Thursday, March 7, 2013

Snowboarding is not a spectator sport, but it could be?

A few weeks ago I went out to the Burton European Open and somehow managed to avoid mentioning the actual competition in any of the coverage. I didn't do that purely because I'm a contrary git; when I agreed to go on the trip I fully intended to find some way of writing something interesting about it, but I just couldn't find any angle. I didn't just struggle to find something to write, I struggled to even have the patience to watch the event, and judging by the coverage of the bloggers that went to the US Open last week I'm not the only one to hit this problem. The main thing my trip confirmed is that snowboarding is a horrible sport for spectators. In fact along with the day I once wasted at a cricket match and some hours spent watching my life tick past at a major league baseball game, attending the BEO is now in my top three worst spectator experiences of all time...

...Apart from the time I tried high fiving Eric Cantona
Not that I had a bad time, I actually had really good time, but I'm not your standard punter, I was fortunate to know some other people at the event and that changed the whole dynamic. For the people in the snowboard industry these events are really good value; you catch-up with friends while spending your time snowboarding, getting drunk and talking shit. The guys that organise these events are part of this group and because of that the things that they care most about like the quality of the course, the parties and the TV coverage have seriously improved over the years. However outside of this group the experience of the other 90% of people that go to these events who aren't hooked in to the network, snowboard competitions are dry. It's hard for the first group to understand the needs of the second. As the sport has grown what was once a small bunch of like minded people enjoying a shared event has broken into two groups, the inner circle and the punters. The second group is not a group that should be ignored, they make up the bulk of snowboarders and they're the ones who fund the competitions either through ticket sales or being the focus of the sponsor's attentions.

In the time I saved by not watching the event and while I was out snowboarding instead, I mulled over the problem and here are a few ideas on how things could be improved.

If everyone looks the same, who do you support?
One of the reasons why more people watch the Olympics instead of other competitions is that it comes complete with the handy benefit of nationalistic fervour, which automatically gives the audience someone to support. Outside of the Lympics, and without a country to get behind, things get a little tougher for the spectators. Most people don't know much about each rider, but to complicate things a bit more all the riders are tiny bebibbed folks wearing helmets and goggles and spinning around all over the shop, how are you supposed to tell them apart? The only way you can tell the men and women apart is that they aren't competing at the same time. At a live event where there's no handy TV pundits to give you back stories and remind you whose the rider under the layers of gear its almost impossible to keep track of things or give a shit.
I'm supporting the one with the black bib with his hand up

Pick a colour
What we need is for the riders to be easily identifiable by a person in a crowd a good distance from the event and a numbered bib isn't going to cut it. Another sport that has a similar problem of being both dull and at a distance is horse racing and the solution is the same: easily identifiable gear for each jockey. One guy who seems to understand this and who's considerably less stupid than you might think when you cop an eyeful of his getup is Shaun White, he of the jazzy leotards. He's made sure he's instantly recognisable to the audience by wearing something completely unique. Every snowboarder should be trying the same thing and sporting a unique style of clothing, and there's plenty of routes other than tight pants such as going ultra-baggy or wearing a silly hat. One of the better opportunities, instead of just wearing the generic clothing currently supplied by their sponsors, would be to claim a colour. In fact they could go even better and turn themselves into a brand with both a defined colour and a logo. The important thing is to pick something that is obvious from a distance and stick with it for a long time until you're instantly recognisable to anyone. It's something every football team does for the same reason, and like every football team there's an additional opportunity for each rider to flog their own brand t-shirts and beanies, allowing the supporters to buy the gear and feel like they're involved. Supporting a rider is something people would get more involved in than their current options of supporting a brand or a drinks company.
Instantly identifiable, yes, but it's unlikely his fans will be buying the replica pants

It would be interesting for someone to give snowboarder brands try, but anything that allows the audience to give more of a shit about the riders would improve things. You could for example split the audience into two and get each side to either support goofy or regular riders. Skiing has cow bells, cricket has fancy dress and ice hockey has riots, what prop could snowboarding have? However you do it, getting spectators more involved in the event is something our sport desperately needs, speaking of which...

There's a reason watching paint dry sucks
People go to soccer games to shout racist abuse, they go to darts matches to get drunk and they go to NASCAR to get hit by flying debris. Spectators have a far better time when they are able to get involved with the event.  It's especially hard to entertain snowboarders just by doing things in front of their eyes because for obvious reasons snowboarders tend to be doers rather than watchers, just look at the shape of them compared to the followers of the aforementioned sports.
Do you think they'll be able to reach us up here?

The traditional solution to make a snowboarding event interactive is for some irritating MC to constantly demand the audience to make some noise, but this isn't a good long-term solution for anyone's sanity. To make things interactive people have to be able to more than just shout on command, they need to use their minds a wee bit.

Get people involved
Each year in the UK millions of people watch a single horse race, a sport that people wouldn't normally watch unless they were promised a field of Lady Godivas. One of the two reasons people watch the Grand National is because they've been roped into a sweepstake and there's now some external jeopardy for them that enhances the experience. How's about doing the same thing at a snowboard event? £1 of each ticket goes into a pot, each ticket has a rider on it, if you rider wins you win cash money? It instantly gives every person in the crowd a rider to support and would be worth a try. The other reason that people watch the Grand National is because there's an incredible level of horse murder involved, but that's probably not something we should look at replicating.
Moments later the vet was forced to put this snowboarder out of their mystery

Stickers and cold coffee
Nokia were a sponsor of the BEO and they paid for me to go there, which was a brilliant idea, however I was less clear on the rest of their strategy at the event. They had some banners around the place, but the bulk of their effort went on their tent where they handed out cold coffee and stickers to small kids. It struck me that Nokia stickers and cold coffee was not really something the audience were crying out for and not something that would encourage them to consider purchasing a Nokia the next time they accidentally drop their iPhone down the loo. There must be a better way for a sponsor like Nokia to get involved and interact with the audience.
and it shouldn't involve doing that
Next time how about Nokia organise an audience vote and competition and bring a bit of reality TV voting to snowboarding? The crowd vote on their favourite trick via text, Nokia display the results on the big screen and then they hand out some prizes at the end. The audience would get more involved in the competition, they'd would have more fun and it's an activity (texting) that Nokia is identified with, so ultimately the audience will go away with much stronger memory of the brand. Both sides benefit, the event is improved and everybody is happy.

Anyway you get this point, let's move on...

Standardisation, the creativity killer
Over recent years snowboard tour competitions have become more and more standardised in terms of the course designs, rankings and judging. On the whole that's been a really important development for the sport, but there is one major drawback; the more these events are standardised, the less differentiation there is between them. Outside of the likes of Air & Style and SuperUltraMegaNatural, today's snowboard event calendar is a series of identikit competitions that seem to blur into each other. If you've seen one of these competitions you've seen them all, so what would encourage supporters to come back for more?
Standardisation is easy to understand, but doesn't necessarily produce the best solutions

Unique like a snowflake. 
Even with the confines of the standards these competitions have to stick to it is possible to be unique. Each event needs to find their own twist that would make it interesting to the rest of the world. That's not just a case of sticking the competition in a unique place, because to be frank one mountain with snow on it is pretty much like any other, it needs to be something really creative in the format or style. Once you've got your angle you need to really go for it.

I've been to the London Freeze Festival a couple of times and their angle is the snowboarding with live bands, but weirdly they never really joined the two things together. The music and the snowboarding are a couple of hundred meters apart and at different times of the day which makes it feel like you're staggering around two entirely unconnected events. If they fully embraced this idea and found some way of bodging the two things together so that they compliment each other, this event could be seriously good. Getting the musicians and snowboards to riff off each other at the same time would be something to see and it would still be the same competition format. It's just a case of pushing the unique idea a lot harder.

There are events out there that are doing something different, next month's Shaun White fronted High Roller Hold 'Em big air comp at Heavenly looks interesting. Each rider draws cards to see what tricks they have to pull each run. Not much of a change to the standard format, but enough to add something for the audience to get into as long as they get to see the draw. There's the opportunity to try and bring a bit of creativity to more competitions and if it could be done it would be excellent.

The BEO has an difference in that the competition goes on for a week and anyone can enter, but the benefits of that aren't clear to the spectators, because all the less experienced riders get knocked out so early on that the finals were still just made up of the standard invited riders.It must be possible to use those advantages to a much better effect. What more could be done in a week? What more could be done with the open format?

Snowboarding is not a spectator sport, but with some creativity it could be
Creativity is a big feature of snowboarding, let's see if we can use some more of it on our events. There could be an event which merges art and snowboarding. We could have a pairs half pipe competition, or two slopestyle courses with riders simultaneously battling each other in a knock out tournament. What about building a slopestyle course where the audience gets to sit in the middle of the run? How about having ex-pros teaching people tricks in the smaller park next door?

If we can produce more engaging experiences for our spectators there's an opportunity for snowboarding  We're competing for audience with sports like skiing, surfing and skateboarding, and they all have the same issue. Action sports in general have not cracked this problem yet, as the recent demise of Fuel TV has highlighted. What do we need to do to start cutting into the success that more mainstream sports have in the area? We should at least be able to beat baseball for fucks sake.
After three hours of baseball-induced unconsciousness Dave was suddenly battered back into unconsciousness.

Next time...less words.

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  1. Great article, and i agree with all of it, although i think slopestyle courses should be more varied, not just rail rail 60 foot kicker, 65 foot kicker, 70 foot kicker, mix some pipe in, some hips, butter boxes and stuff, that'd make every event special to watch. Also more team events where people go down in a train like the wangl tangl.

  2. It's not so bad watching a live stream with good commentary (the BEO and USO are good examples with Henry Jackson and Jack Mitrani keeping it amusing), but if you're actually there, like you say, you don't know who's who apart from people you know and every spinnytwistslipslide looks the same after a while.

  3. Nice article, tbh I reckon snowboarding has taken far too long to wake up and realise that once all the fans have been to an event, they wont go to another. Its all about the hype (heard that before...) and there is very little connection between the rider and crowd. The standard of riding has got so far removed from what the average spectator can do, there is very little connection between the speccy and the rider - Once you've seen 4/5 super twirly gymnastic moves you've seen them all, and you know full well you'll never be able to pull them off. With so little emphasis on style, what is keeping people interested?
    I hate to compare to skiing but with the alpine skiing events all skiers watching it know they can ski fast - True they will never be as fast as Miller et-al , but they can actually complete the world cup courses albeit much slower, and they can recognise what the racers are doing from their own riding - ever riden the olympic run in Meribel? its hard but not impossible. As a result the crowds are bigger (both on tv and in resort) and they genuinly seem to care about who wins. With boarding you know you'll never ride the show time booter at winter X, but you might be able to pull a nice and stylish backside air in the pipe, or a floaty 180 off a kicker in the baby park. This doesnt happen in contests (or even demos) so why should you care who wins - Its not relevent. When you watch alpine skiing even the skiers seem to have different identities, and like you said, you know they are racing for their countries from the coloured lycra. Not just in a black bib with a black jacket and black pants, damn they even show emotion when they reach the bottom, they dont just reach for a monster.
    Hell, maybe the alpine snowboarding community have the right idea and we should honour Tom Sims by promoting slalom again, at least we all know we can ride down a hill.
    Just without the wetsuits.


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