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The Revolution Will Be Televised – How Snowboarding Is Dominating The Olympics

We top the TV ratings – can this help the sport?

Opening Photo: Nick Atkins

Over the last 12 years I have been to four Olympic Games – PyeongChang will be my fifth. In this time I have learned a lot about the positives, how the Games run, what they mean to global TV audiences and what purpose they serve on a broader scale. I have witnessed first hand the immense power the Games wield: their unique ability to distill glory, adversity and tragedy into a three-week soap opera of sport that can inspire.

I have also witnessed the negatives from snowboarding’s perspective, where federations and corporations ride roughshod over the fragile culture they have stolen in order to further their own ends.

Knowing this, and having aided and abetted the Games’ success, I wanted to take a closer look at how the Olympics have benefitted from snowboardings inclusion, and what, if anything, snowboarding has received in return.

This year snowboarding celebrates – or laments, depending on your point of view – its twentieth anniversary at the Games. Since Nagano 98 it has gone from a petulant and independent outsider to a tame – even willing – participant of the Games that consistently delivers some of the biggest TV audiences.

Despite this superficial success, the Olympics are not without their critics: a friend and passionate snowboarder asked me in 2009 (in a Life Of Brian style) “But what have the Olympics ever done for snowboarding?” Being complicit in snowboarding’s success at the Games, at least in Britain, I was desperate to give him a valid answer… but I couldn’t. Every answer that came into my head – “they get more people interested in snowboarding” or “it means more investment in athletes and competitions outside the Games” – has proved unfounded. Over the last decade the snowboard industry has shrivelled, while its popularity at the Olympics has been at an all-time high.

“Snowboarding is FIS’s most valuable commodity at the Olympics”

Worryingly, this is exactly what happened to hot dog skiing in the 80s, when a thriving sub-culture of skiing lost all its credibility and now, humiliatingly, relies entirely on the Games (and the coverage it brings) to survive. The idea that the Olympics are leading us down the same path of dependency is terrifying.

As a snowboarder, it also hurt me that there wasn’t a genuine reason to celebrate snowboarding’s inclusion at the Games. I felt that – with all the time, energy and vast sums of money invested – there must be something positive to come out of it. Surely it wasn’t a one way street?

Jamie Anderson and Jenny Jones were all smiles after the women’s slopestyle final in Sochi – but have the Olympics given any lasting benefit to snowboarding? / Photo: Nick Atkins

And then, at the end of last winter, a friend passed on the 2014 Olympic viewing figures. They broke down the global audience for all the sports that FIS are responsible for, and they proved that snowboarding is one of the most popular sports at the Winter Olympics – and so, by extension, one of the most powerful.

So let’s take a closer look. Every sport present is controlled by a federation; snowboarding is under the control of FIS (the International Ski Federation). They oversee all the on-snow sports, of which there are six: Nordic, Cross Country (god knows what the difference is between those two), Ski Jumping, Alpine, Freestyle Skiing and Snowboarding. In total, these sports produced 5000 hours of television at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, that could be sent to a maximum of 48 territories around the world.

Snowboarding’s age-old nemesis, Alpine Skiing, was taken in all 48 territories and produced 1374 hours of content: the most of any snow sport. So Alpine Skiing, the cornerstone of FIS’s business and most traditional discipline, had by far the best chance to smoke the competition when it came to viewing figures, right? They managed a peak audience of 77M. ‘Is that any good?’ you ask. Well, it was the fourth best of the on-snow disciplines. Freestyle Skiing was third with 78M, Ski Jumping was second with 90M, and first? Snowboarding, with 92M.

This is huge. In very simple terms it means that snowboarding is FIS’s most valuable commodity at the Olympics. The IOC is bound by sponsors’ demands to deliver young audiences, and this kind of pulling power – with exactly the right demographic – puts snowboarding at the top of the pile. And, encouragingly, the deeper we delve into the figures, the more positive it becomes.

“We are the most watched event of all the snow disciplines”

iPod feels the full force of the media spotlight after victory in the Sochi halfpipe. / Photo: Gabe L'Heureux

The Average Minute Rating or AMR tells you the average global audience size for each minute of sport broadcast. This is actually more important than the peak audience figures discussed above, because it is telling us not how many people stumbled over the coverage; instead it focuses on whether or not people liked what they saw and stuck around. In TV speak, it’s called being sticky.

So, in reverse order (because that’s always more fun) this is how the sports scored.

6. Nordic 25M

5. Freestyle Skiing 32M

4. Alpine Skiing 36M

3. Cross Country 40M

2. Snowboarding 42M

1. Ski Jumping 49M

I was slightly annoyed to miss out on the top spot, and then I saw that FIS had also given figures for new disciplines at the Olympics, which included Snowboard Slopestyle. The AMR for slope was a massive 49,163,000 – just beating Ski Jumping’s peak of 48,915,000.

It’s obvious that snowboarding’s overall figures had been dragged down by the slalom brigade and, in terms of events that actually matter to snowboarders (i.e. pipe and slope), we are the most watched event of all the snow disciplines.

So let’s put this in context: we are one of the most appealing sports to global audiences for snow sports and, in just two decades, we have overhauled Alpine and Ski Jumping in terms of mainstream appeal for Olympic audiences.

ESPN has long understood the draw of televised snowboarding. / Photo: Ed Blomfield

Nevertheless, having attended the Ski World Championships in St Moritz last year, it was very clear that the heritage and appeal of Alpine Skiing – especially to its core markets of Scandinavia and the Alpine nations – means that we shouldn’t get our hopes up. I know this because I also travelled to the Freestyle World Champs in Sierra Nevada, and in comparison they felt like a booby prize; an event that resorts get strong-armed into hosting in return for a more prestigious event. It’s an event that FIS heads obviously loathe lest they get cornered by unhappy athletes who have the temerity to complain because they’ve been forced to ride a dangerous course.

So what can we do? Well, anyone who has read my thoughts on the Dream Tour knows what I think the long term solution is, but right now snowboarding has little to no outside investment. The chances of raising $2M to start a brand new tour are, in the short term at least, as likely as finding a sanitary toilet in Luton train station.

“Why don’t we have a little lick of the devil’s penis? Why don’t we try and work with FIS?”

Instead we need to look at what we actually have in front of us: a functioning freestyle world tour organised by FIS. Yes, the WST still exists, but the long-running battle for control of sanctioned freestyle competition is over, and FIS are holding all the cards. Air + Style is now being integrated to FIS Big Air Tour and will almost certainly offer naming rights, while the Laax Open is now a part of the World Cup, which leaves a lonely trio outside the fold. The two big commercials – X Games and The Dew Tour – are self-interested and self-sustaining TV events that are far from global, and then there’s the proud daddy, the US Open, which I hope will exist for as long as Burton do. However over the last decade Burton’s ‘Open Series’ has shrunk from a world tour to a solitary pillar of the snowboard community.

There are few independent snowboard events remaining. The annual contest in Laax (pictured) was once part of a Burton Open series but has now been swallowed into the FIS World Cup. / Photo: Ed Blomfield

How does this bring us back to whether or not something positive can come from snowboarding being a part of the Olympics? Well, the viewing figures prove that we are one of the most consistently popular and engaging snow sports at the Games, which gives us some power. But not in a ‘let’s wield this power like a flaming torch and boycott the Games’ way – we’ve tried that. In some respects it has been noble, but most of the time it is naive, embarrassing and has never worked… So I have a suggestion.

Why don’t we have a little lick of the devil’s penis? Why don’t we try and work with FIS? It doesn’t have to be a war. This could be our equivalent of the cheesy scene in 80s brat pack movies where the two main characters finally realise that fighting each other is such a waste of energy, and that together they’re more than the sum of their parts.

“Core brands sponsoring the FIS World Cup would give us the best riders competing in a coherent tour that has a decent TV product”

Look around and you’ll see that all of the best course builders, judges and technical directors have already taken the plunge and are happily working for both the independent events and FIS. Whether it’s the US Open or the FIS Freestyle World Champs, the creativity of the course and standard of judging are exactly the same. The credibility and safety of the riders is no longer an issue, but if you go to the US Open you’ll be wading through bro-downs and high fives as the industry celebrates its favourite event; go to the FIS World Champs and you won’t see a single person who is not directly responsible for an athlete or the event. There are no team managers, photographers, filmers, no magazine editors and definitely no reprobates getting drunk and poaching the pipe. You will, however, find many people who don’t have a clue about the sport, but they are desperate to learn and crave the acceptance of our industry.

I genuinely believe that with the support and guidance of the industry they would be able to create events we could all enjoy. Core snowboard brands sponsoring the World Cup would, short term, give us the best riders competing at the highest level, in a coherent tour that has a decent TV product.

Would the coolest riders like Sage Kotsenburg be tempted onto the FIS tour if the right sponsors were involved? / Photo: Nick Atkins
On location TV production ain't cheap / Photo: Ed Blomfield

This is not a fashionable thing to say – and I will undoubtedly get a lot of shit for it – but ask yourself: why as an industry don’t we support FIS? Are we knowingly shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to publicity? When put in front of the biggest TV audiences in the world we are killing it, yet the snowboard industry refuses to get behind contest riding in this incarnation.

I know it will be seen as the ultimate form of treachery, and whichever brand goes first will be seen as Judas, but the bottom line is the bottom line: it’s good business. If the industry put its full weight behind the World Cup, rather than scorning it, then we could help shape these events into a really strong, credible world tour. And it’s a fact that this would only be a good thing for an industry that is, let’s face it, on its knees right now and needs to try something different. Why not help support the FIS world tour and tap into the vast audience the Games reach in between the Olympic cycles?

I’m ready for the torrent of unimaginative abuse, but I really hope there are people out there who’d like to debate this seriously, because I truly believe this is our best chance to make the Olympics work for snowboarding. Let’s start the conversation.

Ed Leigh heads the snowboard commentary at the Olympic Games for the BBC.

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