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Extreme Winter Sports Focus: Off Piste

With live bands, DJs, ice-guitar sculptures, video gaming and snowmanbuilding competitions, the annual Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado is no ordinary sports event.

However, at ski resorts across Europe and North America, event organisers have realised that to attract repeat spectators, fan activities on the periphery, such as piste-side food, drink and entertainment, are just as important as the competition itself.

They must allow fans to mingle with the professional skiers and boarders. They must stage live music and DJs in the evenings. Above all, they must allow spectators to feel an integral part of the action.

At event franchises such as the Winter X games, the Freeride World Tour, the Winter Dew Tour and the various Red Bull winter sports competitions, this sort of supplementary entertainment is being offered by the bucketload. And since the fans are already inside the ski resort, the vast majority of these events are ticket-free.

More traditional winter sports events – those under the auspices of the International Ski Federation (FIS), for example – are taking note. Granted, the FIS may own all the blue-riband FIS World Cup and FIS World Championship events that ultimately lead to the Winter Olympics.

However, when it comes to staging events, they do not have the same youthful, alternative approach as the likes of Red Bull or the Winter X Games in the winter sports market.

The sports

If you can think of a sport, there is a good chance someone has tried it out on snow or ice. Reindeer racing anyone? Snow kayaking?

For the purposes of this report, we are focusing on the more extreme end of skiing and snowboarding: franchises such as the Freeride World Tour, ESPN’s Winter X Games and a handful of Red Bull winter events.

Such events are pushing the boundaries by taking the traditional ski and snowboard disciplines and spicing them up by adding adrenalin in the form of jumps, rails, half-pipes, much steeper slopes or wild, back-country mountain settings.

To the uninitiated, the Freeride World Tour seems to be about as extreme as you can get on snow.

Skiers and snowboarders tackle a series of steep, out-of-bounds courses – mainly in European resorts – which are normally about 700 metres long with a 500-metre altitude drop and an average decline of 40 degrees.

The top athletes are rarely descending for much more than 60 seconds, but their performances are not timed. They win points from judges who assess their “fluidity, choice of line, control, jumps, technique and style.” Some call the sport ‘freeriding’, others call it ‘back country’ or ‘big mountain’ skiing and snowboarding. Suffice to say, it is hardcore and the demographic of spectator is at the younger end of the spectrum.

The Winter X Games is a multi-sport event staged annually at Buttermilk Mountain in the Colorado resort of Aspen Snowmass. The 2016 event in late January featured stunt-based disciplines in both ski and snowboard, such as slopestyle, superpipe and big air, as well as ski cross and snowboard cross, which features four or more athletes racing simultaneously. Various other snowmobile competitions are featured.

Relying on the weather can be frustrating, it also highlights the uniqueness of the event

In February there is also an X Games event in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, with both summer and winter sports featured.

Hundreds of ski resorts around the world also stage one-off competitions that unquestionably belong in the extreme category. Red Bull, with back-country skiing competitions like Cold Rush in the Canadian resort of Revelstoke and Line Catcher in the French resort of Tignes, is a good example. There is also the Burton Mountain Festival, the Burton US Open and the Winter Dew Tour, all of which feature snowboarding and are based in the Rocky Mountains.

The list goes on. On any day in winter there is an extreme skiing or snowboarding event being staged on a mountain somewhere.

Event staging

The need for snow and mountains adds an extra challenge to staging these competitions. But the vast majority of ski resorts, whatever mountain range they are in, will bend over backwards to attract these kind of events. As with any sport, they know spectators will spend money in local bars, restaurants, hotels and businesses. Given the younger demographic of approximately 15- to 35-year-olds, they are not shy when it comes to the après-ski entertainment.

“It’s a demographic that’s valuable to marketers,” Tim Reed, vice-president of the X Games, told SportBusiness International. “Get them young, then they have brand loyalty.”

But there is another crucial tourism factor that one rarely finds at traditional sports where spectators watch the action and then, once it is over, leave the venue. At ski resorts almost all the spectators are also enjoying the pistes themselves, and that means money spent on equipment hire and lift passes.

 

A photo posted by X Games (@xgames) on

 

According to Nicolas Hale-Woods, a manager and founder of the Freeride World Tour (FWT), ski resorts are now bidding to stage his tour stops.

“They hold one of our junior or qualifying events first,” the former marketing manager at football’s European governing body, Uefa, told SportBusiness International. “Then some of them tell us they want to go to the next step and hold a world tour event. It is very much a bidding process.”

Throughout 2016 the FWT is staging events in Andorra, France, Austria, Switzerland and the US. Bids have also been submitted from other resorts in Norway, Japan, Austria and France.

Aspen Snowmass has signed a deal to stage Winter X Games events until 2019. The resort has a fairly traditional reputation – this is where the great and the good of American high society take their skiing holidays – and is not the Rocky Mountain location that immediately springs to mind when you think of gnarly tricks and snowmobile racing.

As David Perry, chief executive of the Aspen Skiing Company, told SportBusiness International: “The Winter X Games coming to Aspen is like your grandma getting a tattoo.”

However, he added an important proviso, explaining that when the X Games first came to Aspen in 2002, “it seemed extremely incongruous.”

He said: “Aspen was known as the oldest resort in the country; a country club for your grandparents. Then here come these action sports – totally irreverent things like ski cross and [snow]board cross.

“But fast forward [to 2016] and now Aspen is synonymous with action sport. Now people think this is where the action sports centre of the universe is. It’s relevant to a whole new generation of skiers and boarders. It’s absolutely an investment in our future.

“We don’t write them a cheque per se,” he said of the 2015 edition, which had a total attendance of 115,000 spectators. “We do not give them cash, but we pick up a certain range of expenses.”

The Aspen Skiing Company negotiated favourable hotel rates for Winter X Games staff, and provided snow machines for the snowpark features, manual labour, power, lighting and snowmobiles. Other local authorities such as the City of Aspen, Snowmass village and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association also contributed.

California-based Snow Park Technologies has designed and built every course for all 17 Winter X Games, since they started back in 1997 in Big Bear Lake, California. It has also worked on the World Snowboarding Championships and the Winter Dew Tour.

“The biggest challenge in building Winter X Games courses is that the challenges constantly change,” owner and president Chris Gunnarson told SportBusiness International.

“Snow quantity and quality, as well as weather, will inevitably change throughout the cycle of snowmaking in the months leading up to the event and throughout the weeks our crew are building the courses. We have to adapt and adjust continually with what Mother Nature hands us. Equipment also plays a major factor and although we rely on our very dependable machinery, there is always potential for mechanical breakdown which can set our timelines back, sometimes significantly.”

Given the cold weather and the altitude, the logistics of staging snow sports always bring added headaches. At the Freeride World Tour, where athletes are hurtling down mountain couloirs in between and over rocks, safety is of paramount importance. That is why performances are judged rather than timed, and why helmets, back protectors, avalanche transceivers, shovels and probes are mandatory. In addition, ski patrol staff and mountain guides are constantly inspecting the courses before and during competition.

 

“From the first snowfalls and up until the competition we study the different layers of snow on the competition face meticulously,” Stephane Dan, a mountain guide based at Chamonix, who works for FWT, told SportBusiness International.

“This allows us to brief the organisers and the riders about the conditions, the spots to avoid and the snow quality.

“On the big day a complete team of ski patrol and mountain guides is in place, dispersed strategically on the [mountain] to ensure optimal safety and to be able to intervene as fast as possible in case of an incident.”

Red Bull had to cancel its 2015 Cold Rush competition because of weather complications – proof that nothing is guaranteed when you are staging potentially dangerous back-country skiing events.

“While relying on the weather can be frustrating, it also highlights the uniqueness of the event,” Red Bull stated. “It is a big mountain spectacle that truly depends on the good graces of nature.

“There are no carefully groomed runs, elaborate scaffolding or cooling systems that would allow a more controlled contest to run in temperatures on the plus side of zero Celsius. Instead, it is a contest of athlete versus nature in its purest form.”

Financing and sponsors

The Freeride World Tour has a budget of €6m ($6.5m) to cover the production, operations and broadcasting at its five main tour events. Ninety-five per cent of this is financed through partnerships and sponsorships, with corporate companies picking up just over half the bill and the resorts providing just under half. The final five per cent comes from media rights, photography rights, merchandising, catering and hospitality.

Hale-Woods first established his event as a stand-alone competition in the Swiss resort of Verbier in 1996, before starting a world tour from 2008. They learned to walk before running; or, you might say, they learned to snowplough before doing parallel turns.

“It’s been an organic growth,” he said. “We’ve never needed to secure outside financing from banks and we’ve always worked with the budget we’ve had. We’ve always been profitable, except for one year with a very small loss. Today we have earnings before interest and tax of two to three per cent.”

Dynamic action sports often attract dynamic corporate sponsorship. Thanks to stunning video and still images of skiers and snowboarders flying through the air – and much of that footage quickly going viral – these sorts of events rarely lack for sponsoring partners. For 2016 the Winter X Games has signed deals with AT&T, GoPro, Harley-Davidson, Intel, Jeep, the US Navy, Coors Light and Monster Energy.

“Sponsors usually get an integrated media package,” Reed said. “That includes ESPN media across all the different distribution channels, use of the [X Games] marquee, on-site banners and integration into the X Games broadcast graphics.”

The FWT has Swatch and Audi as its headline sponsors, and the likes of GoPro, Scott and Peak Performance as official suppliers. Hale-Woods revealed that sponsorship revenue starts at €100,000 per sponsor “and goes up to 10 times that figure.”

As well as the usual on-site banners and logos on television and social media, the FWT offers its partners distinctive hospitality packages. Visitors can see how the judging operates, go on behind-the-scenes tours of the video production, and meet the skiers and snowboarders. “They might even have a beer with them,” Hale-Woods said, “which is a lot easier to organise than having a beer with Ronaldo, for example.”

 

A photo posted by X Games (@xgames) on

 

Broadcasting

“It’s a set-up worthy of a Mount Everest base camp,” a Freeride World Tour spokesperson said of their typical 40-strong on-site broadcast production crew. “The team, comprising director, editors, and graphic artists, cooperate to put together the produced content which is then treated and assembled on-site to be transmitted directly by satellite and broadcast on the internet.”

As well as a helicopter with a Cineflex camera system, there are 11 other television cameras dotted around the mountain venue, plus around 70 GoPros given to the competing athletes. With so many white-knuckle moves being performed, they do not want to miss any of the action. However, the altitude, the incline and the weather do not make things easy for outside broadcasters. Sometimes the weather is so unfriendly that the crew is given just 36 hours to set up.

“Each stage of the FWT brings its own set of challenges,” production manager David Arnaud said. “Our infrastructure and our workflows are thought out according to these logistical and athletic requirements, in order to be able to deploy our teams and our equipment by land or helicopter, and be operational within a few hours.”

Hale-Woods knows that few television channels will pay for FWT footage however dynamic it is. The rights are distributed by German media company Quattro Media, which specialises in action sports.

“Our goal is to optimise visibility for our product,” Hale-Woods said. In some territories, where snow sports are massively popular, footage is occasionally offered with limited exclusivity.

The Winter X Games, managed as they are by ESPN, is a bigger beast altogether. The Aspen event is broadcast live on ESPN and ABC.

ESPN decided long ago to stage the event in late January, on a less congested weekend when they would not be drowned out by NFL. The American football league’s Conference Championships fall the weekend before the Winter X Games and the Super Bowl comes the weekend after.

It is a valuable slot. Broadcasts from the 2015 Games reached just under 30.5 million viewers. There is also publicity year-round thanks to a weekly show on a primetime Saturday slot on ABC called ‘World of X Games’ which shows off many of the skiing and snowboarding disciplines.

Red Bull’s broadcasting model is perhaps the most interesting of all. Two of their backcountry skiing competitions – Cold Rush and Line Catcher – are distributed via their Red Bull Media House subsidiary. The action is offered live and delayed via the company’s platforms, such as RedBull.com and RedBull TV, but also via platforms such as YouTube, PlayStation, Apple TV and mobile phone apps. Video clips and images are also supplied free to global media as part of the company’s marketing strategy.

Social media

Given the younger demographic of the fans at these snow sports events, it is clear that social media lies at the heart of any marketing strategy. “Over the last few years brand awareness on television is not the No.1 priority anymore,” Hale-Woods said. “The top priority is to be associated with social media content that is credible and that has an impact in terms of views, shares and comments.” At the time of writing, the FWT had 49,000 followers on Instagram, 11,400 on Twitter and 125,000 likes on Facebook.

Hale-Woods added that, since he established his first competition back in the 1990s, he has been “very dependent” on TV presence, especially the coverage he has had on UK commercial broadcaster Channel 4. “Today it’s still important to be on Channel 4, but our partners need to tick certain social media boxes in order to renew their sponsorship contracts. There’s been acceleration in this area, where it’s becoming the most important thing.”

 

A photo posted by Dew Tour (@dewtour) on

 

The Winter X Games also places a high priority on social media. “We’re aggressive on all of them,” Reed said, “making sure we’re constantly promoting and building year-round awareness for our events.”

The X Games social media umbrella does not differentiate between the Winter X Games and the Summer X Games, so it is impossible to gauge which fans are following which particular sport. At the time of writing they had 5.2 million likes on Facebook, 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 887,000 on Twitter.

“We try to focus on video clips and creative content,” Reed added. “It can’t feel like it’s promotional in nature because that not the kind of content that gets shared.” He said that ESPN tries to come up with “cool ways to integrate branding into the content.” In other words, it needs to be subtle without impairing the editorial nature of the content.

Peripheral events

At Aspen’s Winter X Games spectators always have one eye on the sport and one eye on the events staged around the periphery. Off the field of competition at the 2016 Games there were four “themed interactive festival villages” offering live music, DJs, video games, athlete autograph-signing, prize give-aways, food and drink. Much of the entertainment continued into the après-ski period, well after the actual sports had finished. “Competitions, music, gaming, artistic and cultural elements are core to the youth and action sports lifestyle,” Reed said.

While the sports events are all free to watch, the peripheral events can generate sizeable revenues. At the 2016 Games, for example, the live music was ticketed. There was a VIP package available, too. For $1,800, spectators could upgrade to a four-day platinum pass which gave them access to spectator suites in one of the control towers, with free food and drinks, guided tours, lift passes and live music. 

Peripheral events at the Freeride World Tour are impressive, too. “We have street fairs, a partners’ village, a giant screen, autograph sessions, opening ceremonies, prize-giving and so on,” Hale-Woods said, before adding that the Swiss resort of Verbier has previously enjoyed a positive economic impact of €3m from hosting a season-ending tour event.

 

A photo posted by Red Bull (@redbull) on

 

Competition

According to Hale-Woods, it is inevitable that the younger, more extreme versions of ski and snowboard sport will grow in popularity, “especially due to the fact that they can be showcased in a much more exciting manner now thanks to GoPro and drone cameras and social media.”

He does not believe that his sport’s ascendancy will reduce the appeal for more traditional skiing events. “When one of the top alpine skiers wins a race in Austria or Switzerland, it’s still bigger news than when a freerider or freestyler wins an event,” he said.

Governing bodies should “lower the average age of the decision-makers

However, traditional skiing must be feeling the heat somewhat from the younger, more dynamic disciplines. “Their partners are investing in disciplines other than alpine skiing,” he added. “That makes them understand the other disciplines have a role now in overall winter sports. They have to work on their whole marketing of the sport so that the future generations become followers of their top athletes.”

So what could governing bodies learn from a franchise like the Freeride World Tour? “Genuine content of 15 seconds to a maximum of three minutes of social media clips,” Hale-Woods said. “Content that is seen as legitimate, not as adverts. That’s the way to go. A lot of decision-makers [in traditional sport] are afraid of social media because they do not understand it.” Governing bodies should “lower the average age of the decision-makers, at least in some departments” in order to better get a grip on digital media, he added.

The success of the Winter X Games, Freeride World Tour et al obviously has not gone unnoticed by the likes of the International Ski Federation and the organisation’s marketing manager, Marcel Looze. Asked by SportBusiness International whether he sees these alternative competitions as a threat to FIS events, he stressed the significance of the body’s own World Cup and World Championships.

“FWT is niche, but they do it in a great way,” he said. “The X Games are doing really well and contributing to the overall popularity of our sport. I don’t see them as a threat – on the contrary.”

It is interesting, however, that the body has plans to launch a new global series of its own, featuring ski cross and snowboard cross races. The format and launch dates have not been confirmed yet, but the series will take place at resorts in Europe, North America and Asia, with ski cross and snowboard cross competitions staged concurrently to save on costs, according to Looze. An announcement is expected soon.

The Winter X Games might be expanding, too. “We’re always looking at new opportunities, new potential events that could be created and built around the world,” Reed said. “We’re always willing to talk to other countries interested in working on another X Games.”

While the mountain resorts may never draw in huge crowds of live spectators, the interest of the younger demographic, supported by social media activity, is sure to drive the growth of winter sport’s most innovative properties.

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