New FWT schedule causes stir amongst athletes
Recently, the Freeride World Tour (FWT) decided to eliminate its tour stops in the Lower 48 and Canada -- keeping the 2015 schedule based almost entirely in Europe, with the exception of one men's only contest in Alaska.
The FWT also dissolved its relationship with Mountain Sports International, the U.S. organizing committee that previously ran the Freeskiing World Tour and helped many North Americans break into the sport. In doing so, the Freeride World Tour's organizers have effectively regressed the sport of competitive big-mountain skiing.
Or, at least, that's the way I see it.
I owe much of my success as a skier to big-mountain contests. Without the start gate, finish line and judges, I'd have no sponsors, no film segments and few of the opportunities I've had over the last several years. I've notched more starts than most athletes and I've been one of the sport's more vocal advocates over the years. But this time, I have to speak up in protest.
Faces of the Freeride World Tour
The 19th edition of the Verbier Xtreme took place in Verbier, Switzerland, marking the finale to the 2014 Freeride World Tour. Photographer Tim Lloyd set up a photo studio at the finish corral to snap portraits of the athletes as they completed riding the legendary Bec des Rosses venue.
When the two competing tours, the U.S.-centric Freeskiing World Tour and the European-based Freeride World Tour, merged in 2012, many thought that big-mountain skiing and snowboarding were finally going to get the global recognition the sports deserved. However, since then, the two organizations have failed to see eye to eye. This dysfunction finally came to a boiling point in April, when the Freeride World Tour made the unilateral decision to go it alone.
Dissolving the relationship via a press release, the business equivalent of breaking up with a significant other via Facebook update, FWT undid years of work in the Americas by MSI, which also ran The North Face Masters of Snowboarding, and which had nurtured the sports from their very beginning. Organizational conduct aside, it's the athletes, fans and the culture of a sport founded by pioneers like Shane McConkey and Doug Coombs that will suffer the most. It seems that the sport's progress has taken a back seat to organizational ego.
Much of it, of course, comes down to finances. According to FWT, three key elements must be in place to run an event in North American: a good venue with backup options, a supportive resort sponsor and the sponsorship of a North American company to help finance it all.
"Until we find another solid partner in North America to support FWT financially, we will have to stick to one event in the region," says FWT general manager Nicolas Hale-Woods.
Previously, the FWT has held several stops in North America each season, including ones in Squaw Valley and Kirkwood, California, Snowbird, Utah, and Revelstoke, British Columbia. But historically, the tour has hosted more events in Europe than North America, thus making it cheaper and more convenient for European athletes to compete.
With what amounts to a near elimination of events in North America for the majority of athletes (the new event in Alaska will only host an invited list of 60 percent of the tour's male skiers and snowboarders), non-European competitors are at an extreme disadvantage, both in terms of time and money.
In a statement from FWT, the organization says the "calendar of Freeride World Tour 2015 may sound like a step back, but we believe it is not, placing quality, with an event in Alaska, in front of quantity."
The quality is arguably improved for a small group of stakeholders, but the majority of athletes will have to once again face a fragmented tour.
"I think it's a huge step backward for the sport and I don't really want to have anything to do with it," says Lars Chickering-Ayers, the top ranked men's skier from North America on the 2014 Freeride World Tour. "I think a lot of people put a lot of work into creating a world tour that was actually legitimate and represented what the athletes wanted. After two seasons working with the European tour and seeing what they were all about, having them go their own way and abandon what we'd worked for is a huge let down and something I don't want to be involved with."
Besides the logistical and financial problems presented by competing on a predominately European tour, North American athletes also must address sponsorship problems created by competing on a tour with extremely limited North American stops.
Many competitors have sponsorship deals from U.S. companies that expect local, regional and national coverage of the Freeride World Tour stops.
"When the two tours merged, we were stoked because it gave us a chance to have larger recognition throughout the world through those athletes," says Dan Abrams, president of Flylow, an outerwear company that sponsors several North American athletes on the tour, including Chickering-Ayers. "I question how well the tour will be marketed in the United States without more U.S. tour stops and that's a big fear. How many people are going to pay attention to the FWT if you don't have signs all over Squaw Valley, Kirkwood and other local ski hills?"
Perhaps the most damning, objective evidence of this organizational shortsightedness comes from the FWT's own media report. According to their 2014 report, more people watched the live feed of the Snowbird, Utah, event than any other contest (by about 12 percent), including the finals in Verbier, Switzerland. This should prove the interest and importance of these events on U.S. soil.
While FWT organizers will be quick to point out how the timing of events play a roll in viewership -- North American events air in the evening in Europe, whereas European events air in the middle of the night in North America -- isn't this a reason to increase events in the U.S., not cut them? FWT has publicly stated they're hedging the tour's success on live viewership, so why eliminate events that attract the most eyes?
In my opinion, this move is a blow to the fans, sponsors and, most importantly, the athletes who stood on the cusp of a truly unified global sport. The FWT says it's working toward hosting more events in North America in 2016. But for now, it seems that organizational ego has trumped two decades of progress by some of the most iconic skiers in history.
Behind closed doors in athlete meetings, organizers have said that organizational issues are not subject to the democratic process; leave the organizing to the organizers. But why? The skiers and snowboarders competing on this tour are the only irreplaceable element of this sport. Their opinions should matter.
Writer and pro skier Griffin Post is a long-time Freeride World Tour competitor who got his start on the Freeskiing World Tour and now appears in films from Teton Gravity Research. He lives in Jackson, Wyoming.