Swoosh Push: Nike completes snowboarding package

Uh oh. Nike's figured out this snowboarding thing. Read on:

Powder isn't the best testing snow. Everybody knows that. But sometimes, even in powder, you can tell if a boot, binding, or board is doing what you want it to.

I was racing along the top ridge line of Heather Canyon at Mt. Hood Meadows, Oregon in early December, looking for an untracked line down the steep wall to the left. Ahead of me was Nike's ACG Product Line Manager Eric Lonsway and behind was ACG Director of Equipment Brian Stewart, negotiating the foot of fresh (and still falling), uncharacteristically dry Northwest snow. The saying, “There are no friends in powder,” rung through my head as I dropped in and picked out my own line, trying to make sure they didn't snake in front of me.

At the bottom of the run we were all smiles, high fives, and friendly again–this was a business trip after all. A few weeks before, I had been invited up to check out the much-anticipated, rumored, and talked-about new Nike snowboards, boots, and bindings.

To be honest, I didn't know what to expect from the huge corporate empire and its denizens. Would they be the life-sucking, bandwagon jumping, huge monopoly poised to swallow up and swoosh-ify our lifestyle?

Of course, they didn't know what to expect from me either. Would I be the scoffing journalist, accusing the empire of raping our precious little snowsports niche?

But there the three of us were, laughing about the last run, talking about board factories, and discussing snowboarding's consolidation. They were just as concerned about the health of the sport as I was, and also wondering just what other snowboard companies thought about Nike now that they were committing wholeheartedly to the sport.

The discussion could have been with any 'core snowboarder from any company at any mountain. Except this time, everything underneath us had little swoosh logos on them. On that day it didn't really matter what we were riding, but it was still easy to see there was something a little different about these boards, boots, and bindings.

It's An ACG Thing

The next day I toured a smallish, one-story ACG office in a nondescript industrial park about a mile away from the heralded Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon. Within the ACG unit, there are approximately 100 people working on the different divisions that include outdoor/hiking footwear, trail running, mountain biking, water/kayak sports, and now snowboarding. Stewart says that the hiking group is the largest portion of ACG, making up about 60 percent of the business right now.

As we walk around the building, I see a rack of Nike basketballs in one area, then a large shelf full of different snowboard boots–some from other companies, some Nike's step-in prototypes. Of course they'd kill me if I said anything else, but despite the split with Marker, the company still plans to come out with a step-in boot and binding in the near future.

“On the snowboard side, there are three reasons for excitement,” says Stewart as we sit in a conference room, meeting the different snowboarding product managers. “One, people here love to do the sport. Two, the allure of winter sports is great and it's exciting to be involved with something different. Getting into snowboarding could lead to other opportunities in the future.”

But it's the third reason that really shows why Nike is getting into snowboarding: “Lastly, it gives us the ability to talk to a consumer we didn't talk to–the young riders.

&quoFor ACG, we see snowboarding as a pillar that will help position ACG as a technical, outdoor, functional product. If the product performs, people understand it.”

When asked to compare Nike's latest attempt to move into a hardcore kids' market of skateboarding and that of snowboarding, he explains the differences. “With snowboarding, we've made a commitment to every part of it,” Stewart says. “Yeah, we're late. But we'll be around a long time. We've also taken time to get the pieces in place.”

Although part of Nike Corporate, Stewart says the ACG unit is about 90-percent stand-alone, with its own sales, customer service, marketing, and development teams. The group still shares human resources and sourcing with the larger entity.

ACG President Gordon McFadden, formerly the president of Helly Hansen, hopes to grow the entire unit into a billion-dollar company, and knows snowboarding will be a significant part of that.

Don't Panic, Yet

Nike is taking its time with snowboarding. While it's going into its third year with snowboard apparel, promotions, and team sponsorship, it's just now entering the hardgoods game.

Stewart says with the recent reorganization of the ACG division as a separate business unit of Nike, Inc., the company is better managed to address the snowboarding world. What it's offering comes down to really just seven pieces: four boards, two boots, and one binding. This might not be what the snowboarding industry was expecting, but it's a solid, manageable introduction that might really catch some off guard.

The two cornerstone items are both part of Nike's new Alpha Project that spans across the entire company–an initiative to develop the most technically advanced products and push the envelope of technology that will be passed down to other products later. Alpha items are designated with five dots located somewhere on the product.

The first is the U-series board, a halfpipe-specific model made with a blended sidecut, 4,000-grade sintered base, carbon-fiber strips for longitudinal flex with edge control, and extra inserts for stance optimization. Although the company knows that it probably won't sell too many of these highly specialized boards, it was an exercise in making the best possible product for the category.

While the U-series is impressive, footwear is where Nike definitely has the ability to shine. It's come out with the high-end Air Form Pumori to show off its snowboarding potential. It's a sleek, athletic footwear-inspired linerless freeriding boot featuring a new Dri-Fit BTU that provides moisture-managing insulation that's much thinner than conventional foams. It also has the famous air pocket for impact cushioning, Nikeform moldable foam, and waterproof Nubuck leather.

The board line is rounded out with three all-mountain models (several sizes each) at prices ranging from 300 to 425 dollars, depending on the different bases, fiberglass, and woodcore designs. The second boot is a pricepoint below the Pumori, with similar–but fewer–features.

Rounding out the hardgoods line is a unique soft-strap binding called the Bootlock, which will probably have many binding designers scratching their heads wondering why they didn't think of it first. It has a heel-strap attached to the top ratchets, wrapping all the way around the rider's boot to ensure the good response and to disperse pressure.

Three Years And Counting

Later in the morning, ACG Apparel Senior Product Designer Scott Hutsenpiller begins to talk about the clothing program that launched in 1997. He's been with the snowboarding program pretty much since the beginning and puts its growth into perspective.

“The first challenge was to position our apparel as technical performance outerwear,” says Hutsenpiller. “Year two, we increased more styling and color, and pushed the envelope with performance. In year three, riders like Barrett Christy, Julie Zell, and Gian Simmen helped us make even better clothing.”

The line has a balance between fashion and function. Articles are tagged with a unique icon system to tell riders the different functions of the clothing. For instance, a pocket designed for a CD player has a musical note on it, while the goggle pocket has a corresponding icon. Of course, the system will also help retailers sell the features of the pieces as well.

“With our women's clothing, we're going to ante-up,” assures Hutsenpiller. “We've focused on the youthful consumer, and had style built into the clothing.” The company will also offer base layers that are developed in other ACG categories and cross merchandise them with the snowboarding-only pieces.

The apparel presentation is followed by a brief discussion about sales. Product Line Sales Manager Justin McCarthy is like many in the office. He also is psyched to have snowboarding as a part of his job.

“One thing that is unique about snowboarding, it's still a new sport, and it still encourages newcomers,” he says. With this, he points out another opportunity that Nike has over most of the snowboarding industry. The company has a pool of consumers that it can bring to snowboarding by itself.

McCarthy oversees the ACG rep force that has some snowboarding background, but admittedly not all of them are snowboarders. To introduce the line of hardgoods, the company has had a series of regional launches, including two in Canada and eight in the United States, where key retailers were invited to see the product and test it on snow.

A Bigger Picture

One area that the ACG snowboard program can take advantage of Big Daddy Swoosh is with corporate marketing. Stewart says that the larger brand identity has been tapping into the snowboarding division to use in different TV ads and promotions, such as with the X Games. These are areas when the smaller snowboarding division definitely gets way more marketing exposure than it could provide itself.

Not to say that it doesn't do some of its own stuff. There's a small (but growing) team of well-known top riders sporting the swoosh. Two-time U.S. Open and most recent X Games halfpipe-winner Jimi Scott was the first to sign. He was followed by the likes of Christy, and Rob Kingwill.

“Working with athletes is part of Nike's heritage,” says Scott MacEachern, category manager in outdoor sports marketing. “Snowboarding is no different than other categories here.”

He's quick to point out that they won't play the Forum game of getting a large number of the hottest up-and-comers, but also won't mimic Columbia, who sponsors almost nobody with its strong-selling Convert snowboarding line.

Julie Zell, Matt Donahue, and Matt Goodwill round out the U.S. team while in Europe there's Gian Simmen, Markus Hurme, and Klaus Vengan. Veteran pro-rider Shannon Melhuse has been tapped to be team manager.

Running Scared

“Just run across the rubber mat,” Research Assistant Corinna Kupelwieseller begins to talk about the clothing program that launched in 1997. He's been with the snowboarding program pretty much since the beginning and puts its growth into perspective.

“The first challenge was to position our apparel as technical performance outerwear,” says Hutsenpiller. “Year two, we increased more styling and color, and pushed the envelope with performance. In year three, riders like Barrett Christy, Julie Zell, and Gian Simmen helped us make even better clothing.”

The line has a balance between fashion and function. Articles are tagged with a unique icon system to tell riders the different functions of the clothing. For instance, a pocket designed for a CD player has a musical note on it, while the goggle pocket has a corresponding icon. Of course, the system will also help retailers sell the features of the pieces as well.

“With our women's clothing, we're going to ante-up,” assures Hutsenpiller. “We've focused on the youthful consumer, and had style built into the clothing.” The company will also offer base layers that are developed in other ACG categories and cross merchandise them with the snowboarding-only pieces.

The apparel presentation is followed by a brief discussion about sales. Product Line Sales Manager Justin McCarthy is like many in the office. He also is psyched to have snowboarding as a part of his job.

“One thing that is unique about snowboarding, it's still a new sport, and it still encourages newcomers,” he says. With this, he points out another opportunity that Nike has over most of the snowboarding industry. The company has a pool of consumers that it can bring to snowboarding by itself.

McCarthy oversees the ACG rep force that has some snowboarding background, but admittedly not all of them are snowboarders. To introduce the line of hardgoods, the company has had a series of regional launches, including two in Canada and eight in the United States, where key retailers were invited to see the product and test it on snow.

A Bigger Picture

One area that the ACG snowboard program can take advantage of Big Daddy Swoosh is with corporate marketing. Stewart says that the larger brand identity has been tapping into the snowboarding division to use in different TV ads and promotions, such as with the X Games. These are areas when the smaller snowboarding division definitely gets way more marketing exposure than it could provide itself.

Not to say that it doesn't do some of its own stuff. There's a small (but growing) team of well-known top riders sporting the swoosh. Two-time U.S. Open and most recent X Games halfpipe-winner Jimi Scott was the first to sign. He was followed by the likes of Christy, and Rob Kingwill.

“Working with athletes is part of Nike's heritage,” says Scott MacEachern, category manager in outdoor sports marketing. “Snowboarding is no different than other categories here.”

He's quick to point out that they won't play the Forum game of getting a large number of the hottest up-and-comers, but also won't mimic Columbia, who sponsors almost nobody with its strong-selling Convert snowboarding line.

Julie Zell, Matt Donahue, and Matt Goodwill round out the U.S. team while in Europe there's Gian Simmen, Markus Hurme, and Klaus Vengan. Veteran pro-rider Shannon Melhuse has been tapped to be team manager.

Running Scared

“Just run across the rubber mat,” Research Assistant Corinna Kupelwieser said to me. So I did.

She then hit a couple of buttons on the keyboard of the computer that was wired to the mat, and almost magically there was a footprint on the screen, with pressure points showing up in bright red. It kind of looked like the Weather Channel's satellite pictures that show where the heavy and light rain is falling.

Only this was Nike's Sports Research Lab located in one of the many buildings on the campus, and we were looking at all the different testing machines, test-data computer printouts, and super-slow-motion video with associated graphs breaking down the different flex patterns of a snowboard when ridden that the engineers have been using to help develop the line. Admittedly, it was a bit of hocus pocus. Sure, all this has to back up what the riders say. But at least Nike has numbers and people analyzing them to help balance out the feedback an actual snowboarder gives. But the point was well made: the resources the company has in its possession are enormous.

That, ultimately, is what might very well be the snowboard industry's biggest concern. Remember, Nike is bigger than the whole snowsports industry combined. If the company wants to take a chunk of snowboarding market share, it could have it today. But much of what the Nike employees tried to stress to me during the two-day visit is that the people at the company are snowboarders and it sponsors some of the more 'core riders around. They know that there's more to the sport than market share. Snowboarding is fun and maybe Nike can develop products to make it more fun. And if so, it'll accomplish a more lofty goal.

 

Steve Black, boards

Chris Hamilton, testers

Tate Kurbis, boots

ieser said to me. So I did.

She then hit a couple of buttons on the keyboard of the computer that was wired to the mat, and almost magically there was a footprint on the screen, with pressure points showing up in bright red. It kind of looked like the Weather Channel's satellite pictures that show where the heavy and light rain is falling.

Only this was Nike's Sports Research Lab located in one of the many buildings on the campus, and we were looking at all the different testing machines, test-data computer printouts, and super-slow-motion video with associated graphs breaking down the different flex patterns of a snowboard when ridden that the engineers have been using to help develop the line. Admittedly, it was a bit of hocus pocus. Sure, all this has to back up what the riders say. But at least Nike has numbers and people analyzing them to help balance out the feedback an actual snowboarder gives. But the point was well made: the resources the company has in its possession are enormous.

That, ultimately, is what might very well be the snowboard industry's biggest concern. Remember, Nike is bigger than the whole snowsports industry combined. If the company wants to take a chunk of snowboarding market share, it could have it today. But much of what the Nike employees tried to stress to me during the two-day visit is that the people at the company are snowboarders and it sponsors some of the more 'core riders around. They know that there's more to the sport than market share. Snowboarding is fun and maybe Nike can develop products to make it more fun. And if so, it'll accomplish a more lofty goal.

 

Steve Black, boards

Chris Hamilton, testers

Tate Kurbis, boots