An insider’s look at the myth of going pro in the snowboard industry
In 2001, snowboarding was one of the hottest commodities on the planet and Steve Fisher was riding the crest.
Just three years earlier, snowboard halfpipe debuted at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, where long-forgotten (for some) pros like Norway’s Daniel Franck and U.S.A.’s Ross Powers introduced the world to 720s, McTwists and the occasional 900. Fisher, a Minnesota native, first went pro in 1999 when a hometown outfit, the now-defunct manufacturer Ice Age Snowboarders, put a board under his feet for free. He graduated from high school in 2001 and was ready to follow his passion — his first love, halfpipe — anywhere it took him.
“Back then, times were great,” said Fisher, now 33 years old and in his 14th season as a Breckenridge local. “Snowboarding and snow sports were growing tremendously and money was flowing in. Really, snow sports (athletes) were treated like rock stars back in the day.”
Like so many before him — guys like Golden’s JJ Thomas and fellow Midwesterner Chad Otterstrom — Fisher almost immediately set his sights on Breck. In the early 2000s, only Park City, Utah and Mammoth Mountain, California could compete with the high-end freestyle terrain and rambunctious snowboarding community found on the southern edge of the Tenmile Range. Fisher tried a few months in Mammoth, decided it wasn’t for him and then made the move to Breckenridge for the first major step in his young career.
“It was a product of timing and, obviously, 14 years ago, Breck was one of the premier resorts that catered to freestyle snowboarding,” Fisher said of coming to Breck. Over the next decade, Fisher rode the wave of popularity and newfound viewership to the top of the industry. He had a string of podium finishes at the Vans Triple Crown, Burton U.S. Open, FIS Snowboarding World Championships and Winter X Games in Aspen, where in 2007 he became one of the only riders to beat Shaun White in the halfpipe.
Both athletes were at the top of their games just as the snowboard industry swelled higher and higher. From 2002 to 2012 — the industry’s most impressive decade — winter sports equipment sales (skis, snowboards and Nordic) at specialty stores jumped from $664 million to $882 million, while at the same time total outerwear sales ballooned from $451.5 million to $1.4 billion, according to the trade group SnowSports Industries America. That’s an industry-wide increase of roughly 25 percent for gear and a whopping 300 percent for outerwear in just 10 years — the kind of numbers that brought massive, sweeping changes to the snowboarding landscape.
“In the early stages, it was literally kids making snowboards, from Sims to Burton to anything else,” Fisher said. “Those guys were doing this hand over fist initially, and then they got offices and warehouses and factories. That overhead builds up.”
Rise of the Millennial pro
But where do professionals fit into the industry equation? For decades, team riders with Burton, Sims, Ride and just about any snowboard manufacturer were a marketing tool: a visceral way to convince the next generation of hopefuls that their gear was the only gear worth buying. They’d appear in videos, print ads and, for big-name properties like White, the occasional TV commercial and MTV show.
Like MTV and television itself, snowboarding was forced to evolve with the advent of smartphones and social media. Fisher believes the industry truly started to shift after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, right around the time photo-sharing platforms like Instagram burst onto the scene.
“There was a massive paradigm shift that happened because marketing for so long was print, radio — whatever — and then the Internet really became king,” said Fisher, who brought an end to his competition career in 2011. “My sponsors asked me to join Twitter, be more active on Instagram and Facebook near the end of my career, and to me, I figured that wasn’t my job. My job was to snowboard, win contests, make your brand cool as hell, and get kids involved in this sport on your product.”
Today, social media is a must for any snowboarder with dreams of a career on the snow. Summer Fenton, a 21-year-old San Francisco native who’s been training in Breckenridge for three seasons now — ever since the California drought decimated her home mountains — says social media simply feels like a natural medium for her generation of pros.
“It’s not exactly promoting yourself, but it’s more about keeping in touch with your sponsors by sending them photos or videos or any media you attract,” said Fenton, whose Instagram account, @badgirlsumsum, has 2,703 followers. “They promote me through their networks, but I can’t just sit back. I help too, so we work together to do it.”
For Fenton, the biggest hurdle as an up-and-coming pro is funding. She currently has seven total sponsors, including well-known names like Nikita Clothing and Nixon watches, and occasionally gets help with travel and lodging expenses “if they’re at the same event I’m going to,” Fenton said. Beyond that, she relies on competition results (aka cash prizes) and savings from two summer jobs in the Bay Area to make it through the winter season.
“The big goal is to win contests so that I have enough money to make it to the next contest,” Fenton said, describing the pro snowboard version of living paycheck to paycheck, or maybe bonus to bonus. “The money I make supports me enough to get me from contest to contest, but I’m never making tons of money. I make enough to get by and right now that’s fine with me.”
And if she isn’t winning? It’s time to get creative. She hasn’t paid rent in three years — a network of friends lets her couch surf for groceries and utilities — and she’s even set up a one-off deal with coach Bud Keene: In exchange for a week of training, she volunteers as a coach for his a la carte program, BK Pro, with camps in Colorado, California and Oregon.
“You have to realize that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but it’s all up to you and how you look at it,” Fenton said. “I like to take a step back now and say, ‘I’m happy, I’m following my aspirations.’ That motivates me just as hard to land it in the next contest. There’s no time to sulk.”
Pay to play
This season, Fenton has been a fixture on the U.S. Revolution Tour, a freestyle pipeline series for skiers and snowboarders that’s overseen by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, or USSA. Good results there lead to invites for Grand Prix events — the middle tier in the open snowboard realm — and, with any luck, marquee events like Dew Tour, X Games and the Olympics beyond that. It’s “the little league, the grassroots, the pee-wee football of snowboarding and skiing,” local series director Paul Krahulec said.
The other big dog in the youth competition scene — USA Snowboard and Freeski Association, or USASA — is the go-to platform for thousands of ski club athletes, including the majority of snowboarders with Team Breckenridge and Team Summit Colorado. The organization hosts the USASA National Championships at Copper Mountain every season, which is meant to give athletes a bright, shining spotlight early in their careers.
But it’s not so simple or straightforward. Look at someone like Red Gerard, the 15-year-old Cleveland native who moved to Silverthorne with his mom, dad and six siblings several years ago. Today, he’s a member of the Burton global team — a true, bona fide pro with one of the deepest sponsors in the industry — and has earned invites to Dew Tour, the Burton U.S. Open and Winter Olympics test events in Pyeongchang, South Korea. His backyard terrain park on Ptarmigan Ridge is a smash-hit on Instagram as @redsbackyard, with 3,504 followers and regular visits from pros like Otterstrom and the Transworld Snowboarding film crew.
“People do need to realize that being a pro snowboarder might not be what you thought it was, and it’s definitely not like becoming a pro with any other sport,” said Red’s mom, Jen Gerard. “Red never had a coach, but he also has four older brothers who are really good at snowboarding and have a lot of really good friends. Red looks cool because he never had a coach — people are so anti-coaching in this world — but he also had the contacts a lot of people don’t.”
While she admits that she’s biased, Jen Gerard believes the snowboard industry doesn’t always look kindly on kids who come up through the expensive, parent-driven USASA system, where a single event entry for a major contest like Nationals is $300 per athlete.
“I think it’s important to be more than a contest kid,” Jen Gerard said, noting that the Burton team manager told her that his crew rarely watches USASA results when signing new athletes. “When you do that, you’re seeing such a small segment of snowboarders. Snowboarding isn’t that big to begin with — you don’t want to narrow it down — so you want to be part of the bigger snowboard community.”
A nation of sponsors
Outside of the U.S. — the birthplace of snowboarding — high-level riders like Munich native Silvia Mittermuller rely on a mix of sponsor and national team support for travel, contests, medical expenses and year-round training.
Mittermuller’s international career began in 2003, when she qualified for the Vans Triple Crown finals in Breckenridge and earned an invite for her first Winter X Games. Back then, like today, she was the only female slopestyle rider on the German national team, but a combination of unreliable coaches and one devastating Achilles injury three months before the 2014 Winter Olympics was enough for the team to pull its support while she recovered.
“Snowboarding is a tough industry, and in the end all I want to do is snowboard,” said Mittermuller, 32, who recently won Germany’s first-ever World Cup slopestyle gold in the Czech Republic. “A national team is something that should support the people from their country. Maybe I’m older than the average snowboarder these days, and all of these are reasons they don’t want to acknowledge your existence.”
In the U.S., the national team support system is even tighter — and almost nonexistent. Pros like Fenton won’t see any support until they start dominating every contest they enter, while a youngster like Red Gerard will likely have to wait for the upcoming Olympic season to get financial backing.
“I’m not saying I want our tax dollars to go to the Olympics, but other nations have found ways to provide funding,” Jen Gerard said. “If they (the U.S. team) want to keep producing top snowboarders, they need to do more to help these kids financially. Otherwise, you’ll eliminate some of these people who just don’t have the funds to send their kids all over the place.”
When mixed with the changing role of sponsors, self-promotion and an endless sea of social media, former pros like Fisher are nervous for the next generation of pros.
“The broader problem with it now is that athletes are more-or-less tossed aside as non-effective vehicles for marketing, rather than what they should be, which is employees of the company,” Fisher said. “If they’re brand ambassadors, they should be treated as such.”
Fisher rode the industry crest until 2011, when he decided to retire from competitive snowboarding. He still lives and plays and rides in Summit County, but he admits the final few years of his career left a bad taste in his mouth. As for the next generation?
“Part of me would tell them, ‘Snowboarding isn’t what it once was,’” Fisher said. “You probably won’t make much of a living anymore. But at the same time, I loved it so much that I didn’t care. All I wanted to do in life was snowboard, so I totally understand when kids still want to get out and ride and have that be their life. If you can find a way, I say make it happen for as long as you possibly can.”
Editor’s note: Steve Fisher is a advertising rep at the Summit Daily News.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.