Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sporting Cycle: Getting back to basics

Posted By on Sat, Apr 10, 2010 at 8:36 PM

The Cross Country Ski Areas Association's (CCSAA) membership is comprised of ski area and ski resort owners and operators plus representatives from ski gear makers, grooming equipment manufacturers, insurance companies and others who offer services to ski areas. In short, it's a classic affinity group, and like so many such groups holds an annual convention.

Before this past week's gathering at The Seventh Mountain Resort, the CCSAA convention was last held in Bend 21 years ago. Then, the convention drew well over 250 people. This year's version drew only 36 people with a third of those being representatives of grooming, insurance and ski companies.

So why the downward trend in attendance over the intervening decades?

"Simply put, "noted Peter Ashley of ski distributor Fischer of America, "it's the economy. Area owners and operators can't afford the time away from their places to attend an annual meeting."

But there's more to it than that. Cross-country skiing is a sport going through the end of a lifecycle. A lifecycle that began with the boom in interest in the sport in the early 1970s when it became more widely known to the general public throughout North America.

Buoyed by technological advances in skis and boot/bindings systems, the perfection of grooming and expanded trail systems, plus new techniques like skating (freestyle), the sport sustained steady growth. That growth leveled out in the 1990s and now is on the downturn.

The numbers of people coming into cross-country skiing have dwindled substantially and some industry experts cite unpredictable winters, the growing number of sports and entertainment options available to people and, of course, the economy as the reasons for the decrease in numbers.

I look at it differently. Cross-country skiing is at the end of a natural boom/bust cycle that all self-propelled sports go through.

Take running, for example. It's gone through the full cycle booming in the 70s and then almost fading from view in the 90s. Then came a resurgence of interest and a re-birth and the start of a new cycle, if you will, over the past several years.

Apart from going through the end days of the boom/bust natural cycle, in order for cross-country skiing to experience a re-invigoration like running has the people who push the sport have to get back to basics.

That's basics as in selling what makes the sport great. And what makes it great? If the surveys we did during the late 70s and through the 80s at Ski Magazine were correct, people like to participate in cross-country skiing because they enjoy being outside in nature in winter.

Then, cross-country skis were simply the vehicles to get you outdoors in winter. It didn't matter how you dressed, how far you skied and how fast you went.

But as time went on, the movers and shakers in the cross-country community began a long infatuation with racing and skating. In doing so, they turned their backs on the average kick-and-glide skier who is now forced to ski on a broad ribbon of groomed highway all the while feeling a bit overwhelmed as an army of fast skiing, Lycra glad, super serious skiers-in-training whiz past.

Looking at the various brochures that ski areas left on a table at the recent CCSAA convention all but one featured skate skiers in flashy outfits on their covers. The area not showing a serious skater, Northstar at Lake Tahoe, showed a not-so-flashily dressed skier striding along a trail with a beautiful view in the background. The brochure was inviting. It wasn't like the others, essentially challenging you to bring your "A" skate game to the resort if you wanted to have a good time.

Steve Schneider of the Teacup Nordic Ski Club on Mount Hood pointed out that three issues of one of the ski magazines offered for convention attendees to take home featured high intensity skate ski scenes on their covers.

On hearing Schneider's comments another delegate chimed in, "It's the same old problem. Ski areas and the press keep appealing to 10 percent of the people who ski, totally forgetting that important 90 percent who pay the bills."

Another convention delegate disagreed saying that there was a trickle down factor whereby the fast and furious inspired people to get out and ski and that there would be a surge of new interest in cross-country skiing based on people watching the Vancouver Olympic cross-country competitions on television.

Wrong. The reaction among the general sports media following the cross-country events at the Vancouver Games was a collective ho-hum at best. The only time American has gotten a post-Olympic surge (make that a tiny wave) in interest in the sport was when Bill Koch won a silver medal in 1976, the one and only time an American has medaled in cross-country skiing.

So to think high tech skiing and racing will carry the sport of cross-country skiing to a bright new future is ludicrous.

What will carry the sport forward is getting back to basics. Apart from just being outside in nature in winter, a cross-country skiing essential is how the sport is still one of the best total body exercises ever. And that's not just for the go-fast set -- the average skier can burn a lot of calories just sliding along.

There's also the aspect of camaraderie, being out with people. We see some of that fostered locally by Parks and Rec, churches and other groups.

But here, as elsewhere, the fast crowd demands the attention, complains the most when tracks aren't set perfectly and doesn't seem interested in inclusiveness particularly of the less skilled or non-competitive minded.

Cross-country skiing as a sport can have a second life, a resurgence, but it will take a lot of people in the press and the ski industry to get back to promoting what made the sport great in the first place. It wasn't going fast, but going slow and taking in the sights while staying healthy.

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