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Volume 20 No. 42
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Mountains of snow provide USSA with some cool savings

Seemingly endless snowfall out west has been a boon for the ski industry and even served as a cost-saver for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

This September, for example, the U.S. snowboarding and freeskiing teams will head to New Zealand for the World Games NZ, typically a three-week trip with extra days thrown in to take advantage of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. This year the trip will be cut in half for the 60-person team and coaches, thanks to the glut of snow in the western U.S. allowing for training to continue well into the summer, said team director Jeremy Forster.

“Instead of going there for three weeks, we’ll go for 10 days during the contest period,” Forster said.

The savings are a drop in the bucket compared to USSA’s $14 million annual elite athlete budget, but it is an example of the many budget-friendly ramifications from one of the snow industry’s best winters ever.

Fresh Powder

Annual snowfall totals, Mammoth Mountain, California

Season Total inches
2002-03 356
2003-04 349
2004-05 570
2005-06 579
2006-07 222
2007-08 334
2008-09 470
2009-10 558
2010-11 669
2011-12 263
2012-13 308
2013-14 238
2014-15 176
2015-16 362
2016-17 519.5*

* Through March 9
Source: Mammoth Mountain Ski Area

Throughout the American West, mountain resorts have recorded remarkable snowfall totals since the fall, with at least one major destination, Mammoth Mountain in California, on pace to break its all-time record of 668.5 inches. While it’s challenged workers — some days, crews have had to dig out trenches for the ski lifts — it couldn’t have come at a better time.

After the recession and a multiyear drought dealt major blows to resorts and snow sports retailers during the past decade, a return to average snow last year helped business rebound a bit. But this year has been a godsend, with plenty more cold weather expected.

“This year was just epic,” said Kelly Davis, director of research at SnowSports Industries America. “It was great to see all those people come back to the snow after all these years.”

The Park City, Utah-based trade group thinks resort visits will top 59 million this year, up 12 percent from 2015-16 and 16 percent over the drought year of 2011-12. A warm, dry winter in the East has tempered national numbers.

In the short term, it means cash flow for resorts and fast-moving inventory for retailers. In the medium term, it means renewed ties with casual participants who might have drifted from the sports during the lean years, good timing heading into a Winter Olympic season when skiing and snowboarding assume the world’s stage.

Snow doesn’t fix everything. Athletes hoping for a more robust endemic sponsorship environment shouldn’t count on anything just yet, said Nick Sargent, the trade group’s president and former vice president of business alliances for Burton Snowboards. They still must navigate the declining brick-and-mortar retail sporting goods business and other more systemic challenges.

“Everyone’s had a great year, but everyone’s still strung out from the last few years of no snow,” Sargent said. “It’s going to take a few more years to really get back.”

But the doom and gloom is now replaced by the optimism of a long season. At Mammoth, it’s already confirmed to stay open until at least July 4, said Erik Forsell, CMO of Mammoth Resorts. Unofficially, it seems possible the top of the mountain will remain snow-covered year round.

“We always try to stretch to the Fourth of July, but the product is pretty minimal sometimes,” Forsell said. “But this year, the product we’ll deliver on the Fourth will be incredible. There will be a lot of terrain open (to skiers).”

Vail Resorts, which manages 12 ski mountain resorts nationwide, has announced extended seasons at resorts in California and Colorado, and says guests can expect “superb” conditions throughout the spring across its portfolio.

The USSA’s alpine team will still travel to Chile to get conditions that only occur in true winter, said Executive Vice President Luke Bodensteiner, and of course the New Zealand event is a can’t-miss stop on the world stage. But the quality of the stateside training through the spring and early summer will be uncommonly good, allowing USSA to get in much more total training time and advanced practice than it normally could do at the same price.

“We can bring in more developmental-level and club-level training as part of our camps,” Bodensteiner said. “We get a little more capacity and the quality is super high.”