Snowboarding is in a slide, trying to catch an edge. A recent Google Trends chart on the interest (searches) in snowboard (and surfboard) clearly shows a decline in searches for snowboarding that began in 2006 and has not been halted by two Winter Olympics, including the just concluded Sochi games. A yearly report on outdoor recreation issued by the nonprofit Outdoor Foundation confirms the drop-off. According to the study, from 2007 (when snowboarding was first included in the survey) through 2012, snowboarding participation peaked in 2010 and then began declining.
In 2013, the mainstream media showered a blizzard of bad news about the state of snowboarding. SnowSports Industries America (SIA), a trade group, released four-year numbers from 2009-2013. SIA pegged the 2012-13 season as the lowest for snowboarders in the four-season time span (alpine and cross-country numbers were also down). In early 2013 Sports Illustrated ran an article stating that seasonal participation in snowboarding was down 7.5% and sales of equipment had declined up to 31%. A recent Boston Globe article titled "Snowboarding Appears to be in Serious Decline" asserts that in the decade beginning in 2002, the number of snowboarders had fallen nearly in half, from 80,000 to 42,000, at Mountain High Ski Area in California. A Time headline in January of 2013 warned, "Snowboarding May Have Reached Its Peak."
Snowboarding's decline in the short run can be attributed to three main reasons: the economy, demographics, and changes in youth culture.
Reasons varied for snowboarding fall-off
Downhill is an expensive sport and has continued to get pricier through the recession. A recent analysis by NBC News found that participation by snowboarders and skiers in household incomes below $100,000 decreased by 11.5% in the past five years, while the inverse participation of those households above $100,000 increased by 12.5%.
There is also evidence that snowboarding is losing riders to skiing. According to the Time article skiing, participation has increased 16% since 2004. Ski retailers are attributing the cannibalization of snowboarding to a new ski design commonly known as rocker technology, such as that pioneered by K2, owned by Jarden Corporation (UNKNOWN:JAH.DL), and Salomon and Atomic, part of Amer Sports Corporation (NASDAQOTH:AGPDY). Rocker skis feature a design in the tips that makes turns faster with superior control. A retailer in the Boston Globe article said that where ski-to-snowboard sales used to be 50-50, this season the new rocker ski design out sells snowboards 25-to-1.
Then there is the cool factor. Snowboarding evolved as the counter-culture alternative to traditional skiing in the 1990s, sporting the baggy pants and a hip-hop attitude. But that began to change around 2005, according to Nate Fristoe of RRC Associates, a firm specializing in the tourism and recreation markets. In the Boston Globe article he said, "snowboarding is headed for a path of substantial decline." In an article in the National Ski Journal, Fristoe said that "Snowboarding lost some of its mojo around 2005 or 2006 [mirroring the Google trends data] and has been running on fumes since..."
He also wrote that snowboarders are getting older with families, who skew toward fewer slope visits but skiing when they do show up (Time).
Ironically, the rocker ski technology stealing market share from snowboarding has its roots in in one "of the coolest sports ever" -- surfing, according to Lee Quaglia, a two-time Ski Magazine New England Ski Shop of the Year owner in Killington, Vermont. It's no surprise that teens and young adults, who define trendy, are abandoning snowboards in favor of rocker skis, the latest in cool.
Climate warming huge challenge
Finally, there is a major long-term concern for all snow sports – a warmer climate. Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade group, just reported a 22% increase in lodging stays through 2013 year end. The company reports guests at its 21-member ski resorts showed up to enjoy the best early snow of the past few years.
But such snow pack spikes are shaping up as an anomaly. The New York Times noted in an article, "As temperatures rise, analysts predict that scores of the nation's ski centers, especially those at lower elevations and latitudes, will eventually vanish." The article goes onto to state that in 25 years "half the 103 ski resorts in the Northeast will not have enough snow to maintain a 100-day season." The snow pack in the West does not fare much better in the face of long-term warming trend predictions. Such downhill sites as the huge destination Breckenridge, one of five premiere resort in publicly held by Vail Resorts Inc (NYSE:MTN), may only have snow in the top 25% of its ski runs by the end of the century, the article reported.
Snowboarding may be the canary in the coal mine. For the immediate future, equipment and apparel makers will adjust to the market shift between snowboarders and skiers. For resort operators it's all the same pot of money. All snow sport companies will no doubt be happy to market to a higher income demographic. But if long-term projections about warming trends evolve as predicted, we could be at the beginning of the end of a golden age in snow sports. To be viable in the long-run, all snow sports companies need to ride the avalanche of change nipping at snowboarding's back edge.
John Mitchell has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Google and Vail Resorts. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.