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It's Not Just Your Kid's Sport Anymore

Snowboarding is easier on the ol' bod than skiing, and it's easier to learn. No wonder it's booming among boomers.

April 01, 1998|D. JAMES ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If snowboarding gets any more rebellious, it's going to have to be outlawed.

The sport is a punk-rocking, pot-smoking, board-apalooza of bad-boy rebellion. In short, it's a youth quake. At least that's what the mainstream media feed us: Snowboarders are supposed to be the antithesis of Old Guard skiers, who prefer designer outerwear, French-made skis and a glass of chablis next to the fire after an afternoon of hopping down the slopes.

But something funny happened on the way to that stereotype.

Baby boomers began driving to the slopes with snowboards on-board. And many who have surfed the snow have never gone back to their dueling skis, according to statistics. Some experts, in fact, are looking at these mature, cross-over skiers as one of the hottest segments of growth in the snow sports industry.

According to the Leisure Trends Group of Boulder, Colo., 40% of adult snowboarders are 35 or older. And that percentage is growing. The average age of an adult snowboarder is 27 and climbing. And the average age of those adults who ski and snowboard is 34.

"There's a lot of snowboarders with children and mortgages, the average age of the snowboarder keeps moving up, and the distinction and battle between snowboarding and skiing is diminishing," says Jeff Harbaugh, a 47-year-old snowboarder who is a business consultant and analyst for the snow, surf and skateboard industries.

The phenomenon unfolds daily in the San Gabriel Mountains during this unusually healthy snow season, where boomers mix peacefully with teenagers and twentysomethings in a celebration of the 8-foot snow pack.

Richard Doherty, a 37-year-old from Venice, switched from skis to snowboards three years ago and never looked back because, he says, snowboarding is easier on his body.

"Whenever I fell on my skis, I felt a twinge in my knees that lasted the rest of the day," he says during a break between runs at the Mountain High Resort near Wrightwood.

Likewise for Steve Birket, a 34-year-old from Orlando, Fla., who also crossed over for good. "With skiing, there's too many things to think about--two skis, two poles," he says. "Snowboarding is just you and the board."

Indeed, many baby boomers who compare snowboarding with skiing agree that the knees and the coordinating of two skis are problems. They also say the board sport is easier to learn and gives them a second wind on the slopes if they've grown bored with skiing. Some boomers are even being lured toward boards because their children are learning the sport.

Eric Nathan, a 42-year-old auctioneer from Manchester, Vt., began snowboarding five years ago at the behest of his teenager. "I took inspiration from my oldest son . . . and I haven't had a pair of downhill skis since."

Many boomers are finding that snowboarding revives a sense of fun-loving freedom.

"Skiing became a real stuffy sport--it started being perceived as a rich person's pastime," Nathan says. "It's true that snowboarding had this radical, rebellious image, but once you do it, it's really not about image. It's an exhilarating experience."

Snowboarding is experiencing 30% annual growth that is represented in every facet, from women to teenagers to dads, industry figures show.

"Is snowboarding growing up?" asks John Stouffer, editor of TransWorld Snowboarding Business, the industry trade magazine owned by Times-Mirror Co., the parent corporation of the Los Angeles Times. "No, it's growing out. The hard-core kids are still going to be hard-core kids. There's more kids than ever. But skiers who are bored with their sport are saying, 'Don't beat 'em, join 'em.' "

There is evidence that snowboarding is taking up the slope slack of skiing's slow growth. With as many as 10 million people on the nation's slopes each season, Joy Spring of Leisure Trends estimates that as many as 3 million of those are on snowboards, while experts in the snow-sports industry say snowboarders will be in the majority by 2005.

This boomlet in snowboarding boomers has encouraged ski companies to continue entering what was once considered a hostile market.

"Certainly the stereotypical snowboarding culture grew out of Southern California more than anywhere else, because it came of surfers and skaters," says Stouffer. "But when you look at it, it's really an Alpine culture. We're not that different from skiers.

"This whole cultural identity was manufactured by mass media more than anything else."

Longtime ski maker Solomon entered the crowded field of snowboard makers this season with a clean line of "free-ride" models (not like the flexible freestyle models preferred by teenagers who aim to catch air) that have been well-accepted. Ski maker Elan, which entered the market several years ago under the name Nale to avoid the carpetbagging stigma associated with being a ski company, is now proudly producing boards under its original name. And ski maker K2 has emerged from its late-'80s entrance into the scene as the No. 2 snowboard maker in the country.

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