The snowboarding industry and television have had an unfulfilled relationship over the years. While the great hope of TV is introducing more people to snowboarding, many industry players worry that the current form of snowboarding on television—contests—will kill its soul. This fear looms even larger with the approaching 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.
No one knows this dichotomy more than the guy who helped put snowboarding on TV in the first place. Alan Gibby, owner of DynoComm Sports—a video-production company in San Clemente, California, has been through the television maze and understands what TV can do for action sports. With the 1988 Op Pro at June Mountain, Gibby secured the first major coverage of snowboarding to appear on national television. Since then his company has produced nearly every snowboard show to air on ESPN or Prime Network.
Gibby believes that the Op Pro, The U.S. Open, and other contest shows have helped snowboarding more than anyone realizes. “Think about it. When we first did June Mountain, about four percent of the resorts allowed snowboarding,” Gibby says. “How many of them are allowing it now? Without television I don’t think many of those resorts would have thought that snowboarding was a market that they needed to reach. People say that we can’t take the credit for getting resorts open to snowboarding, but I think we can take part of it.”
TV can also take credit for expanding snowboarding’s image, according to Gibby. “I think television gives a different view of the sport than the magazines and videos do.”
That different view is snowboarding as an organized, controlled professional sport. And it is the pursuit of that image that causes problems for some in the industry, mostly because contests just don’t make snowboarding look all that great. “The halfpipe looks really weak on TV,” says Ken Greengard, president of Joyride Snowboards. “It just doesn’t make the riders look as technically proficient as they are. It looks kind of cheesy when the guy doesn’t even come above the deck and these are good riders. That’s one thing TV needs to get over.”
Although Greengard admits the TV coverage helps sales, he’s ambivalent about the end result. “I think if Johnny Q. Public is exposed to snowboarding for the first time, it helps the industry. It’s similar in theory, unfortunately, to in-line skating,” Greengard says. “I don’t think it does service to the soul of the sport, but it does for the sales of some companies. I don’t know how it fits into Joyride’s marketing scheme, but I guess it could help us, too.”
Dennis Jenson, Burton’s vice president/director of marketing, is more positive about the end results. “Television can help create that larger-than-life image,” he says. “The mastery of television is making things so much larger than they really are. So, yeah I think the industry needs television, but I don’t think the industry can afford it.”
On the street however, according to some shop owners, snowboarders don’t seem to talk about what’s on TV much. “The only thing we seem to hear about is that they’re showing stuff that people have already heard about, seen in videos or in the magazines,” says Rob West, general manager of Gravity Snowboard Shop in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “I think there would be a good deal more interest if it was live coverage. But ESPN would probably never do that.”
In reaction to contests’ overly regimented view of snowboarding on TV, Snowboader magazine started Snowboarder TV. Doug Pallidini, producer of the program, wanted to show people what real snowboarding was. “Ninety-nine percent of the snowboarders out there are into freeriding, and with the contest shows you get none of that,” Pallidini says. “Snowboarding is about participation, and like it or not, contests are about standing around and watching other people ride.”
Gibby realizes the downside of the TV he produces. “Contest shows will never do snowboarding justice,” Gibby says. “But it’s either that kind of programming or no programming. And that’s not all bad. In my opinion, contests bring condensed quality. Even though it seems all commercialized, it still brings a bunch of talent to one place, at one time, so you can see things that you’d never see in another kind of show.”
Currently, viewers don’t seem to notice any real difference between the two styles of shows. Last season ESPN aired fourteen half-hour contest shows from the American Professional Snowboard Series, and eight airings of Snowboarder TV. According to Josh Krulewitz, senior publicist at ESPN, the shows got nearly the same audience, averaging between 95,000 and 191,226 homes, which means roughly 236,000 to 400,000 people. Even the season’s lowest-rated contest show, the Snow Summit Halfpipe Contest, which aired at 2:30 a.m. PST in February, still had an approximate viewership of 147,000, or about equal to the number of snowboard magazine subscribers in North America. “When you figure that ESPN is going into about 65-million homes, magazine distribution pales in comparison,” Pallidini says. “Plus, with TV you reach a lot of sports enthusiasts who have yet to plop down $3.95 for a snowboard magazine.”
What the ratings numbers also seem to say is that people will watch snowboarding on TV no matter how good or bad they say it is after the fact. That’s why Dennis Jenson sees their TV advertising as being more for the industry than for Burton. “At this point when Burton or Airwalk advertises on MTV or ESPN, it’s doing more for the industry than for the individual companies,” he says. “If you ask people if they saw snowboarding on TV last night, they usually don’t know if it was a Burton ad, but they know it was snowboarding and they know they liked it.”
However, to the snowboarding public who knows what they are watching, the coverage is “old school.”Eric Lefebre of Black Dog Snowboards in Logan, Utah says, “Overall, everyone feels okay about the coverage. The one thing they’re saying is that they’d like to see more freeriding.”
Wouldn’t we all like to see more freeriding? Contests will always be a part of snowboarding coverage because they fit in with the formula of marketing sports, but in the future as snowboarding becomes more accepted in the general population, maybe we will see broader coverage of the sport.
Lee Crane has been a commentator on more than 20 snowboarding TV shows.