton runs the Open on a break-even basis, pouring any potential profits back into extravagances such as constructing the world’s largest halfpipe and increasing prize money to $20,000 for the top events, on par with the X Games.

Over the course of a week every March, the company turns Stratton Mountain into the center of the snowboarding universe. Giant speakers blast the sounds of original gangsta rappers Tupac and Dr. Dre while more than 500 riders — amateur and pro — drop into a 22-foot halfpipe and slide down metal rails. On the slopes nearby, spectators such as Dave van Howten, a 33-year-old former snow-park manager, reunite with friends they haven’t seen since the previous year’s event.

It’s not like everything is exactly as it was in 1982, when the event was first held on a small hill near Woodstock, Vt. Back then, ski resorts still hadn’t allowed snowboards on their slopes. Stratton became the first, and began hosting the U.S. Open in 1984.

The early years were defined by moments of drunken abandon and destructive house parties. The Open was not only a place of innovation, where the first snowboarder carved a turn; it was also the spot where snowboarding icon Shaun Palmer etched his legend with both victory and debauchery.

“I remember Palmer taking a whiskey shot and dropping in the halfpipe,” said Steve Astephen, an action sports agent at Wasserman Media Group. “It was the [purity] of snowboarding back then.”

Things have certainly changed. The days of spectators lugging kegs to the top of the halfpipe ended in the late 1990s when a snowball fight erupted at the base that nearly escalated into a full-scale riot. Security guards now check bags at the gate to the mountain and force spectators to leave any alcohol behind.

Today’s competitors are more professional but still flock to the Open because of its past. They’re drawn by the mystique and the possibility that any young amateur can plunk down $70 and challenge Olympians such as White and Gretchen Bleiler.

Two years ago the Open made its broadcast television debut via a time buy on NBC, posting a 0.8 rating for two hours of coverage. It slipped to 0.7 last year, about as low as afternoon broadcast ratings get. This year the time slot will move back from a 2 p.m. start time to 4:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday, April 15, which could boost ratings.

Whether the Open scores on TV or not, owning the unchallenged mecca of snowboarding has allowed Burton to enhance its brand and rake in dollars on the side.

Sponsorship revenue has increased fourfold over the last three years, since the company brought sponsorship sales and event management in-house, said Bryan Johnston, Burton’s director of global marketing. The event also has seen attendance rise to an estimated 35,000, forcing some unlucky spectators to park their cars nearly eight miles away this year.

“I hate to use golf analogies, but the Masters is the most important golf tournament of the year,” Johnston said. “It’s the one most golfers want to win. We’re on the same path.”

If there’s a formula for keeping the Open on that trajectory, it’s remaining snowboarder focused and spectator driven. The company’s marketers and event planning group meet with more than 15 riders monthly to discuss what can be improved.

After several riders complained about a Friday night rail jam competition in 2005, saying it was boring to watch riders slide down a rail and do tricks, Burton responded. This year, it hosted a quarterpipe event, encouraging riders to charge down a hill the length of a football field and shoot up a 20-foot wall. They launched more than 10 feet into the air spinning and flipping while a crowd of thousands oooh’d, ahhh’d and dropped the occasional, “That was beautiful, dude.”

A rider competes on the quarterpipe at the U.S.
Open, where amateurs still challenge stars.
“Any time you’re personally brought into something, you’ll stay interested,” Johnston said, referring to Burton’s emphasis on rider input. “If we shut that down, we’d run the risk of being irrelevant and the event dying.”

Johnston said the company has also been selective in the way it’s involved corporate sponsors. It sets up a sponsor village with more than 20 igloo-shaped tents at the main entrance to the event, but it doesn’t allow any corporate sampling and interaction on the slopes near the event except for signs, which line the halfpipe and slopestyle courses.

“There’s always been companies involved,” said Preston Strout, who runs High Cascade Snowboard and Skateboard Camp in Oregon and has attended the event since 1994. “It’s a necessity. But they’re not in your face.”

In a world that generally begrudges large corporate entities, Burton further minimized sponsor obtrusiveness by selecting sponsors committed to the event and the culture of snowboarding, Johnston said. Brands such as Volvo, Motorola and SoBe have three-year deals (see related story).

“We’ve had people literally offer us three times the amount of money for a partnership than ones we already have,” Johnston said, “but their intention is not pure. All they want is an audience and immediate gratification. Fundamentally, it doesn’t work with the culture we have if you want to just come and go.”

Sponsors such as Volvo and Motorola see snowboarding as a deeply influential sport in youth culture — a market where success can translate to a broader audience.

“The technology that snowboarders become involved in and their attitude about life seeps out into the larger community,” said John Helliwell, a Motorola marketing director. “They’re a tough crowd to please, but when you please them, you know you’ll please others.”

The U.S. Open offers sponsors a connection not only to fans, like with most sporting events, but also active participants. The line between competitor and spectator is intentionally vague at the event.

Between judged runs in the halfpipe, amateurs known as poachers who aren’t competing can still drop into the pipe and entertain the crowd by launching themselves into the air while judges compute scores. Torino Games silver medalist Bleiler, who finished second in the halfpipe at this year’s Open, said at any other event poachers would get hauled off by security.

“There’s such a better energy here because that doesn’t happen,” she said.

Critics charge that as snowboarding has grown, the Open has become too corporate and clean. But a more mainstream crowd and more corporate sponsors are to be expected in a sport that’s expanded as quickly as snowboarding, said Bleiler, a K2-sponsored rider. She added that she doubts that would ever change the significance of the U.S. Open on the snowboarding calendar.

“Burton’s one of the most powerful companies in snowboarding,” she said, “and I don’t think they’ll drop the ball on this one.”

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