Rejoice skiers and spectators: The ski tour acronym confusion has ended. On Thursday, the Freeskiing World Tour, Freeride World Tour, and The North Face Masters of Snowboarding announced their unification under one tour now known as the Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face. Mirroring surfing's ASP World Tour and the multiple-level "star" events, the five-star championship series is a six-stop global tour that includes skiing and snowboarding.
Last winter, the Freeskiing and Freeride World Tours combined at three stops in Revelstoke, Crystal Mountain, and Kirkwood, foreshadowing the announcement. According to Mountain Sports International—the North American production company that has organized the Freeskiing World Tour and The North Face Masters of Snowboarding for over a decade—talks between the Freeskiing and Freeride World Tours have been occurring the last two years.
"There are a lot of details to evolve, but it's been so long in the making and really good to finally announce," says Mountain Sports International Project Manager Bryan Barlow. MSI officials and the Europeans who ran the Freeride World Tour have been in constant conversation, developing the new tour over Skype before a summit meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, three weeks ago that solidified the union. "We've looked at everything, but haven't taken one direct model to try and replicate," says Barlow. "But tailoring it to our format—with proper weather time frames, the point system, the remoteness of the events, and the volume of riders to retain the integrity of the snow at the venues—the ASP is closest to what we created."
What does this mean for big mountain competitive skiers? For starters, the sport will finally be able to crown one true world champion in a legitimate competition tour. Although the system is rather complex, here are the nuts and bolts:
• There will be six 5-Stars stops including: Revelstoke, Chamonix, Kirkwood, Fieberbrunn PillerseeTal in Austria, another European site yet to be determined, and the World Tour Finals at Verbier.
• Fifty qualifier events (FWQ) will be hosted around the world, ranging from 1- to 4-Stars for emerging athletes to earn a spot on next year's FWT.
• The first stops of the 4-Stars FWQ will be in New Zealand and Chile, starting in August 2012.
• Riders will score points in two separate rankings: a 5-Stars FWT ranking and a 1- to 4-Stars FWQ ranking.
• Start lists will feature qualified athletes from all three of the 2012 Tours, as well as from qualifier events (4-Star events), along with a limited number of wild-card entries from both continents.
• The burgeoning Junior Freeskiing Tour (JFT) will count as 1- and 2-Stars events in both Region 1—North and South America—and Region 2—Europe, Oceana, and Asia.
• Every 5-Stars stop will be broadcast live on the web, with established Freeskiing World Tour announcers Frankie Alisuag and Max Kuszaj calling each event.
Of course, athlete input weighed heavily on the minds of tour organizers, as they established a Pro Freeriders Board that includes five skiers and three snowboarders. Although the partnership was long rumored, competitors seem eager to be skiing under one tour banner.
"This is the most important thing to ever happen to competitive big mountain skiing," says Griffin Post, who has competed on both tours, in an e-mail from Chile. "There will be no rivalry between the tours and no arguments about which tour is the 'real' tour… No longer will contests be a means to make a name for one's self and take the next step, whether that means movies or whatever, as winning this tour will be an ends in itself."
One of the major hurdles for athletes, however, will be the expensive and exhaustive back-and-forth travel from one continent to the next. Surprisingly, Snowbird, a longtime and revered stop on the FWT circuit, elected not to be a 5-Star event but rather a 4-Star. Venues present multiple challenges in regards to spectating and staging an operation, and European resorts have a logistical advantage, especially at the renowned Bec de Rosses venue at Verbier. Plus, it's no secret that North American resorts, especially in the U.S., have different liability issues than European ones. Regardless, Barlow expects another 5-Stars North American event to be added in years to come.
"I love the venues in Europe overall a lot better," says 2009 and 2012 Freeskiing World Tour champion Crystal Wright in an e-mail. "But the cost of travel has its drawbacks. Also, I am not as into the judging on the Freeride Tour… But there are so many strong women European riders, so it is about time we all came together and threw down." Post thinks that the new tour setup will favor Europeans since they'll be closer to home and will have to travel less.
As for judging? "When the Euro tour [Freeride World Tour] first started, we [Americans] joked that you started out a couple points behind if you didn't have an accent or an umlaut in your name," says Post. "The bottom line is that big mountain skiing is probably the most subjective sport in the world and judging will never be perfect. However, if they can take successful elements from both judging criteria I think they can at least create a more perfect system."
With Swatch and The North Face as the presenting sponsors, it adds to the unification with high-level sponsorship that's required for an expensive and remote tour in two different markets with massive production costs in regards to live TV and webcasts. "It wasn't good to have so much confusion in the sport by crowning two different champions," says Barlow. "The sport has grown faster the last five years than it grew in the first 10. And we expect that continued growth, especially on the Junior Tour and in Europe, where the sport is three times as popular as it is in North America. One tour makes the most sense for the health and future of the sport."
Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face 2013 Competition Calendar:
1. Revelstoke, B.C., Canada. January 7-12, 2013
2. Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France. January 26-February 1, 2013
3. Kirkwood, CA, USA. February 27-March 3, 2013
4. Fieberbrunn Pillerseetal, Austria. March 9-15, 2013
5. TBD. Location will be in Europe
6. Verbier, Switzerland. March 23-31, 2013