The Guardian, the liberal British newspaper, is not ordinarily known as a leading chronicler of the ski life. But the paper recently presented a sobering report about the state of our winter sport.
“What was once a young person’s sport,’’ the Guardian reported, “is now owned by the baby boomer generation, with potentially disastrous consequences for the ski industry.’’
Then came the statistics, provided by a 2019 study by the Ski Club of Great Britain. The portion of ski holiday-makers between the ages of 16 and 24: 5 percent. Almost two-thirds were over the age of 45. One in five of those surveyed complained that skiing was just too demanding.
A few winters back, I was living in Quebec and regularly skied on Tuesday mornings. Almost all the patrons were in their late 60s or early 70s. In a way, that is not surprising; generally the people who ski on Tuesday mornings are retired. School children, college students and most adults under 65 are otherwise occupied.
But at least in Quebec, ski areas are jammed on weekends. College students taking advantage of discount rates. Children, by the hundreds, in ski classes. Parents trying to catch a few runs while their children are in ski school. Singles with an eye toward meeting other singles. Loads of people crowding into the bar for a hot drink, or a stiff one.
That, of course is a reflection of a culture that cultivates winter. It was the Quebec singer-songwriter Gilles Vigneault who in 1964 captured the zeitgeist with precision: Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver. My country isn’t a country, it’s winter.
That’s why, on any given weekend, you will see crowds not only on the ski slopes but also on a series of trails through the woods that are maintained for ice skating. Zambonis aren’t only for the hockey rink, not in Quebec at least.
But not everyplace has a culture that celebrates winter — and possesses a culture that uses winter as a platform for seasonal fun. Some recent winters have seen temperatures at New England ski resorts stunningly high, and snowfalls stunningly low. Climate change is a real factor in the future of skiing.
But while meteorology is destiny, so is demography. And that has ski area operators worried. They are trying new tactics, including employing music as a lure to younger people, sometimes blaring music on the slopes — that has been a staple in Quebec for decades— or staging electronic dance events. Reports the Guardian: “No major French resort is now complete without a Folie Douce, the cabaret-cum-DJ Seth phenomenon that started in Tignes in 1980.’’
I’m not quite sure what a Folie Douce is, but I know this: You dilute the purity of the sport when you suggest that the sport isn’t sufficiently attractive enough that it can stand on its own.
There are examples aplenty. Take baseball. In 2019, attendance at major-league games was 68,494,752, down 1.62 percent. That follows a 4 percent drop for the 2018 season. And how are the mandarins of baseball addressing that: More blaring music, more irritating between-innings promotions, more diversions from the game.
There are two possible lessons from MLB (and also from the NBA, the NHL and the NFL): You can try to appeal to new audiences by presenting something other than the sport, or you can emphasize the beauty of the sport itself.
Pro sports choose the former. I’m an old-school advocate of the latter.
Skiing is not a rock concert. It is a day on the slopes, an experience in the outdoors, a celebration of nature. Its value is in its values: Fitness. Grace. The rush of speed, the precision of form.
So perhaps the answer might be to return to basics. Stress the great heritage of the sport. Emphasize the social aspects of it. Point out the fitness attributes of a day on the slopes. Whisper a little something about après-ski life, about the beauty of a 3 p.m. drink by the fire, about the irony inherent in the companionship that is offered by this solitary sport.
From Shakespeare’s Hamlet we learned an indispensable lesson: The play’s the thing. Let the word go forth to the world’s ski areas: The skiing’s the thing. And it is truly a thing of beauty.
David Shribman can be reached at [email protected].