Illustrations by Kieron Black
Are action sports really ‘sports’? It’s a question that’s been asked time and again over the years, by mainstream and hardcore alike. TV commentators at the Olympics are regularly confused when they see supposed rivals laughing and fist bumping at the drop in, while a certain brand of keyboard warrior spits bile at the very idea of training and competition – preferring to see surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding as lifestyles.
Scrolling through my feed the other day, the question gained new urgency when I realised how much my favourite snowboarders have – willingly or not – become as much social media marketeers as ‘professional athletes’.
Wait, rewind. What the fuck do I mean ‘social media marketeers’? They’re just posting grams like the rest of us, right?
From Facebook to Instagram, Youtube to Snapchat, snowboarders are engaged in a daily battle to gain followers, promote product and, in the process, stoke out their paymasters.
Sure, I hear you say, but it was ever thus. Pro models and signature shoes are nothing new in action sports – shifting kit is basically the name of the game. True enough. But it seems to me that the internet has changed the rules of that game.
"Snowboarders are engaged in a daily battle to gain followers, promote product and, in the process, stoke out their paymasters"
Once upon a time (read: the 90s and early 2000s) the basic requirement of a professional shredder was simply to be very, very good at snowboarding. If you could tear down Alaskan faces at 90mph or huck one of those newfangled backside rodeos off a cheese wedge, brands were queuing up to shower you in greenbacks. Marketing? That was for the guys putting the catalogues and print ads together to worry about. I mean, if your name was Johan Olofsson, you could literally throw out one face melting part, then disappear into a cabin for the next few years while Burton continued to pay for your heli fuel.
Now, as odd as this may sound, that kind of snowboarding was arguably truer to the original spirit of sport. The reason is simple: it was fair. The whole point of professional competition is that it rewards the best in the game. In football, you can have a face like a potato (see Wayne Rooney) but it doesn’t matter; if you score a shit load of goals, you’ll be paid a shit load of cash accordingly. It’s the ultimate meritocracy.
But in snowboarding these days, it’s not so simple. For a rider to reach the top, they need to spend countless hours working on their own media profile. This means being all over social feeds like a rash – pictures of your oh-so-healthy breakfast, the view from your latest alpine apartment, that new graphic collab, shots of last night’s after-party, you name it; it means roping in filmers to produce regular webisodes (aside from major video parts) and then milking your annual release for any viral clips that can be re-posted to Facebook and Instagram (digital media wankers call this ‘atomisation’); and it means having to beg, borrow or steal images from the few snow photographers still scratching a living, so you’ve got some pretty portraits and archive material to fill the gaps.
Content, as Bill Gates once put it, is king.
"In football, you can have a face like a potato but it doesn’t matter; if you score a shit load of goals, you’ll be paid a shit load of cash. Snowboarding is not so simple."
I’ll hold my hands up here: it takes one to know one. Speaking as a veteran of the digital trenches, I can vouch that posting regularly like this is the only surefire way to ‘grow your brand’. And the job’s not done once something’s uploaded, either – if you want what marketeers call ‘reach’ (that is: more people to see your shit) then you have to please the Silicon Valley gods by constantly engaging with your fans, liking/commenting on other people’s stuff and generally working the algorithm.
Sounds cool, huh? Like, almost as true to snowboarding as a powder day, right? To be fair, there are some riders to whom all this just comes naturally; they’re not consciously marketing themselves (at least, not all the time); they just really dig social media. But here’s a newsflash: not everyone is that into sharing so much of themselves on the internet.
And this is where is gets really interesting. Whereas Terje (a relative latecomer to Instagram, incidentally) didn’t used to share much more with the world than a gruff complaint or two, his natural introversion never held him back from becoming the most revered snowboarder of all time. Jamie Lynn, too, was famously camera shy, and yet the many years he spent operating in the shadows only seemed to build the hype around him and cement his ‘legend’ status. Can you imagine a young snowboarder getting away with that approach today? Soul surfers Nicolas Müller and Jake Blauvelt are probably the closest thing to ‘off grid’, yet even they made their names before the smartphone age really took off.
Boiled down, my point is simply this: modern professional snowboarding – driven as it is by social media – rewards extroverts far more than introverts, and that undermines any claim it might have to be a true sport. If you happen to look good with your shirt off or in a pair of yoga pants, so much the better.
Hold on, you could argue, hasn’t sport always placed its biggest and most attractive personalities on a pedestal? Mohammed Ali, George Best, Christiano Ronaldo, Usain Bolt – the list of charismatic superstars goes on. This is true, but the foundation upon which those guys built their reputations was always results. I mean, as cool as he is, would anyone hire Bolt to advertise highspeed broadband if he wasn’t undisputedly the fastest man on earth?
Snowboarding, by contrast, doesn’t really place much value in traditional stats. Stuck with a contest circuit that’s about as easy to follow as a Swedish crime drama, social media metrics offer the next best thing to a world ranking system. And while few could argue that a guy like Halldor Helgason doesn’t deserve all the praise he gets, it’s plain as day that those on the next tier down (the kind of riders who, in football terms, would be called ‘squad players’) can gain greater rewards than their equally – or perhaps more – talented peers if they’re big on the ‘gram.
Is that actually sport, I wonder, or more of a personality contest?
You can’t really blame the brands for all this. With budgets increasingly under pressure, it’s only natural that they’ll recruit a proactive ‘influencer’ to sell their product over a quiet kid that needs a whole marketing campaign behind them. And you certainly can’t blame the riders who’ve made a success of playing the new media game – they’re simply moving with the times, striving to make an impression upon a video landscape that’s become saturated. To be honest, the rest of us are as complicit as anyone, since we demand more access into our heroes’ lives than ever.
But for me, something has been lost along the way. Like an easy Tinder date, there’s no mystery anymore. He who shouts loudest or bares their flesh wins. More importantly, sporting talent alone is no longer enough to reach the top; you need to be outgoing too. When this happens – when athletes are rewarded for their ability to take a cool selfie, pose with a Red Bull can or choose the right emoji as much as their skill at chucking 900s – they are no longer competing on a level playing field.
So what’s the solution? For me, it comes back to our dysfunctional and fragmented contest system. As Terje, Ed Leigh and others have suggested, we need a unified world tour that better reflects the diverse terrain that makes snowboarding so special, with a transparent qualification system (I"m looking at you, X Games) and a clear path to the top, regardless of reputation. Such a tour might finally win a greater share of our collective attention, while dividing the spoils more evenly.
"When athletes are rewarded for their ability to take a cool selfie, pose with a Red Bull can or choose the right emoji as much as their skill at chucking 900, they are no longer competing on a level playing field"
Surfing provides the template here. Sure, our wave-riding brethren are not immune to the distorting power of social media themselves, but the WSL and its feeder circuit the WQS at least offer surfers – media savvy or not – the chance of a career based first and foremost on ability, with a straightforward leaderboard that earns the respect of the wider scene. Financial rewards over and above WSL prize money – for successfully selling the dream, if you like – are an optional bonus rather than the primary role of an athlete.
Like surfing, snowboarding will always remain a lifestyle to most of us, but I like to think its professional element can aspire to be a true sport – with all the rules of fairness that entails. But as long as we value follower counts, video views and subjective ‘rider of the year’ accolades over simple podiums, we’re not quite there.