With Big Air, Olympics Go Big For Young, Urban Viewers
Monday marked another step in the Olympics’ ongoing attempt to reinvent itself for a younger, more urban audience: The introduction of big air snowboarding in the winter sports program.
An audacious, simple and spectacular event, big air is nothing more than snowboarders flying down a 38-degree incline from a 150-foot platform, launching themselves into the air, where they do as many twists, turns and tricks as they can before gravity takes over.
"It is super spectacular, it is super energetic,” said Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services, which produces the live event feed of Olympic sports for rights holders. “Somehow it brings together all the things that one could imagine about the youthful sport. It’s not just a sport for privileged people who have time to go to alpine slopes on the weekend.”
Broadcasters love the images of Olympians seemingly flying, and it’s a chance to show off the added investment in the video presentation of the Games. While the Olympics’ sponsorship restrictions limit overt marketing off the event itself, new IOC sponsor Intel made a big play at the 2016 X Games by attaching its Curie device to snowboards, showing ESPN viewers stats about the athletes’ movement in real time on the broadcast.
His second point is as important to the Olympics as the sheer spectacle. Big air is unique in that it’s an Olympic snow sport that doesn’t depend on remote mountain resorts.
Big air ramps are built, not carved from mountains. Here in Pyeongchang, it was built at the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre. Shaun White’s Air + Style tour has built them in the parking lot of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, and U.S. Ski & Snowboard built one inside Fenway Park in 2016.
The Fenway event was costly, but it also found a way to locate an event in a city instead of a remote mountain resort, with major payoff in ticket sales, said Mike Jaquet, the former U.S. Ski & Snowboard CMO who helped organize the event.
“Fenway Big Air was a massively successful event that has sold more tickets, had more ticket revenue, than any other big air and was the highest-rated snowboarding program up until this year where the last events at Mammoth broke the record,” Jaquet said.
Also, Jaquet noted, it’s a way to keep the attention on popular snowboard slopestyle athletes. By International Ski Federation rules, big air participants must come from the slopestyle qualifiers. Two of the U.S.’s gold-medalists, Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson, won their medals in the first three days of the Olympics. They’re both back for big air.
“I think big air fits nicely as a second medal opportunity for the slopestyle snowboarders, who were very popular in Sochi,” Jaquet said. “Remember Sage [Kotsenburg] was out of Sochi two days after his medal and never came back.”
For a U.S. team struggling to win medals, the added event will help. Three of the four American women in Monday’s qualifying advanced to Friday’s finals: Anderson, Julia Marino and Jessika Jenson. The men’s event starts Wednesday and finishes Saturday.
Olympic traditionalists, including many among the FIS leadership, were loath to add another non-alpine event. But broadcasters, marketers and Americans love it, so here we are.