Building The Base: Lifting Lessons From Obama And Coke To Help Save Snowboarding’s Future

While we all pray for white slopes, it’s time to see a broader spectrum of people on them. SOS Outreach University paricipants wrap up a dat at Beaver Creek. PHOTO: SAKAS

By Dr. Buie Seawell & Bryan Van Dorpe 

Re-printed from the Winter Issue of TransWorld Business. Download your copy here.

Post-election analysis showed that President Obama was re-elected by reaching out to minority groups—African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, single mothers, gays and lesbians, young-adults, and low-income families. For the snowsports industry, which has flourished by catering to Caucasian baby boomers since the 1980’s, the 2012 election may be the canary in the coal mine to turn talk of customer diversity into large-scale action.

Last May at the 2012 National Ski Areas Association Annual Convention, James Chung, President of Reach Advisors, stated “For the first time in American history, the population of white adults in the peak skiing age bracket of 25 to 54-year-olds is decreasing. This is a major generational shift that is hard for industry executives to see because for those over 50, America is still 70% non-Hispanic whites, but for kids in school today, it is almost 50/50. That is not a problem for a lot of businesses unless your market is predominately white males.”

For over a decade, the snowsports industry has talked about the growth in minority youth but no large-scale action has taken place. When snowboarding was introduced, its urban appeal translated to higher participation among minorities compared to skiing; however, industry-wide snowboard visits have dropped from a peak of 28.6% of visits in 2009/10 to 26.7% last season. If  the lack of growth in snowboard visits is due to snowboarders aging into young adulthood with limited disposable income and a multitude of time detractions, then the industry can anticipate a continuation of the decline. Nate Fristoe from RRC Associates has said that without taking action to stem the decline, the industry could see snowboarding visits decline at an annual rate of about 1.8% from 2012/13 to 2020/21.

What Can Snowboard Companies Do To Increase Diversity?

Nate Fristoe’s research on minority participation demonstrates, “The rate of growth in minority participation largely tracks the rate of growth in minority households with incomes similar to [the snowsports industry’s] core Caucasian participants,” (read “affluent”). So far, that research has led most industry leaders to be reticent in marketing to minorities. However, it is wise to note that a correlation does not imply a causal relationship, and perhaps income is not the only underlying factor. There are a small number of non-profits working in the field of youth development that operate on a demonstrated conversion rate of 24%, independent of economic situations. They prove that the key to conversion is not teaching minority youths how to ski and snowboard; that is certainly part of the equation, but the crucial success factor for conversion is culturalization.

SOS Outreach (formerly known as Snowboard Outreach Society), has shown that culturalizing diverse youth populations through a quasi-ski club organization can have a conversion rate as high as 24%; that compares to rates below 20% for snowboard beginner lessons. Quasi-ski clubs provide an introduction into the sport and a supportive peer group to further involvement with snowsports.

Most snowboarders got on board thanks to family, friends, and community ties. Conversely, for many minorities, snowsports are not part of the tradition, culture, and family vacation experience. As a result, for minorities, snowsports are not often considered an enjoyable experience to try, let alone develop a long-term commitment to. In essence, the problem solvers in the snowboard industry need to do what the Democrats did in the election campaign—culturalize minorities into the party.

Success is already taking place within non-profits like Chill, Stoked Mentoring, Youth Enrichment Services, Outdoor Outreach, and SOS Outreach. They not only bring mountain lifestyle sports to kids but incorporate character-building and self-esteem education to bond the youth together for a better future. The formula of adding together snowsports, team building, and adult mentorship over four-to-six years has been identified by private foundations and social scientists to be the most effective means to help kids grow into healthy, educated, community-minded adults. Not to mention, they also become lifelong snowsports participants.

Targeted Philanthropy 

Targeted philanthropy is when companies partner with non-profits that align with their organizational missions. The chief motivation for engaging in targeted philanthropy is the intrinsic value of supporting the community as stakeholders; in return, donors also support the long-term growth of their businesses. For example, Coca-Cola has chosen to devote a majority of its charitable contributions to support clean drinking water resource development; this action is helping millions of people gain access to clean water and providing the company with the necessary water to manufacture its product in far reaches of the globe. Likewise, Comcast has chosen to target its philanthropy to address the digital divide among low income households. The company has partnered with a computer manufacturer to offer deeply discounted computers, broadband service, and digital literacy training to families that qualify. In the snowsports industry, Vail Resorts has contributed $1 million of cash and in-kind donations for the last decade to SOS Outreach so that 3,200 under-served youth culturalize in snowsports and develop into healthy and successful young people by spending over 15,000 days on the slopes each year.

To help save the industry, snowsports executives need to be concerned about the effect of the national demographic shift as it relates to their companies, recognize that a solution is available that has been tested on a small scale, and contact snowsports-oriented, youth development non-profits to begin their targeted philanthropy and give now, and earn later.

About the authors: Buie Seawell is a professor at the University of Denver’s Department of Business Ethics and Legal Studies. He is also an attorney, and former Colorado Democratic Party chair. Bryan Van Dorpe is the executive director at Youth Enrichment Services in New England.