As compared to many sports, skiing is resource-intensive. Equipment, clothing, and access to snow and lifts all cost money. Logistics of getting to the snow sometimes involves hours of driving or flights and overnight stays. It is not just the cost for the future ski racer but for the entire family who plans their recreational activities, weekends and vacations around skiing. It is rare that a young skier finds the sport on their own unless they live near a ski area. Family interests, financial capacity and where home is are significant factors affecting introduction to skiing and eventually ski racing.
Strong fundamentals and many years of enjoyment with family, friends and colleagues are bestowed on all racers. Regardless of when they begin, skills and performance are improved in the short term and enjoyment of the sport in which they have become highly skilled is enjoyed for their lifetime. This outcome alone makes the pursuit worthwhile.
Among those elite performers achieving World Cup or Olympic podiums, there are few examples of an athlete who did not begin skiing at an early age and racing during their youth. This doesn’t mean that kids must be in structured programs receiving professional instruction. Skiing with family a few times during the winter, progressing to a few times a week by kindergarten, joining a program and skiing most days during the winter by middle school is the normal progression to acquire the many hours needed to develop to the highest levels in racing. This early and regular time on snow appears to be critical to long term success. Lack of this early time does not seem to be overcome by volume and intensity at later stages of development.
Snow is a scarce resource. This is one of the principal reasons that time on snow is such an important factor of development. Whereas a basketball player need only walk outside with a ball to play, getting on snow is much more involved. Add the reality that the majority of the skiing day is spent standing, riding lifts, or warming up and it is easy to see why volume is such a critical factor. A full day of skiing might provide less than 15 minutes of skiing time.
To have the necessary early time on snow, skiers need to be near snow, have parents able to share their love of the sport and to afford equipment and passes. Once exposed to ski racing, often through NASTAR or watching the Olympics. When parents involve kids with a local training program, costs and demands begin to accelerate to form barriers to advancement.
Many youngsters with access to snow can’t afford the sport, and those who grow up in urban areas and can afford it, don’t have enough access to snow.
An analysis of the sport-cost survey conducted by US Ski & Snowboard revealed that while equipment and passes were a significant contributor to expense at the youngest ages, program fees quickly become the major cost for ski racers at an average of more than 50% of the total cost. Resorts and suppliers who are usually targets of appeals for lower costs and more services are already the sports greatest supporters. It’s the clubs and academies that need to make programs more accessible and sport governance who can impact competition costs through calendaring, rules and selections.
While costs vary greatly depending on the type of program, the categories and their contributions to costs are as follows:
|2||Prep-period travel cost||0-31%||18%|
|3||Comp season travel cost||6-38%||17%|
Each of these categories is worthy of a deep dive. A brief summary of the challenges and opportunities only scratches the surface.
Like any business, the majority of program costs are for labor. The more coaches, administrators, technicians, conditioning specialists, sport psych and nutritional consultants, etc. provided, the more expensive the fees. Our top clubs and academies tend to try to provide the same level of programming and support as the national team. Many of these services are non-critical for a developing athlete to fulfill his or her potential. The fact that some want and can pay for these services doesn’t mean they should be provided as a core part of the program raising fees for all participants.
Whether through discounted equipment or passes, in-kind support provided by ski areas, subsidized program costs or financial aid, nearly no one pays for the full costs of programs that are delivered.
Fundraising is often promoted as a way to keep fees lower. There is little evidence that this is the case. Overall, fees have increased more rapidly than fundraising. Rather than containing fees, fundraising contributes to increased spending. However, raising money for financial aid, especially travel costs, and for capital projects makes a significant impact on both accessibility and quality of experience.
A model that allows fewer full-time coaches to manage 3 or 4 times as many athletes than the standard coach-athlete ratio allows fewer quality coaches to touch more athletes. This structure puts far less stress on a budget while providing a good livelihood. Competent, experienced and committed coaches need to have viable careers, be fairly compensated and have reasonable expectations to allow time for family and personal interests. We want these coaches to love their jobs and stay with our programs and the sport.
As with most youth sports, additional support can be provided by parent volunteers and part-time coaches with other careers.
This type of efficient structure is implemented successfully by many programs at smaller ski areas. Most resort programs tend toward a more expensive structure, the opposite of what would be best for sport development and accessibility.
Prep-period travel cost
Summer and fall training provide critical on-snow time and are especially important for athletes preparing to compete at a high level in later developmental stages. For ski racers who have limited time on snow due to academic demands, where they live, or due to a late start in the sport, they can provide a great way to catch up and keep up.
It is important to recognize that an hour on snow in March or April has the same value as an hour on snow in June or November. Snow time near home in Vermont, Minnesota or Montana have as much value as snow time in Austria, New Zealand or indoors in Germany.
Taking full advantage of incremental free snow time when staying at home as compared to the expensive days at camps where costs of lane space, hotels, meals, transportation and coaching add up to hundreds of dollars per day is an economical way to get best practices skiing volume.
Pressure can be taken off the need for fall training by appropriate competition calendaring. Starting the race season later for developing skiers allows racers to get sufficient low cost time on snow at home to be properly prepared. Delaying qualification implications until later in the season levels the playing field for those who don’t have access to early snow with those who do.
While prep-period travel can not and should not be regulated, the calendar, rules and selections can help drive behavior.
Competition season travel cost
The ski racing pipeline can be hard to understand, especially for new families. It is imperative that the sport system is as straightforward as possible and provides a clear path for advancement.
Racing in competitions with similarly skilled athletes promotes both enjoyment and development. Being an outlier off the back or off the front can both be detrimental. Athletes just starting out need to feel they have a chance to improve and become competitive while athletes who are far ahead of their competition need to be challenged by others of similar ability. Multiple levels of competition that match racers by a combination of age and ability provide appropriate competition that is engaging and provides stepping stones to higher levels.
Most racing, even through the FIS ages, can and should be conducted as close to home as possible. Having an age- and ability-appropriate number of races in an athlete’s primary series allows travel costs to be contained, time out of the classroom minimized and training time to be maximized.
The competition calendar, rules and qualification philosophy can help to curb excesses that increase costs unnecessarily.
Together with ski area operators, equipment manufacturers and suppliers are the most generous supporters of ski racing. Suppliers provide discounted equipment to many racers, free equipment to high performing athletes and salaries to the very best. It’s one area of the sport where improved performance is rewarded with lower costs. While still significant, equipment accounts for the smallest percentage of the overall cost of the sport.
It is at the younger ages when program and travel costs are lower that equipment is a bigger contributor to overall costs. In this area, sensible regulations make an impact. Education of families of what is excessive will give permission to not try to keep up with parents who choose to provide multiple pairs of skis, use expensive waxes or buy new race suits every year. A growing and healthy sport will more than replace revenue lost by vendors from reducing unneeded equipment purchases.
The most important support a parent can provide is learning how to properly prepare skis and have well tuned equipment every day for their child to learn on. This is by far the lowest hanging fruit.
Beyond sensible modifications in the preceding expense categories, a few simple initiatives could make an impact in growing both participation and performance.
It is striking that terrain parks which take enormous resources annually to build and maintain are considered a free ski area amenity while race courses, such as NASTAR, which require a fraction of the annual expense are a fee-based add-on.
Nearly all skiers receive their first experience racing through NASTAR. Providing local NASTAR free would significantly grow participant and fan interest in ski racing. Most recreational skiers will be able to enjoy the thrill of racing while even the smallest park features are beyond their threshold.
Daily NASTAR provides a relatively negligible revenue stream for the host resort and NASTAR. But any revenue is difficult to give away. Taking the long view, a free race course at every hill and resort would be a low cost sport incubator for skiing and ski racing.
Support for excellence
As a ski racer begins to excel, the sport becomes increasingly expensive. Qualification for higher levels of competition involves more travel expenses for transportation, overnight lodging, restaurant meals and surcharges for staff support. The better the athletes’ performance, ski racing becomes more expensive until a very limited few achieve the pinnacle of the sport. Any economist would determine that if the goal is to promote participation and performance, the incentives are lined up in the wrong way.
A system which provides financial support for high-performing athletes to help make the next steps up the pipeline would shift the paradigm. A club’s mission could include providing support for a limited number of athletes to attend regional events. Each region’s mission could include providing the highest performing of that group support for national competitions, and, in turn, the national federation could provide the highest performing from that cohort support for international competition. The message to parents and athletes is that when hard work, passion and talent leads to extraordinary success, the pursuit of excellence becomes less expensive rather than a greater burden.
Ski racing will be transformed when barriers are removed and all are invited to try and be part of the sport. Athletes are able to enjoy a thrilling lifetime sport with rewards far beyond their athletic achievements — a sport that is accessible and where the ability to advance is not limited by means.
Part 3 will focus on athlete development.
Editor’s note: This story is part of our ongoing series on alpine development in North America. Have some thoughts on this? Send a letter to the editor. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.