Last season, Ted Ligety, the man the world knows as Mr. GS, announced that he would only be participating in giant slalom events on the World Cup tour this season. At 35, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time giant slalom World Champion, may be taking a step back from racing at the FIS level, but that doesn’t mean he will be taking a step back from the sport altogether. At the Sportel Television conferences in Monaco on Tuesday, October 22nd, the announcement was made that Ligety would be joining the World Pro Ski Tour in the 2019/20 season as a competitor in addition to his World Cup schedule.
The Pro Tour is deeply embedded in the history of alpine ski racing in the Americas. Back in 1969, legendary U.S. coach, Bob Beattie, took the head to head, dual slalom format, and turned it into a series of competitions across the United States that attracted a myriad of talent from all over the world – from Billy Kidd, to Jean Claude Killy, the Mahre Brothers, and Spider Sabich, names long time ski racing fans will never forget. The string of champions that participated in the tour gave it pizazz and notoriety. The tour became known for bringing, fast-paced, high-level events to the American fan base, drawing the attention of major sponsors such as Coors and Chrysler.
In the 1990s, when the World Cup tour began to offer prize money at races, the attraction of the Pro Tour diminished, as well as its exposure after Beattie passed the endeavor along to Ed Rogers in the early 80s, taking his television and ski team connections with him. By the early 2000s, the Pro Tour had completely fallen out of the spotlight until 2017 when Rogers made the first attempt at resurrecting history. The event grew from a few races in 2017 to four total races in 2018, and six total races in 2019.
Now under the leadership of a new CEO, Jon Franklin, and the backing of Chairman and longstanding ski racing supporter, Dan Leever, the Pro Tour hopes to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Ligety will most likely play a large role in the process.
“First, he raises the level of competition. He steps it up, and that’s important athletically,” says Franklin. “Number two, we’re bringing in the guy who is one of the top active American ski racers in the world, that is actively racing in the World Cup right now – it’s not like he’s coming out of retirement – so he’s in the game. So he raises the level of competition but also the level of exposure. It will bring notoriety.”
Franklin cites Beattie’s move to bring World Champion Jean Claude Killy over to the tour, as well as Ed Rogers and his personal move to bring the Mahre brothers into the mix, as prime examples of how star power brings the tour a level up. Not only does star power help with television ratings, in today’s day and age it can help propel social media interest and stabilize the tour’s foundation, better allowing for future growth.
Not that the tour is lacking in talent or high levels of competition. In recent years, now retired U.S. Ski Teamer and three-time Olympian, Nolan Kasper frequents the tour, as well as Canadian National Team member and current World Cup skier, Phil Brown. Ligety’s teammates, past and present, that have also made appearances on the tour include Mark Engel, Michael Ankeny, Ryan Cochran-Siegle and Brian McLaughlin.
“It’ll be a great addition to the tour and I know that to grow this we definitely want to get more of the top athletes,” commented Kasper. “In the past, there have been a lot of very very good athletes that have done the Pro Tour and I think that Ted joining is just a continuation of that trend and I think that trend will continue in the future. “
As for Ligety himself, he’s been following the Pro Tour over the past couple of years and is psyched to join in, not only to supplement his World Cup schedule, but to provide an alternative to traditional FIS racing that provides more fun and excitement that the dual slalom format currently offered on the tour in Europe.
“My motivation for doing [the Pro Tour] is to stay sharp between World Cup races as well as trying to be a part of this next wave of ski racing and an alternative to what’s been traditionally out there,” says Ligety. “Anything that can give traditional FIS ski racing some competition and help invigorate and bring new blood is a good thing. I’m psyched to be a part of that charge of guys that are skiing both World Cup and coming back and doing Pro Tour races.”
The Pro Tour’s rich history of showcasing past champions in a new light is another draw to Ligety, as well as a reignited passion that he’s noticed in some of his competitors such as Phil Brown. Not only does the Pro Tour start differ from that of its World Cup equivalent, but its jumps and course set also provides a bit more of a challenge than what Ligety dubs, the “tall man’s event”. Ligety has openly challenged the FIS parallel format in the past, taking to Twitter to denote cross blocking and lack of real turns as tactics that have ruined parallel races.
“I think what’s cool about the Pro Tour, as far as what I’ve seen so far is the kind of skiing it allows is really fun to watch,” explains Ligety. “It’s fun to watch guys trying to juice every bit of speed out of the turn and go off the Pro jumps, I think it’s a cool way to showcase the sport. It’s easily understandable if you’re a normal fan and great to have more ski racing in America. [The men] only have one World Cup race a year to really showcase what we do and this is another great opportunity to bring high-level ski racing across the U.S.”
In addition to offering a refreshing level of bracket-style, elimination competition in the world of alpine ski racing, the Pro Tour also offers athletes an avenue to success that can help them fund their seasons and career. For example, 23-year-old Garrett Driller has been ski racing full-time since he graduated from Montana State University as an NCAA First-Team All American in 2018. He opted to pursue academics as well as racing, an option that is not available to many racers to want to compete at top levels in the sport. Fast forward to today, where his participation on the tour has allowed him to continue to compete due to prize money winnings, and make his dreams to keep ski racing apart of his life a possibility. Ligety’s addition to the tour brings another element to its potential for growth, which makes Driller excited.
“I am stoked that we are getting big-name athletes to come to the pro tour races,” says Driller. “We are showing the world that the Pro Tour is a competitive sport on the world stage. Having Ted racing on the Pro Tour circuit will definitely give it some more clout, but he might be surprised by the level and depth of ski racers already competing in the circuit. He’ll have to be ready from run one to run 12 of the Pro Tour if he wants to come out on top.”
Kasper’s story is another strong example of how the Pro Tour can play a large role in an athlete’s life and career. Prior to his retirement from the U.S. Ski Team, he used the tour as a means to help him prepare for the team event at the PyeongChang Olympics after coming back from an injury that had him sidelined for almost three years. Now, Kasper continues to compete on the tour full-time while balancing his life in finance at a private equity firm in New York City. It allows him to keep the sport in his life while offering a balance between work and play, and the potential to keep earning money doing the thing he loves most.
“It’s a great event that does a good job of kind of bringing out a different side of ski racing that typically we didn’t really have access to,” explains Kasper. “You’re really getting a lot more on the mental side because you are going head to head against someone. They’re on the course right next you, you can see how well you’re doing compared to them, and it’s two runs to advance. It’s a really fun event and similar to other skiing in the sense that you’re really competitive once you’re in the start gate, but it offers a more friendly atmosphere.”
What these athletes see in the World Pro Ski Tour as a competition is what Leever and Franklin hope to capitalize on as a product. Their collective goal is to create a legitimate competition avenue for any athlete that wants to keep ski racing as a part of their lives, no matter what phase of life they are in. Whether you’re an Olympic champion in the late stages of your career, a recent college graduate who isn’t ready to give up on the dream just yet, or an athlete who has taken an unconventional route to the top level of the sport, the Pro Tour is meant to be a competitive way to stay with it.
In collaboration with the U.S. Ski Team, the Pro Tour schedule will not overlap major national events, including NorAm races, in order to accommodate all athletes and encourage participation. Maybe the event could even encourage the American participation in team events at the future World Championship and Olympic events. But the Leever and Franklin duo don’t plan on stopping at just national growth of the sport. They want to encourage the sport of ski racing as a whole. Long term goals include gathering more global participants, taking the event to interested countries, such as Canada or Italy, and eventually creating a tour for female participants as well.
“I’ve been an advocate of the athlete for a long time,” says Leever. “And I felt there was a gap for an opportunity for the athletes who were older to be able to continue to ski race. So I saw an opportunity to invest in the tour in the hopes of creating a profitable enterprise eventually that can give everyone a return.”