Like many teenagers, Ellen Kurtz, 15, doesn’t have a lot of patience — especially when it comes to strapping her feet onto a board and speeding down a snow-covered hill. But a month ago Kurtz persuaded her friend, Ashly Serres, 15, to head out with her and give snowboarding a whirl. The excitement wore off fast.
“I just got sick of falling and falling,” Kurtz said.
The girls, both sophomores at Cannon Falls High School, had tried snowboarding in middle school, only to turn to skiing instead. Hopes ran high that their second time on snowboards would turn out differently.
But girls like Kurtz and Serres just don’t seem to be sticking with the sport. While snowboarding has long been a mainstream staple, the gender divide is still vast — 65-35 by some accounts. While women are being wooed by female-centric equipment and bigger prize money at the competitive level, some are taking off their boots for good.
They’re not the only ones. A recent report — which has become the talk of the industry this winter — says growth has stalled overall. When snowboarding burst onto the scene two decades ago, it was heralded as the young, hot sport to save the ski industry. New research by RRC Associates, which tracks industry trends, says American snowboarders on resort hills have numbered 2.5 million annually for the past five years.
“We’re very fearful that in the next five years we could see a rapid decline,” said Nate Fristoe, the study’s lead author.
Women are a key to the sport’s success, he said. So why are so many leaving the sport?
Even before she reached kindergarten, Sarah Lang knew how to ski. But a twisted ankle compelled her to ditch the two skinny planks in favor of a snowboard. Now 23 years old, the snowboard competitor–turned-coach wishes more women would join her.
“I’ve tried to get female friends involved, but it doesn’t happen,” said Lang, of Minneapolis.
It’s not that more men choose to hop on snowboards, but that more women eventually choose to get off. While women and men both come out strong at the starting gate (the ratio being 50-50), female participation dips at the intermediate level. At the advanced level, women only make up 19 percent of snowboarders, according to the RRC report.
On the slopes at Buck Hill in Burnsville, marketing director Jessica Stone estimated that men outnumber women 10-1 on some days. Compared with skiing, snowboarding requires a lot more work on the front end before you feel comfortable rocketing down a hill, said Peter Zotalis, vice president of mountain services at Welch Village, about an hour southeast of the Twin Cities. Like skiing, it’s also expensive when you add in the cost of a board, lift ticket and gear.
“I got really frustrated,” Kurtz said after trying for two hours to ride down the bunny hill without falling. “I don’t think I [have] the patience for it.”
Lang, who’s been coaching for five years, isn’t surprised. Many of the young women she’s taught are results-driven. While her evidence is far from scientific, Lang thinks young male snowboarders just don’t mind falling on their faces.
Signs of change
Missy McAlpin seems to spend more time on a board than on her feet. The 21-year-old from Hastings has been snowboarding for 10 years, both competing and coaching. But it was only three years ago that she got her first “chick board,” as she calls it.
When McAlpin started in the early 2000s, there wasn’t a lot of equipment designed specifically for female boarders. But companies have revamped their gear to fit women’s needs: Boots are shorter because women have longer calves, boards are more flexible because women often have lighter frames. However, some aspects of the sport have been slow to evolve, she said.
Growing up, McAlpin noticed that the prize money at competitions was always bigger for men. She rarely saw women competing on television, or riding in the snowboarding videos she bought.
“It’s slowly getting [better], but for the most part, if you go out in the snowboarding world you’re looking up to guys, not chicks,” McAlpin said.
But Lang, who competed in tournaments at the regional and national levels before switching to solely coaching, points out that bigger money goes to bigger tricks. And a common stereotype in the sport is that men outperform women.
“The ads show men, the commercials show men. I don’t think it’s that they are trying to push women out, but to get the masses involved they want to show the biggest tricks,” Lang said.
Do men have natural physical advantages over women? That’s up for debate. Despite that notion, the snowboarding world has had its share of female stars. The decorated Kelly Clark first won Olympic gold on the halfpipe in 2002. Spencer O’Brien has been racking up medals, recently winning the women’s slopestyle at the FIS Snowboarding World Championships.
For McAlpin, it’s all about exposure.
“Give girls the time of day,” she said. “Don’t cut us short just because we’re girls.”
Shredding the future
Kurtz and Serres laughed about their recent snowboarding foray. Maybe a lesson would have been a good idea, they said. Snowboarding is frustrating. Skiing is easier.
Fristoe, whose report for RRC surprised some people in the snowboarding industry, says the sport needs more young girls to stick with it.
The two teens are on the fence, but optimistic.
“I think there’s a lot of girls that would be good at it,” Serres said.
If Kurtz stuck with snowboarding, Serres said she would, too. “We could help each other,” Kurtz said. Serres has a season pass at Welch Village, which comes with a discount on board rentals.
She’d like to try her luck again but her days on a snowboard might be numbered — especially since Kurtz is leaning toward sticking with skis.
Without her friend, Serres said, she’ll likely throw in the towel rather than go it alone.
Morgan Mercer is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.