Snowboarding in the Northwest
While 115 million people were watching the San Francisco 49ers play the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX, a somewhat smaller crowd milled around a natural halfpipe at Mt. Baker ski area, watching the Northwest's first major snowboarding competition.
The event was held on Super Bowl Sunday in 1985 because, as one of the first competitors later told the Seattle Times, "They figured the mountain would be dead and we wouldn't get in anybody's way. There were maybe 20 people watching us, if that."
Rebels. Iconoclasts. People who didn't care that they were missing the "World of Children's Dreams" halftime show, or ABC's post–Super Bowl premiere of the detective show MacGruder and Loud.
They're the type of people who pioneered snowboarding, right?
Not really. Snowboarders owe as much to a father of three from Muskegon, Michigan, and a company best known for manufacturing bowling balls as they do to fresh powder.
Organizers called that 1985 Mt. Baker snowboarding competition the Sims Open, because the main point of the event was to see if anyone could beat snowboarding's first star, Tom Sims. Nobody could. The New Jersey–born snowboarding pioneer and, later, snowboard manufacturer, beat the local competition as badly as the 49ers beat the Dolphins.
Twenty years before, Sims was a middle-schooler with two problems: He wanted to skateboard in the winter and he needed a wood-shop project. The result was an ur-snowboard that Sims called the "ski board."
Not long after, an electrical engineer named Sherman Poppen noticed that cool skiers would ditch one ski and descend on one leg. He didn't have the balance for it, so he lashed two cheap skis together and drafted his daughters to ride his invention down hills near their home. His daughters presumably called it torture; Poppen called it the Snurfer.
Poppen licensed the Snurfer to the Brunswick Corporation, a century-old manufacturer of billiard tables and bowling balls, which began producing it in 1966. The Snurfer was the first commercially marketed snowboard. "Get in on Snurfing," an early print ad advised. "All the action of skiing and surfing rolled into one... and twice the fun."
Today's snowboarding commercials depict stylish, attractive, athletic teenagers whipping through heavy powder on steep, backcountry terrain. The kid in the old Snurfer ads looked to be sliding down a hill with the grade of a nursing-home wheelchair ramp. Worse, in his bulky sweater, knit cap with the dangly puffball, and heavy woolen mittens, he looked about as extreme as Ralphie from A Christmas Story. (Brunswick's forgettable advertising campaign for the Snurfer, and the missed opportunity it represents, is remembered only at Harvard Business School, where they use it as a case study in incompetence.)
Nevertheless, Snurfers sold relatively well. A New York Times reporter witnessed a Snurfer in action in Central Park in the late-1960s. "It is ridden standing like a surfboard," she wrote. "Until the rider falls off, which appeared to be quite soon."
Then in the late-1970s, a prep-school reject, college dropout, and Wall Street burnout named Jake Burton bought woodworking equipment with a $125,000 inheritance and started building his own version of Poppen's Snurfer in a friend's Vermont barn. Burton began selling snowboards out of the back of a station wagon. "I had to sell the sport as much as the board," he told Esquire last year.
Early on, snowboards were considered a menace—due mostly, according to a 1989 Seattle Times article, to "teens acting wild." (Nice to see that the Seattle Times hasn't changed.) In 1982, general manager Duncan Howat made Mt. Baker the first local ski area to welcome snowboarders—reluctantly. "Duncan did not embrace snowboarding in the beginning," his wife recently told Snow magazine. In 1987, Parade magazine readers voted snowboarding the "worst new sport," and many major resorts banned snowboarding. Resorts only relented as the sport's popularity—and its young, free-spending aficionados—began to multiply.
Jake Burton still owns Burton Snowboards, the company he founded, and it has made him very, very wealthy. Burton Snowboards sells more than $100 million worth of snowboards and snowboard gear every year. Tom Sims entered into a lucrative licensing agreement in 2006. Never before have a sport's pioneers profited so extravagantly from its success.
When Henry Chadwick, an English-born newspaperman known as the "father of baseball" (Chadwick edited baseball's first rulebook), died in 1908 in a modest home in Brooklyn, professional teams and players took up a collection to erect a small monument at his gravesite. NBA players earned more than $1.6 billion in total salary last year, but James Naismith, who straight up invented basketball, spent nearly 40 years as a university administrator in Lawrence, Kansas.
Neither Chadwick nor Naismith ever sought financial gain from their pioneering. Or, if they did, they weren't successful. But then baseball and basketball were invented for the sake of competition. Competitive snowboarding, on the other hand, was invented partly to sell snowboards. Burton and Sims—both snowboard pioneers, both snowboard manufacturers—participated in the first national snowboarding championship in 1982.
It wasn't just the manufacturers that quickly cashed in. Local snowboarding star Craig Kelly, a Mt. Vernon High grad, was earning a six-figure salary by 1989, and became the subject of a lawsuit between Burton Snowboards and Sims Snowboards. Both companies argued that Kelly had agreed to endorse their snowboards and both companies asserted that his endorsement was worth $1 million. (Kelly went on to win four world snowboarding championships and appeared in a famous commercial for Wrigley's chewing gum—you may remember it; it showed snowboarders jumping out of a plane and performing aerial acrobatics. Kelly died in 2003 in a backcountry avalanche in British Columbia.)
While George Mikan, the NBA's first great star in the early 1950s, was lucky late in his career to snare an endorsement contract from Klein's Hillside, a Borscht Belt resort, Shaun White, snowboarding's first great star, is paid to endorse Mountain Dew, Hewlett-Packard, and Target. White, who won a gold medal in the men's halfpipe at the 2006 Winter Olympics, just turned 20 and is earning millions. Mikan played in the early 1950s, 60 years after basketball was invented, and never made more than $35,000 in a season. Near the end of his life, suffering from diabetes, Mikan was forced to sell his memorabilia to pay medical bills. When Mikan died in 2005, the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal paid for his funeral.
If advertisers invented a sport, it would be something like snowboarding. The speed and acrobatics work perfectly in 30-second commercials. The sport's stars—predominately young, suburban, and white—are right in advertisers' demographic wheelhouse. And, perhaps best of all, advertisers know that snowboarders have money to spend. Young basketball and soccer fans only need about $10 to play their sport—snowboarders need at least a few hundred dollars.
Snowboarding's growth from Snurfer to Olympic sport happened in much less than two generations. And now, 25 years after the first championship, the sport is pushing out some established competitors. Snowboarding was the most popular event of the 2006 Olympics; Shaun White appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing his medal and an American flag. (The 150-year-old American pastime of baseball? Olympic officials dropped it from the 2008 Games.) But the marketing—first snowboards, then clothes, and now the HP Pavilion dv2000t Notebook—has driven this sport more than others, making millions for snowboarding's pioneers. Like a dad inventing a toy for his daughters, nothing could be more American.
But with snowboarding, more so than any other professional sport, it has always been difficult to tell just where the marketing ends and the sport begins.