Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Wisdom of Crowds - Who are the most influential snowboarders and who really should be the rider of the year?

We‘re currently in the midst of the snowboard industry’s glitzy awards show season and at this time of year everyone is busy ranking snowboarders. Transworld Snowboarding threw the latest show on the 29th of January when they hosted the 12th Annual Riders Poll Awards. In those awards 100 professional snowboarders voted for their rider of the year from a shortlist of just 3 people. That doesn’t sound like a great way of deciding these things to us. You wouldn’t, for example, want the presidency of the United States to be decided by 100 politicians from a short list of 3 people that Rupert Murdock had bodged together.

This week we decided to find out if there was a better way of deciding these things. We wanted to find a more scientific method of measuring something as intangible as snowboarding and we wanted to find a method that allowed us to compare a lot more than just 3 snowboarders. Here’s what we found...

For a bit of background, there are a few ways that people try rank snowboarders at the moment and they all have their problems:

Competition - Competition offers a nice clean way to rank snowboarders (if you leave aside the odd bit of bad judging), but there are a few issues that mean that competition never really offers all the answers.

  • Lots of disciplines. Snowboarding is sport designed for people with ADD. Unlike most sports as a snowboarder you can chose to compete in a whole range of diverse and largely unrelated events such as; big air, slope style, snowboarder cross, half pipe and still the odd bit of slalom, and you can’t really compare these events against each other.
  • Lots of organisations. Throughout the year snowboarders can compete at a huge array of events administered by a whole array of organisations from one-off events like the X Games or the Olympics to regular events like the TTR tour and FIS events.
  • Lots of snowboarders don’t compete. Frustratingly for people who love ranking things a large proportion of professional snowboarders don’t even bother turning out for competitions, preferring instead to make a living from things like big mountain riding in Alaska or jibbing urban rails.

Rider of the Year Awards - These awards are usually based on the opinions of a small group of people within the snowboarding industry and as a result they can be biased.  Shawn White, for example, probably receives fewer industry awards than he deserves, just because he is a twat.
(examples: Transworld Snowboarding’s ‘12th Annual Rider’s Poll’ nominees and awards, Snowboarder Magazine’s ‘Rider of the Year Awards 2010’)
Most Influential Rankings - Similarly to rider of the year awards these rankings are based on people’s opinions. As a result of these lists being compiled by small groups of people and their fuzzy memories, older riders tend to perform very well because, well because everything was much better back in the day wasn’t it?
(example: Snowboard-Review’s ‘60 Most Influential Snowboarder’s of All Time’)

Segregation - The one common issue all three methods have is that they always end up separating the male and female riders. A good example of this was Snowboarder Magazine’s ‘20 Most Influential Riders From the Past 20 Years’ where they provided a list of 20 blokes and then as an afterthought added a list of three women on the side.

Exposure Meters - Sponsors of snowboarders want to track the influence of riders so that they can see that their sponsorship and advertising dollars are being well invested. Looking for a more reliable scale they track influence by looking at the exposure a rider gets in the snowboarding press. The issue here is that the information is supplied by the snowboarding press who’s main goal is to sell advertising to the advertisers so there’s a bit of an agenda here.
(example:  Transworld Business’ ‘2009/10 Snow-Exposure Meter Title')
This is too much exposure
Polls - According to the wisdom of crowds if you ask enough people a question the collective answer will become more and more accurate (think Wikipedia). Of course in real life these polls never get enough responses to reach any sort of accuracy and they the results tend to be a bit odd and specific to the audience of the site involved. 
(example:’s ‘Who is the BEST snowboarder of all Time?’)

Salaries - Probably the best system to rank all snowboarders would be to compare their salaries. In the handy way that markets operate the better the snowboarder is the more they will get paid for their appearances, sponsorship deals and competition wins. Unfortunately because people are understandable coy about their earnings only the top few guys ever get compared.
(example: Forbes’ ‘The Highest-Paid Action Stars’)
This guy earns over $9 million a year.
So now that’s out of the way what can we do about it?

The Wisdom of Crowds
It’s time we took the subjectivity out of the process and tried to do this in an objective way. How can we compare all these different riders without forcing everyone to compete at the same discipline, without introducing our own prejudicial opinions and without nefariously accessing their financial details? The answer, my friends, is the internet and its huge wodge of information. Never before has mankind produced and recorded so much information and if the theory of the wisdom of crowds holds true then by analysing this information we should get some valuable information.

We searched the internet (Google) to find two types of information:
  • Search Results - A count of everything that has ever been published online about any snowboarder. We can use this as an indication of how influential a rider is. Search Results = Most Influential Rider
  • News Results - A count of the recent news stories that snowboarder has featured in over recent months and it’s not just confined to the snowboard press. It’s a good indication of who really has been the most talked about rider so in effect it could be a good measure for a rider of the year award. News Results = Rider of the Year
The full list of results is at the end of the article but for now we’ll cut to the chase and look at the top riders in each section.

The Most Influential Rider
To be honest, it was actually quite surprising how decent these results turned out to be. There’s nothing obviously nuts anywhere down the list (and the full list includes 100 snowboarders). There’s a good mix of established pros, up and coming riders and snowboarding legends. 
There are few interesting trends...
  • Most Influential. Yup, somewhat inevitably it was Shaun White and begrudgingly this is probably about right.
  • How did the other methods compare? amazingly pulled it out of that bag and got it spot on with Shaun White. Snowboarder Magazine went for Terje Haakonsen who came in at 18, and chose Craig Kelly who came in at number 29
  • Snowboard Discipline. I tried to pigeonhole each rider into a discipline of snowboarding (e.g competition, freestyle, freeride, jibbing) to see if there was a trend to the type of snowboarder people prefer, but it was interesting to see that there was very little trend. There is a very even spread across the different styles.
  • Beauty Before Age. The top 10 are dominated by snowboarders at the peak of their game and interestingly when you move into the top 20 it’s dominated by older snowboarders (Shaun Palmer, Ross Powers, Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen, Peter Line, Tom Sims).
  • A Man’s World? 3 of the top 10 are women. Women seem to perform much better at the top of this list then they usually do when they are subjectively compared with men. Not everything is great for women though. The women that perform well almost exclusively concentrate on completion whereas the men can focus on a wide variety of snowboarding disciplines and still rate well. By comparison if you take the big mountain rider Victoria Jealouse, who was second in the female version of Snowboarder Magazine’s Most Influential list from 2007, she only ranked 98th on the list. 
  • Personal Battles. Tom Sims has beaten his nemesis Jake Burton ranking 20th compared to 31st. Ever wanted to know which of the Helgason brothers is best? The answer is Eiki who at a ranking of 64 beat his brother Halldor by one spot. 

Shaun White - Most Influential Rider

Note: Separating out the two Jeremy Jones on Google was not possible, so we had to do a bit of extrapolation. We searched for ‘Jeremy Jones’ (1,790,000) then ‘Jeremy Jones Big Mountain’ (55,800) and ‘Jeremy Jones Freestyle’ (73,300). Then we divided their combined search results by the proportion of their specific search results. And that is good enough for a crappy snowboard blog article.

Rider of the Year

The most influential snowboarder results turned out to be very good, but the results for the rider of the year are little more debatable...

These results look plausible
  • Shaun White wins again with his Olympic result and resulting world celebrity juggernaut.
  • Big Mountain Jeremy Jones does well after launching his own snowboard company and jetting round the globe touting one of the movies of the season in Deeper. In this category he monstered Freestyle Jeremy Jones who came in ranked 23rd.

Shaun White - Rider of the Year

These results...not so good
  • Scotty Lago who, although he had a great year, probably got to second place on the list primarily for getting thrown out of the Olympics for lewd conduct.
  • Kevin Pearce who received a lot of coverage after his horrific injury last year.
  • Xuetong Cai. Who?

Here are few interesting trends.
  • Good Targeting? The one thing that these results do have in their advantage is that this is that they are a great indicator of how a rider performed in the press outside of the snowboard industry. It’s a more encompassing idea of how well a snowboarder is promoting a brand than you would understand by just looking at the Transworld Exposure Meter. It’s because of stats like this that companies outside snowboarding like Target are all over Shaun White like a cheap suit.  
  • Competition Wins. The news coverage snowboarders receive is very dependent on competition results. Only 3 of the top 20 riders don’t regularly attend competitions. Even the riders on the FIS events are getting a lot of coverage and the FIS events are pretty pointless outside of Olympic qualification year.
  • 8 of the top 20 are women. Female riders get a much higher amount of mainstream press coverage than you see in the industry coverage.  If I was a professional female snowboarder at this point, looking at the two sets of results, I would be pushing for a pay raise and tapping up sponsors from outside of the traditional snowboarding brands.
  • How did the other methods compare? Snowboarder Mag and Transworld Snowboarding both agreed that John Jackson (62) was the male rider of the year, Transworld went for Torah Bright (15) as the female rider of the year and Snowboarder Mag went for Annie Boulanger (64). The Transworld Business Exposure Meter had Gigi Ruf (51) heading the table last season and this season so far. It looks like our results in terms of a rider of the year are all over the shop. It looks more like these figures fall somewhere between a rider of the year and exposure meter category.

This cheap suit
Comparing the Two Results (a quick fudge)
Before we finished we ran a quick comparison of the two sets of data. By doing this we can get a list of snowboarders where the guys at the top of the list are there because they are generating far more news coverage than their ability (influence) would suggest they could. 
Here are a few small trends...
  • FIS Wins Gold, Silver and Bronze. The top three riders are currently all leading some form of FIS ranking. The FIS must have a hell of a PR team.
  • Drug Policy. Appearing at number 8 is the infamous Ross Rebagliati, snowboarding’s first Olympic gold medallist/notorious dope smoker who got a lot of press coverage recently when he took up politics in Canada.
  • Scotty Lago Fans. Scotty Lago ranks high because there’s a huge amount of news coverage of him. He’s still riding on the wave of popularity after his Olympic escapades and he’s following up with some great snowboarding, winning an X Games gold medal in the first ‘Snowboard Best Method’ comp. The best method competition was decided by the fans and he won with 57% of the vote, which suggests these factored results can also show some sign of a snowboarder’s fan following. 
  • What if? Scotty Lago was 25 places higher in this final comparison than Shaun White who toped both the previous tables. It suggests that Shawn White produces less news coverage than his abilities should receive in comparison to Scotty Lago.  

Imagine what Shaun White could achieve if people actually liked him. 

100 Snowboarders Compared
This is a list of 100 snowboarders we chose to look at and although it is a decent list we didn’t have time to look at every snowboarder so it’s likely that other snowboarders would have made this list towards the bottom (that’s why we couldn’t really call this a top 100). If you suffer from OCD here is the list we came up with, feel free to add the rest. If you are a professional snowboarder feel free to use this the next time you are looking for a pay rise.

Related Articles...
See who the highest earning snowboarding stars are according to Forbes magazine 
If you want to become a professional snowboarder and win an award then here is the instruction manual
If Illicit Snowboarding was a snowboarder we would have been the 64th most influential snowboarder. 

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