Matt Barr: Stop arguing whether competition is relevant and create a new contest format

To move forward, Matt Barr says we should stop arguing whether competition is relevant and create a contest series that represents the best elements of snowboarding. Gigi Rüf at the Red Bull Ultra Natural. Photo: Scott Serfas

To move forward, Matt Barr says we should stop arguing whether competition is relevant and create a contest series that represents the best elements of snowboarding. Gigi Rüf at the Red Bull Ultra Natural. Photo: Scott Serfas

Matt Barr has been covering snowboarding for over 20 years out of the UK, edited Whitelines magazine and now runs his own agency All Conditions Media. He created our Shaking Hands With The Devil series in 2011, which looked at the often uneasy and troubling relationship between competitive snowboarders, the FIS, and the Olympics.

Here he presents an open letter on how he believes competitive snowboarding should evolve.

Dear reader, 

It's time to stop worrying about how we got to the current state of competitive snowboarding and do something constructive about the future.

Why now? Because the publication of Dave Mailman's excellent examination of the differences between competitive surfing and snowboarding for Whitelines magazine felt like a watershed moment, the point at which the endless discussion about how we got here finally had to end.

The challenge now is to work out what we do about it. What follows is a seven-point blueprint for moving competitive snowboarding forward and is, if nothing else, a starter for a new conversation about how we can move forward, stop harping on about the Olympics and create our own contest format and tour that rivals anything FIS can do.

Who's in?

Point 1: Stop arguing about whether competition is relevant to snowboarding. 

We get it. We know, "snowboarding isn't about competition, it's about shredding powder with your friends." Everybody knows that a powder day is about the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

But in 2015, offering that line to a conversation about what the hell to do about competitive snowboarding is just not helpful. It is not an original observation, and is the biggest, most damaging red herring in the entire debate.

Why? Because since the dawn of time (and snowboarding), people have used the concept of competition as a way of measuring who the best is. No amount of heated Internet below-the-line debating is going to make it go away.

So please, as snowboarders, let's have some solidarity here. You may despise views like this with every fiber of your being. You may hate contests and the very idea of growing the sport through competition. And that's fine. Just walk away from the computer right now. Forget the Olympics ever existed. Find some powder to ride with your friends. Have fun. No, really.

Next point.

Point 2: Forget about FIS and the Olympics. Leave them to it. 

Why? Because it's over. That bird has flown. FIS control snowboarding in the Olympics and the only way it will change is we forget about them and get our own shit in dramatic order.

The final nail in the coffin for me—and the best reason I've yet seen for stopping the conversation with FIS and backing out of the room as quickly and discreetly as possible—was this film:

In a way, we should probably thank whichever genius signed this off for summarizing the unbridgeable cultural gap between them and us more eloquently than two decades of hand-wringing pieces like this ever managed to.

The only practical use for this godforsaken creation is as a new litmus test for whether you actually understand the culture of snowboarding or not. If you watch this film and don't cringe down to the bottom of your boots, the answer is probably not.

Watch it again. Then tell yourself: forget FIS.

There.

Doesn't that feel better?

Point 3: Create our own radical contest format that truly represents snowboarding, can harness the creativity of the athletes and existing contests, and has the potential to blow the FIS Tour and Olympics out of the water. 

Okay, that's a big one, and something the good people at the TTR and World Snowboard Tour have been trying to do for most of the millennium. But with the news that TV giants IMG have discreetly pulled out of the whole show means it might be time to accept that this valiant effort has failed and that it's time for a new idea.

Fortunately, such a blueprint already exists and came from the pen of ex-Whitelines editor and current BBC winter sports broadcaster, Ed Leigh. In format it borrows heavily from surfing and is a creative extension of the idea that has always formed the core of the TTR concept—namely, get the best riders in the world to ride the best events.

But the critical difference is that Ed's concept is not about trying to shoehorn existing contests into a format that ultimately suits the Olympics. It is about creating our own format that has the potential to show up the Olympics as the figureboarding shit-show it is inevitably becoming.

I'm just going to quote directly from Ed's article here so you get the idea:

"In my opinion the answer is to build snowboarding's own dream tour: eight events around the world that cover all types of terrain. Travis Rice's Super/Ultra Natural in BC; trees in Japan; pipe in Laax; banked slalom in Baker; slopestyle in Mammoth; street in Helsinki; freeriding in Utah; big mountain in Alaska. You pick the twenty best riders who sign contracts for the entire tour alongside four young guns, legend or injury wild cards for each event. It gives you continuity with the riders—something that is woefully lacking at the moment—and it revives the core values of the sport so you can begin to build stories around the event's heritage. This in turn gives the event value, because people start to care about winning the way they did about Air & Style up to the early 2000s. But most importantly it can give us back our legends; a more diverse tour could see the likes of Travis, Gigi, Nicolas Müller, Eric and John Jackson, Forest Bailey, Mathieu Crepel and Halldor consider returning to the competitive arena."

Can you imagine how amazing something like that would be? Sure there are difficulties—not least that some of these event concepts don't actually exist.

But how much more representative of the reality of snowboarding as we all know and love it would that be than that half pipe final in Sochi?

Point 4: Use that format to communicate an understandable idea. 

How about this? Crown the riders with the most points at the end of this new multi-dimensional format World Champion. Yes, it's stolen from surfing. Yes, the TTR have been trying to accomplish this for years, with limited success.

So why stick with it? As Dave Mailman put it, "that world title is very important in the grand scheme of things. In fact it's the single most important thing in the world of professional surfing."

Why? Because this simple, ongoing narrative has given surfing 'its own cache of internationally recognisable stars'.

And that gives surfing power when it comes to dealing with potentially rapacious bodies such as the IOC and FIS.

Point 5: Find real leaders that can help us change the culture of competitive snowboarding from the top down.

A huge part of the reason we ballsed it up with the Olympics was a lack of real leadership. There. I said it.

This is not to belittle the Herculean efforts made by all the well-intentioned, visible industry people who have worked hard to make snowboarding's case in the corridors of power over the years. Those people—from Reto Lamm down—are tireless heroes who busted a gut for snowboarding for very little recognition or reward, and who deserve our collective thanks.

But the reality is that their efforts were sorely hampered by the lack of a truly global figurehead at the height of their powers around whom we could gather our campaign.

In the early years, we had that icon: Terje Haakonsen. Unfortunately for Terje (and for snowboarding), the stance he made in Nagano was too far ahead of its time. The sport was just too young to know how to use such a powerful gesture in the most effective way possible.

Today, Terje is still a powerful figurehead for our sport, but unfortunately he cannot influence events in the way he once could. Subsequently, in the second phase of the Olympic debate, we suffered because we lacked a modern equivalent to Terje, somebody prepared to step forward, put their balls on the line and show us a positive way forward the way when it truly mattered.

In surfing, this leadership comes from above, with top pros and their managers intrinsically involved in using their clout and profile to help shape the competitive side of their sport.

So could our own top pro riders provide similar leadership in snowboarding? It's a tough brief – for cultural as well as personal reasons.

As the failure of the laudable We Are Snowboarding campaign led by Chas Guldemond showed, in snowboarding it is not so straightforward. The difference between surfing and snowboarding is that the top pros on their circuit are actually older and more mature.

In our sport, the top competitors are much younger than many of their surfing peers. The current pro shred model is to compete when you're young and then, as you get older and have accrued the necessary kudos, leave contests behind and hopefully transition into a video part pro.

Worse, our young pro contest riders are being encouraged to buy into this watered-down, style-free FIS/IOC version of competitive snowboarding as a way of advancing their career.

Shaun White aside, none of our top young contest shreds have accrued anything like enough clout to buck that trend and carry something like this on their own.

All of which narrows the field even further to a mere handful of super riders at the top of their careers who have done it all—contests and films—and lived to tell the tale.

But can you imagine the impact it would have if riders with the power, visibility, pedigree (and methods) of riders like Travis Rice or Nicholas Müller got behind a new format like this and started to change our competitive snowboarding culture from the top down? Especially if they were whole-heartedly supported by their agents and their sponsors?

Sure, in the short-term this would cause a problem, as Ed Leigh recognized in his original piece. Namely, "alienating a generation of riders who have grown up training for those one-dimensional contests. But it needs to happen because the alternative is too slow and torturous to consider, namely: our sport becoming the downhill equivalent of figureskating."

If not? We're going to be stuck in this hellish competitive limbo for the rest of recorded time. Worse, we're sleepwalking towards a long-term cultural downward spiral, where we give up our identity and sacrificing the inherent style that makes snowboarding what it is in a misguided attempt to hop aboard the FIS/IOC gravy train.

Can you imagine anything more depressing? Unless, or course, you're the guy who signed off the FIS video.

Point 6: Broadcast it properly—on our terms. 

There's a reason TV is so valued—their massive budgets tend to pay for everything. The problem with this is that every time we go cap-in-hand to NBC or any of the other networks and beg for some time on their precious airwaves, they call the shots. It's yet another Faustian pact that erodes the control we have.

How about this: instead, we utilize all the smart, creative people in snowboarding to broadcast our own livestream, and offer TV companies pre-produced highlights packages or even the live feed, but on our terms. Not theirs.

Sure, everybody in the industry says, what about money? Who's going to pay for it?

How about those shred companies that purport to love snowboarding and that are actively involved in organizing massive events the whole year round? I'm sure between us we can think of a few.

Point 7: That's it. 

Sure, there are more holes in this than a leaky sieve. And yes, it stands and falls on our top pros getting finally biting the bullet and getting involved, as the old TTR/WST concept always did.

But if nothing else, the time is surely right to begin a new conversation about competitive snowboarding.

Let's start now.