And Now A Word From Our Sponsor … Or Not: Deconstructing the doublespeak of today’s corporate snowboard competitions

“It used to be you could just take some money and throw a contest,” says promoter Paul Taublieb. “Those days are over.” He’s right and the reason is the same as why a lot of start-up snowboard companies have recently gone toes-up: Stakes in the snowboard game couldn’t be higher. There is more competition, if you will, over contest disciplines growing steadily overall even with a largely unproven return.

Snowboarding’s roots are as a participation sport. Industry evolved around contests. Yet event funding is now increasingly supplied by non-endemic corporations. SNOWboarding Business asked some of the biggest contest sponsors why they got involved with the sport, the extent of that involvement, and what they’ve gotten in the exchange. What we found is that while companies remain interested in the sport, they’re less enthusiastic about discussing details-especially dollars.

Part of the problem is that the familar acronym morass that is competitive snowboarding, with all its infighting and cross purposes, makes it difficult for many sponsors to accurately gauge the impact they’re having in the snowboard market and beyond. All the tours, organizations, and formats make it hard to decide where their money is best spent. The situation seems ripe for an outside agency to come in to play peacemaker and consensus-builder-to show big money why it makes sense to support snowboarding. Which is exactly what’s happening.

Fact, Figures

Any effort to gauge a ballpark figure non-industry corporations are willing to shell out for contests and what they expect in return were soundly rebuffed by companies themselves. They prefer the official spin from their sports marketers.

As promoter of the U.S. Open and Boarding For Breast Cancer, Fuse President Bill Carter says: “Corporations don’t want the public to know what they spend for several reasons, including public backlash from people who think the companies are buying a sport, their own internal fighting over budgets, the fact that they don’t want every property calling them thinking they have deep pockets, and more. Bottom line, as a marketer of a product, you want to appear as if you’re trying to enhance the experience of riders as a sponsor. If you bring dollars into the picture, you appear as if you are capitalizing on a culture.”

Especially when you are. Without a doubt, non-industry sponsors are hoping to become hip by association when they put up the cash for big snowboarding events. But that intangible is as difficult to measure as how much it’s worth.

“Everybody is looking at snowboarding,” Taublieb says. “It’s becoming part of the mainstream mix, but it’s still a tough sell. Non-industry corporations aren’t beating down the door.”

One problem is that there’s no set costs for an event. Sponsors can make as big a splash as they choose, all depending on money-anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 dollars for a piece of something like the U.S. Open to as much as 250,000—500,000 for a top-flight tour. (Note that you can buy into the Mt. Baker Banked Slalom for 5,000 dollars in cash and merchandise and still get Terje to show.)

Kirby Vernon, former head of the Professional Snowboarder Association (PSA) now SIA’s manager of marketing development says, “There’s more confusion than ever. Everyone’s trying to get the same sponsors. Corporate sponsors are getting fed up because everyone’s telling them they have the best event. They contests are all over-NBC, ABC, ESPN-crossing FIS/ISF lines. If there’s a way to link it together, we should. But if not, it’s a free market.”

Enter Executive Sports International

“Focus on remedies, not faults,” golfer Jack Nicklaus advises in The Ultimate Book Of Business Quotations. Executive Sports International (ESI), the professional event-management firm he founded in Palm Beach, Florida and turned over to his son Steve, may find the advice useful in sorting out snowboard contests’ current convolutions.

The oanization, whose other client is the 800-million-dollar Professional Golfers Association, has been retained as the exclusive sales, marketing, and management agent for the just-formed North American Snowboard Association Inc. (NSA). The International Snowboard Federation (ISF) spearheaded the deal as the great white hope of contest sanctioning in North America-so that ESI might do for snowboarding what it’s done for golf in the last 27 years-create a cohesive, lasting pro tour, and sell the sport and its stars to the corporate world for a shitload of money.

But questions remain-can ESI wrangle snowboarding’s competing forces into well-run events that put up numbers in tune with the sport’s growth? Will the return on non-profit ESI’s own investment be substantial enough for a company that controls one of the most popular, lucrative, and exclusive games in all of sports?

On July 17 the key interests gathered to discuss. That’s when ESI and its plan were introduced at a Los Angeles meeting of big-event producers: LXD for its Freeride Tour, OnBoard Entertainment’s multi-stop big-air series, Peak Productions (who organizes the boardercross tour), as well as representatives from Burton’s U.S. Open, Vans’ Triple Crown, Snowboard Canada for the Westbeach Classic, ISF North America and Worldwide, the PSA, and the United States Amateur Snowboard Association (USASA).

A power gathering to say the least, with the topic at hand a unified pro tour-something promoters and sponsors are as enthusiastic about as they think the public will be if it actually happened. The only missing (although invited) parties were the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) and the International Ski Federation (FIS) even though what comes of it all might greatly affect their Olympic interests.

“We need to focus on making events run more professionally,” says top-racer Mark Fawcett, a longtime PSA supporter and its current president. “It’s been a real struggle in North America even though they’ve done well in Europe. If we could combine the two pro tour and FIS World Cup we’d really have something. But FIS will never allow their organization to be run by athletes or in a somewhat democratic fashion.”

Adds ISF representative and now NSA President Gordon Robbins, “The sport can really take off if you don’t have competing tours.” Of course this was said even when there were a handful of events, but though snowboarding’s first Olympics wasn’t the Neutron bomb contest promoters were expecting, it put a timely spin on things-the ISF and PSA felt they needed more organization and sales muscle to compete.

“After we all heard what ESI wanted to do we asked any interested parties to make us a counter offer-we’re all ears,” Robbins continues. “But nobody stepped to the table.”

ISF and the promoters liked ESI’s idea for snowboarding, Fawcett got the nod from the riders, so the alliance was announced in early September with promises the focus will be on-of course-the riders. “We NSA are able to respond to what the riders want better than a bureaucratic dinosaur,” says Robbins, referring to the FIS. “They ESI are convinced the business is going to grow and they’re willing to take the lumps and work for what they raise.”

ESI has pledged to work closely with the PSA to build it into a strong organization like its PGA. ESI’s Mark Julien thinks a comparison of golf and snowboarding is not far off.

“The upcoming season will be difficult,” he concedes. “We’ve only got a three-month window. but next season we should see structural change to the level that we want.”

Even with the deal’s approval, Julien knows the challenge ahead is considerable, “Snowboarders may think we’re like 'Biff on the golf course,’ but we know change should come from snowboarding. We won’t position it as a fad but as a real sport with real athletes who train for real competition. Nike coming in has completely legitimized the sport. Golf is the sport of businessmen but snowboarding could be the sport of everyone.”

Television

At least one entity of Corporate America continues to have a major impact on the sport. Major networks are beginning to dip a toe in the snow, but snowboarding has a past and a future on ESPN.

Communications Coordinator Josh Krulewitz counts off days of shows-from the U.S. Open, to the Freeride Tour, to the U.S. Extremes, to the USASA Championships-broadcast last season on ESPN or ESPN2. He describes the sport as “the crown jewel of the alternative-sports genre,” and for that reason, it’s part of both the Winter and Summer X-Games.

Moreover, he says, “Re-airs of past events don’t lose their value like a baseball game, they have kind of an evergreen value.”

Krulewitz describes ESPN’s commitment to snowboarding as, “Significant and growing. We’re the only ones who can do what we do-ultimately we’re there 48 hours a day for sports fans of all kinds. We preach quality and variety. People are going to look to us as the leader.”

The outlook is not so rosy at MTV, perhaps an indication that the fickle spotlight of hip has moved on. The snowboard big-air spectacle was canceled at this year’s Sports And Music Festival, a high-profile melange of concert and alternative sports that boasts support from corporate interests familiar to snowboarding like Pepsi, Swatch, Nike, and The Gap.

Segment Producer Doug Anderson says, “I don’t know what kind of investment the company’s going to make in snowboard contests in the future. Personally, I think it would be wise. It makes sense to invest in our image. What better way than to be a part of it? We should be investing in them just for our soul.”

The show that airs the network’s snowboarding, MTV Sports, is on hiatus re-assessing what people will tune in for.

Producer John Hofmann adds, “I don’t know what sponsors are making in return for these types of snowboard events, but we’ve had a hard time trying to keep sports on the network because it’s not 'Karaoke At The Beach House’ that doesn’t cost anything to make. MTV has traditionally made revenue on videos which cost them zero, and cheap programming, which yielded the highest ratings. The reason to cut out snowboarding from S&M Festival was a much smaller budget. It was a big expense, but I’d like to know what advertisers thought.”

So would everyone else in snowboard contests. Because advertiser satisfaction will ultimately decide whether these events grow and eventually live up to the big-money billing they’ve been advanced for close to two decades.of businessmen but snowboarding could be the sport of everyone.”

Television

At least one entity of Corporate America continues to have a major impact on the sport. Major networks are beginning to dip a toe in the snow, but snowboarding has a past and a future on ESPN.

Communications Coordinator Josh Krulewitz counts off days of shows-from the U.S. Open, to the Freeride Tour, to the U.S. Extremes, to the USASA Championships-broadcast last season on ESPN or ESPN2. He describes the sport as “the crown jewel of the alternative-sports genre,” and for that reason, it’s part of both the Winter and Summer X-Games.

Moreover, he says, “Re-airs of past events don’t lose their value like a baseball game, they have kind of an evergreen value.”

Krulewitz describes ESPN’s commitment to snowboarding as, “Significant and growing. We’re the only ones who can do what we do-ultimately we’re there 48 hours a day for sports fans of all kinds. We preach quality and variety. People are going to look to us as the leader.”

The outlook is not so rosy at MTV, perhaps an indication that the fickle spotlight of hip has moved on. The snowboard big-air spectacle was canceled at this year’s Sports And Music Festival, a high-profile melange of concert and alternative sports that boasts support from corporate interests familiar to snowboarding like Pepsi, Swatch, Nike, and The Gap.

Segment Producer Doug Anderson says, “I don’t know what kind of investment the company’s going to make in snowboard contests in the future. Personally, I think it would be wise. It makes sense to invest in our image. What better way than to be a part of it? We should be investing in them just for our soul.”

The show that airs the network’s snowboarding, MTV Sports, is on hiatus re-assessing what people will tune in for.

Producer John Hofmann adds, “I don’t know what sponsors are making in return for these types of snowboard events, but we’ve had a hard time trying to keep sports on the network because it’s not 'Karaoke At The Beach House’ that doesn’t cost anything to make. MTV has traditionally made revenue on videos which cost them zero, and cheap programming, which yielded the highest ratings. The reason to cut out snowboarding from S&M Festival was a much smaller budget. It was a big expense, but I’d like to know what advertisers thought.”

So would everyone else in snowboard contests. Because advertiser satisfaction will ultimately decide whether these events grow and eventually live up to the big-money billing they’ve been advanced for close to two decades.