YOU'VE SEEN THEM on TV, most likely during late-night channel surfing when sleep won't come, probably on ESPN2 or some nether zone of cable. With long hair poking from beneath their helmets, baggy outfits flapping in the breeze, they careen together down a steep, snowy, undulating course, through gates, banked turns, washboard sections, and massive jumps that send them soaring for big air. Jockeying for position, there can be some hard elbows and NASCAR-like positioning in the bends; wipeouts and pileups are common during the descent.
Then the goggles come off at the finish line, revealing cute young boarder babes who smile telegenically into the camera and press their company-logoed snowboards into the shot. Who are they, and what the hell are they doing?
It's called boardercross (like motocross, get it?), and it's one of the most popular competitive forms of the sport. But don't look for it at February's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. When the International Olympic Committee belatedly accepted snowboarding into the '98 Games at Nagano, it included only two categories: giant slalom and freestyle, a.k.a. half-pipe. So instead of heading to S.L.C., the top local athletes in the world's fastest-growing winter sport are turning to the pro circuit in search of endorsement deals and modeling gigs. Especially for an ambitious young female boarder, the career path resembles that of the Hollywood starlet seeking her big break. Sure, you have to be good, but it's more about being discovered.
"PEOPLE DON'T APPROACH you; you have to approach them," according to 23-year-old pro rider Marni Yamada of North Seattle, whose business card reads "Professional Snowboarder and Sports Model." She's talking about auditioning for the snowboard equipment manufacturers, each of which sponsors an official team of big-name athletes—just like a little Hollywood studio with its talent under exclusive contract.
In this snow star system, companies including local concerns K2 and Ride splash their teams—and wares—across full-page magazine ads. Each team usually numbers about a half dozen, with one designated woman to serve as de facto pinup girl. You've got to be a good female rider to grab that coveted spot, but looks help, too. Call it the Anna Kournikova effect: Not winning Wimbledon is no obstacle to endorsement deals when you're a hottie. Sexist? Sure, but that's showbiz for you.
Young, attractive, wired, and well-spoken, Yamada fits the marketing profile. She's also ranked fifth in the world and first in the U.S. pro boardercross rankings—after only four seasons on a snowboard! (The former collegiate ski racer developed her taste for competition on the slopes of Stevens Pass.) No wonder that she's earned the sponsorship of Germany-based Nitro Snowboards, which is trying to make inroads in the U.S. She also has to hustle to augment her portfolio with other sponsors—including local players Drake (bindings) and Northwave (boots).
"I've sent 20 companies r鳵m鳬" says Yamada. "I have some bites, and that's great. You have to pursue it, put energy forth. I'm starting to realize that also with the actual winter season and actually working the winter season—instead of just going out riding all the time."
If that sounds like the voice of an entrepreneur running her own one-woman shop, that's essentially what Yamada is: a free agent affiliated with only her sponsors. That business extends from mid-November to May and involves frequent travel to Europe and even Japan, she explains: "Snowboarding is pretty much my main job. It keeps you busy. Your sponsors want to see you on TV."
SNOWBOARDING'S Olympic debut at Nagano wasn't a TV success, she recalls. "People boycotted the last Olympics. A lot of U.S. riders don't feel the need to do it." Speaking of the Olympics' emphasis on timed, gated racing, she adds. "It's so European. It is obsolete here. I had to make a choice between one or the other. I think if I would've pursued racing, I probably could've gone to the Olympics now. But that's not where the sport for me is going."
Nor is it where the money is going. Snowboarding's maverick spirit is exactly what advertisers from Nike to Mountain Dew want. (They also want athletes wearing their clothing and logos—not generic Olympic team uniforms.) As a result, they're supporting new pro events like ESPN's Winter X Games that are accessible and annual (unlike the snooty quadrennial Olympics). Instead of hulking Austrian downhillers with unpronounceable, vowel-deficient names or freakishly waifish yet sexualized teen figure skaters, the new alternative sports celebs are healthy, scruffy, cheerful, and—dare we say it?—advertiser-friendly.
So screw the Olympics. If that notoriously stogy, hidebound organization continues to cling to prewar athletic relics (luge, biathlon, fencing, race walking, etc.) Gen-X and Gen-Y viewers will just flip the channel—just as advertisers hope.
What they'll be watching instead are things like the X Games, Vans Triple Crown, and Sims Invitational, as Yamada and her sponsors are keenly aware: "If I want to do well at one contest, it's the X Games. It's so publicized on television." She's competed there twice, with top-10 results earning her a return trip invitation to Aspen this January; 20 million are expected to watch. Instead of rigid Continental categories of competition, these upstart events flow from the American freeriding ethos—self-expression, fun, style, air.
And did we mention the money? Yamada has participated in contests where the top cash prizes range from $10,000 to $40,000. Endorsement deals are worth far more. Industry pioneers Jake Burton and Tom Sims literally built their names into valuable brands. Of the top riders who've benefited from snowboarding's rapid growth over the past decade, Yamada estimates, "They're probably millionaires by now. Definitely the guys are."
AMONG TOP WOMEN, earnings are less, since the glass ceiling evidently extends to the slopes. But Yamada, who spends her summers surfing and teaching yoga, has her eyes on bigger prizes and bigger names in the near future. In the Northwest's oldest, grandest snowboard contest, the Mount Baker Banked Slalom, she placed third last January behind two of the sport's most famous riders, Barrett Christy and Victoria Jealouse.
Three seconds back, in fifth, was 17-year-old Stacy Thomas, a senior at Mount Rainier High School who earned a combined-events silver medal at last winter's amateur Junior World Championships in Sappada, Italy. That's a long way from Ski Acres, where she began riding as a 7-year-old.
Where does she go next? Thomas mulls the question at her family home in Des Moines while her new puppy—named Powder, of course—frolics at her feet. While a few alpine ski racing programs exist at the college level, snowboarding isn't really a collegiate sport. "It would kind of be a step down," she concedes.
Since Thomas is already on the house team for Ride Snowboards, college may be deferred so that she can join the pro circuit and please her sponsors. "The things I need to do are ride more, do some photo shoots, maybe get some parts in like a video . . . get some footage. Just get my name out there."
Like Yamada, Thomas also participates in company-run camps and trade shows that promote snowboarding. It's a business worth some $230 million last season to U.S. gear wholesalers, with participants numbering between 4 million and 7 million nationally. Estimates vary wildly, but everyone agrees that snowboarding is growing much faster than skiing—21 percent vs. 5 percent growth last year, according to some sources.
Moreover, as aging baby boomers increasingly forsake skiing, snowboarding's Gen-X old guard is also getting stiff in the knees after the sport's decade-long explosion. This creates further opportunities for ambitious new riders. "I definitely think the younger generation's going to come up," comments Yamada, who coolly assesses her competitors thusly: "They're at the point now where they're settling down and getting married. They've already made their names. They've already done everything that I want to do. It takes a toll on your body, and I think that after 30 you don't really want to go on."
Thomas is equally frank about her sport's graying stars: "They're pretty much the top female riders at this time, but everything changes. As the years go by, somebody has to fill their spot."
Ouch! And you thought All About Eve was tough!