HOW RIDERS ARE REDEFINING TRADITIONAL SNOWBOARDING IDEAS THROUGH FUN AND STYLE
*This article was originally published in the Winter issue of Transworld Business.
Progression is defined as a gradual movement toward a more advanced state. In snowboarding the rider-driven road map for progression has always been very linear and straight-forward ever since the sport's founders first tucked their Sorels into makeshift bindings and raced downhill: go faster, catch more air, spin more rotations; advance on bigger jumps, steeper mountainsides, more technical rails, and more consequential features. It's an evolution that came naturally for a new sport. The goal of each new generation of riders has been to progress what had been done before. As Jeremy Jones puts it, "Progression is very much built into snowboarding through the history. As a rider, from day one of strapping up it was all about getting better than I was the day before." Jones learned from watching first generation jibbers like Dale Rehberg, Noah Salasnek, and Stevie Alters: "I learned from those rippers before me and they learned from who they watched." Along the way, the bonus of progressing their riding came with the bigger bonus of progressing the entire sport of snowboarding.
But recently there's been a trend toward pro riders opting out of that linear march of traditional snowboarding progression and traveling down their own path focused on creativity, fun, and adventure, and kids are connecting with this message. We should acknowledge that clearly there's still traditional high-level progression happening—Yuki Kadono's Burton US Open winning switch backside triple cork 1620, for example, and the trio of riders landing quad corks, most recently 16-year-old Norwegian Marcus Kleveland. But unlike days of yore, to attain these levels, riders are focusing and specializing on just one aspect of snowboarding—incorporating coaches and training facilities and an incredibly high-level of risk, all just to add another cork and rotation. It's a level of serious commitment and dedication that's beyond the loftiest goals of a typical rider at their home resort, and you could argue, leaves a bit of the fun behind. Part of what this new generation of riders is focused on is fun, and at times, possibly at the expense of traditional notions of progression. New avenues have opened up in the sport. It seems like a good thing and maybe just what our sport needs.
Our jobs as pro snowboarders should be focused on participation and inspiring viewers to get out there and do it. For a lot of years, progression was the focus, but at this point it's just too out of touch for a lot of people. We've hit this plateau, it's topped out." – Austin Smith
You can see the trend in last season's "Pathology Project" movie release. It wasn't the year's most progressive offering (i.e., not the follow up to "The Art Of Flight"), but one clearly focused on a more lighthearted side of snowboarding and adventuring with friends. Producer and pro rider Austin Smith says, "Our jobs as pro snowboarders should be focused on participation and inspiring viewers to get out there and do it. For a lot of years, progression was the focus, but at this point it's just too out of touch for a lot of people. We've hit this plateau, it's topped out." Smith directs his efforts on getting clips that gets the viewer excited about snowboarding. "That's what snowboarding is all about—individuality, doing what makes you happy," he says—a message that clearly resonates with fellow pro riders, as "Pathology Project" took home the 2015 TransWorld Rider's Poll Video of the Year.
Another example is in the "new school carving movement." Snowboarder kicked off a new volume this season with a 10-page feature on carving, showcasing the likes of Alex Lopez, Tim Eddy, Gus Warbington, and Desiree Melancon. The trend, referred to as "low impact snowboarding," was further clarified by Snowboarder's Creative Director Pat Bridges as "a more democratized form of personal progression." This has a nice ring to it—it's still progression, but more attainable in that your average recreational snowboarder can reasonably head up to the mountain and attempt to replicate these carving tricks. It's a modern version of hitting up Tarquin Robbins' Anthem jib lines back in the day—a relatable analogy that might give pause to some of the older industry veterans who struggle with accepting these new paths.
Even more esoteric is the snow surfing trend originating in Japan and gaining traction in the U.S. This grounded movement focuses on the art of the turn in sync with the terrain. It's very minimalist and quiet as reflected in the Patagonia movie "The Northern Sky", which Alex Yoder, surf legend Gerry Lopez, and Josh Dirksen premiered in Bend, Oregon, this past winter during the Dirksen Derby. During the Q&A session after the movie, Dirksen offered that the focus on turning was "trying to show snowboarding as a lifestyle, not just a sport for teenagers," adding that this approach "keeps you in the game without having to be so progressive." In so many words, as a way to keep longtime riders hooked on the sport, not just feeling old and irrelevant. TransWorld Snowboarding profiled the movement in a 10-page feature in its November issue.
Riders clearly don't see this as fun at the expense of progression. They're still learning and pushing themselves, just down roads that didn't occur to riders to travel so far down before. Capita rider Scott Stevens is part of a crew of riders that has focused their efforts on reimagining progression through creativity—an effort that earned Stevens the ender in ThirtyTwo's "2032", among a heavy lineup of influential street riders. Scott focuses on his own version of creative NBD tricks including a Richie Jackson-esque one-footed backtail slide, handplant variations, one-footer, and no footer tricks. In going deeper into existing tricks, he's found room for progression with fewer consequences. "To me the unique riding was never missing, it's just a lot of tricks have been done on a snowboard over the years so you really have to pay attention to see stuff that's fresher," says Stevens. "I've drawn a lot of inspiration from older riders who did exactly what I'm trying to do now." He adds, "I'm glad that people see the need to have an open mind to the strange and unorthodox ways of riding a snowboard."
These are all rider-driven movements that bring something back into snowboarding that had gone missing. Something that was organically there from the start, but we had lost when progression hit corked, sculpted, manicured levels. That's attainability and aspiration—some of the reasons we watch movies and flip through magazines in the first place. Maybe contests can get a hall pass from attainability and aspiration and remain fully inspirational for the majority of us, but the pendulum has swung too far in the progression direction. So is it the end of the world if these avenues are a departure from the last 30 years of snowboarding progression? Maybe this disruption is exactly what snowboarding needs.
How do these trends translate to the inner workings of the snowboarding industry? ThirtyTwo Global Brand Director Brian Cook says, "At ThirtyTwo we focus so much on the style and the lifestyle of snowboarding." This effort is translated not only in "2032", but also in their online "Spot Check" video series, Cook says, "We started the "Spot Check" video series back in 2010, and the whole point was to make it attainable for the kids to go and ride the park that they see their favorite pros riding and doing tricks on." He adds, "Hopefully it makes the kids stoked that the pros were there riding their park and that they can go and try those tricks, or get inspired to ride their park like our pros rode it."
For Dragon Alliance Global Snow Marketing Manager Kyle Martin*, the brand's marketing effort is about creating a deeper connection to the sport, he says. "It's all about creating an emotional response from something that a reader or viewer could relate to." Part of that is supporting athletes who can make that connection. "I see a lot of companies holding onto the same athlete rosters they have endorsed for years, yet there is this whole next generation of young riders on the come-up. Not only are they talented, but they're relatable to the youth and the next wave of snowboard consumers," says Martin. The Dragon goggle team roster includes longtime established riders like Danny Davis and Jamie Lynn alongside Blake Paul and Forest Bailey.
Kevin Casillo, snow sports marketing manager at Vans, definitely sees snowboarding coming full-circle back to style. Casillo says, "It's easier to market style because that's our heritage. That's where snowboarding originated. We at Vans have some amazing legends who have been a part of the family for a while and obviously key to the brand, but some of the newer people that have come into Vans as of late bring something different. They bring their unique take on snowboarding and style and what brings them joy in their riding. That, I think is truly where you're going to start seeing snowboarding going."
Style, joy, an emotional connection, attainability—these are all departures from the podium and progression-centric marketing goals of the past. Snowboarding is in the process of evolving and reinventing itself and in the process broadening the sport. While industry leaders had been gathering around conference tables brainstorming ideas about how to grow the sport of snowboarding, the riders already grabbed the reigns and are doing just that. And nothing is more authentic— as Jeremy Jones pointed out, it's always been the rider's job to inspire the next generation, and this generation is responding with fun, creative, and yes, Zen-like approaches that not only stoke out the next generation of riders, but also bring the older generation of riders back into the fold.
*Kyle Martin is now the sports marketing manager for The North Face