PHOTO: Austin Holt
Of the 9.4 million skiers in the United States, 72 percent are white. More than half earn a salary higher than $100,000. For some context, only 20 percent of American households have a combined income of $100K, and 63 percent of the country is white.
Those numbers shouldn’t surprise you; and they certainly do not forecast for growth in skiing.
Skiing is a homogenous, insular experience. Much like golf, with an average household income of $95,000; sailing, with an aging white male majority; and hockey, where 95 percent of players in the NHL in 2015 were white, skiing’s participation demographics are embarrassing. For the sport to be healthy and robust, it should represent the country as a whole, which includes socioeconomic and racial diversity. To ensure future generations are able to enjoy it, we must reach new participants by lowering the barrier to entry and making the sport more affordable and accessible.
“Is it difficult being the one or the other? It’s a challenge…Admittedly, it can get lonely. You don’t have the ability to be with somebody who sees the world the way you see the world, and also be able to have those discussions. Your life is somewhat tempered in a way.” —John Littleton
For 40 years, skiing has failed to market itself beyond a single narrow (and diminishing) demographic. In 1974, resorts had 53 million skier visits; 2016 had 53.9 million. (In the same period, the total U.S. population swelled by another 100 million people. The percentage of Americans skiing has decreased from 25 to 17.) Similarly, the socioeconomic and racial makeup of the sport remains steady. In 1976, 70 percent of skiers made more money than the average American; today’s figure is 72 percent. And the snow sports world has always skewed whiter than the greater U.S. In 2014, seven percent of skiers were African-American and 13 percent were Hispanic, compared to 12 and 17 percent nationwide.
Meanwhile, Millennials are the most diverse and largest generation in American history. Baby Boomers are aging out of the sport. For skiing to grow, it must focus on the younger market (and less on real estate). Serious efforts to make skiing more available to those who are less affluent—from local outdoor nonprofits to ski resorts offering bargain lift tickets—have helped, but it will take a more comprehensive effort from the ski industry to move the needle.
Born between 1982 and 2002, Millennials came of age when technology boomed and the economy tanked. To engage with this group, some resorts have merged skiing with other popular interests, such as technology and music, hosting festivals like Snowglobe in South Lake Tahoe and MusicFest in Steamboat. The Millennial-powered sharing economy has arrived in ski towns to make access more convenient for an ownership-shy generation. Last winter, UberSki made 10,000 trips between Salt Lake City and ski areas in the Wasatch (UberSki also recently opened in Lake Tahoe) and AirBnb hooks up lodging for visitors (though it also eats up affordable housing for locals).
Ski companies, too, are rethinking how they do business to connect with a younger clientele. Josh Malczyk of Line Skis mentioned Netflix-style subscription models for gear, while Annelise Loevlie, co-founder of Icelantic Skis, works with the Boys and Girls Club to organize winter trips for minorities. Kids will probably be playing Pokémon Go on the chairlift this winter.
“The concern should be getting kids outdoors and connecting with nature, because that’s where life happens,” says Loevlie, who also sits on the board of SnowSports Industries America. “I think the first place most kids get exposed to sliding on snow is sledding. You have to catch the bug somewhere.”
It’s a start—skiing has a solid base of young skiers; 63 percent of all snow sports participants are younger than 34. And skiing is getting more diverse—in the last four years, African-American participation in skiing increased by four percent and Hispanic by seven percent. But we still have a long ways to go.
John Littleton knows this as well as anyone. A certified mountain guide, avalanche educator, and ski patroller at Squaw Valley, he is also African-American. Originally from Hyde Park in Chicago, he learned to ski as a kid. His uncle invested in a small ski area in Michigan and he soon got involved with the National Brotherhood of Skiers. He moved to Tahoe in 2002 and started patrolling at Heavenly. Eight years ago, he moved across the lake to Squaw.
Littleton guides for the Truckee-based nonprofit Gateway Mountain Center, which brings children from inner cities to the mountains. He spends time in schools in California’s Bay Area and talks about his work patrolling and doing snow safety. “Some are definitely curious, and others are just like, ‘You’re crazy as all hell,’” he says. Over the years, a dozen kids have kept in touch, asking for internships and other opportunities to get into the mountains.“I think it’s always beneficial to step outside your comfort zone,” says Littleton.
To Littleton, the benefit of diversity is obvious: It will grow the market. He points to cost as the largest barrier to access, and later in our conversation, admitted the significant mental adversity of being a black skier.
“Is it difficult being the one or the other? It’s a challenge,” says Littleton. “Economics is a big obstacle, but another would be the realization by an individual who is considering making a life in the mountains that there is a distinct possibility they will always be the other, the only one. And having to accept that, and the things that get wrapped up in it…
“Admittedly, it can get lonely. You don’t have the ability to be with somebody who sees the world the way you see the world, and also be able to have those discussions. Your life is somewhat tempered in a way.”
Being the other is a sacrifice Littleton was willing to make for the beauty of the mountains, for a lifetime of skiing. We must ensure more have the opportunity to do the same.
Julie Brown is the managing editor of POWDER. All skiing-related figures came from SIA, which works with the Physical Activity Council to conduct annual surveys. Other numbers were sourced from the Pew Research Center and the U.S. Census.