Climate change and economic crisis are pushing the snowboard industry into a long, global sideslip

Snowboarding has faltered in the last decade, attributable to climate change and economic uncertainty.
Snowboarding has faltered in the last decade, attributable to climate change and economic uncertainty.
Image: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
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After nearly a decade of global growth that won the sport a spot in the Olympic games, snowboarding has taken a bit of a tumble. Economic uncertainty and climate change have contributed to declining global sales and participation over the past decade, leaving some in the industry wondering about its future.

In the US, the number of Americans who snowboard has dropped by about half a million over the past five years. Purchases of snowboards, boots and other gear have been steadily declining since their 2007 peak at $325 million, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

Snowboarding came into its own in the US in 1999, piquing the interest of a Millennial consumer base thrashing its way through adolescence. Young enthusiasts drove equipment sales and hit the slopes, pushing the activity into the mainstream and eventually onto the Olympic stage in 1998.

Now, experts in the US snow sports industry attribute the decline in interest to people in their late teens and twenties—the same age group that popularized the activity at its outset.

So what happened? Several things, says Kelly Davis, who lobbies on behalf of Snowsports Industries America. For starters, there’s less snow. One out of every five US snowboarders lives in California, which has suffered a pernicious drought for the last four seasons.

“So when it doesn’t snow in California, what do you do?” Davis asked. “Especially if you’re 18 to 25.” California teens and young adults aren’t that free to hop in a car on a whim and drive to resorts in Utah, and many recent graduates are saddled with student loans that prohibit them from making multi-day trips for leisure, she said.

This year, California resorts got an exceptional reprieve from the drought’s effects, as El Niño has helped push the state’s snowpack to the deepest it’s been in half a decade. But worldwide, changing climate patterns has the entire snow sports industry feeling nervous.

“We’re the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change,” Davis said.

In Europe, winter resorts are struggling to attract (pdf) new skiers and snowboarders, due to a combination of baby boomers aging out of downhill sports, scattered economic crises and tourists tightening their pursestrings.

In Andorra, Austria and Switzerland, foreign skiers and snowboarders—mostly from Germany, Britain and the Netherlands—are essential customers for winter recreation industries, but there aren’t enough of them. In Spain, economic crises have also brought down resort attendance, sending snow sport numbers off the proverbial cliff.

“The fairy tale of the inexhaustible foreign customer reservoir is [coming] to an end,” wrote snow sports consultant Laurent Vacant in an April 2015 industry report.

One bright spot for global snowboarding and other snow sports could be in China, where about 80% of skiers are under 40 and increasingly wealthy. With the 2020 winter Olympics slated to be hosted by Beijing, enthusiasm for the sport is expected to increase, possibly drawing more attention to slopes in the country’s northern Harbin region. In 2004, only about 2 million Chinese people turned out to ski, according to Vacant, but that number increased to about 10 million in 2015.