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Snowboarding: The latest thing going down

Popularity of sport skyrocketing in U.S.

By Mark Clothier

Santa takes advantage of the “White Christmas” on Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia.

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(CNN) -- The coolest things these days on America's ski slopes probably aren't the skiers, or even the snow-covered trails.

Skiing, for years a popular if somewhat expensive hobby, has ceded space on the mountains to snowboarding, which many find easier to master and cheaper to gear up for.

Downhill skiing still accounts for the majority of crowds at ski resorts from Maine to Northern California, said Joe Stevens, a spokesman for West Virginia's 225-acre Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort.

But that's starting to change as high-profile events such as this month's ESPN Winter X Games and the Winter Olympics, which in 1998 added snowboarding for the first time, showcase the sport.

Participation in alpine, or downhill, skiing in the United States has dropped about 47 percent, to just over 7 million, from a high of more than 12 million in 1988, according to SnowSports Industries America, the industry's largest trade group.

Participation in snowboarding increased more than 300 percent, to 5.5 million, over the same period, according to SIA.

Cooler and cheaper

Cost is one explanation for snowboarding's surge in popularity, he said Chris Lorenz, 33, the owner of Winterstick, a 12-employee company that is one of the original manufacturers of snowboards.

An entry-level pair of skis can run between $400 and $1,000. Beginner snowboards start at $200, including boots and bindings. The highest-priced boards are about $600, Lorenz said.

Snowboarding has particularly caught on with the younger generation, he said, many of whom favor the newer, perceivably hipper sport and the chance to do stunts and tricks.

"The trend of action sports -- skateboarding, BMX, snowboarding -- in the media has helped," Lorenz said. "Kids see it on TV and they get interested."

Many communities -- especially those outside the traditional ski resort hubs of Colorado and New England -- have skateboarding parks and surf shops that transform into snowboard stores, and cater to many of the same people, when the season changes, Stevens said.

Ease of use has also helped the sport expand beyond skaters and surfers looking for a winter hobby, Lorenz added.

"Early on, it was [even] less expensive, and snowboarding is easier on beginners," Lorenz said.

"In snowboarding, you can become proficient in a season or two. It can take several years in skiing to get to that intermediate level."

Smooth learning curve

Tricia Byrnes was one of those who took advantage of the learning curve.

Olympic snowboarder Tricia Byrnes gets some air.
Olympic snowboarder Tricia Byrnes gets some air.

At 14, Byrnes was a weekend skier quickly becoming bored with alpine skiing, which she saw as repetitious. Then she picked up her brother's snowboard.

She has been a professional snowboarder for more than a decade, breaking through with a 1992 win at the U.S. Open and going on to win 14 World Cup events worldwide.

Now, at 29, she's an Olympic freestyle halfpipe snowboarder and a member of the U.S. Olympic team, placing sixth at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

"[Snowboarding] is a lot more fun," she said from Mammoth Mountain in California, where she competed in the U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix.

"You start out just trying to go forward, then you master that and try going backwards. Then you try 180s, then 360s and 540s. You can always improve, which is what keeps anyone doing anything -- the ability to always try and improve," Byrnes said.

Great growth in 'boarding

Stevens has seen a gradual increase in snowboarding at Snowshoe, which is about four hours south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1983, the resort was the first in the region to allow snowboarders, Stevens said.

Early on growth in snowboarding was limited but steady, picking up in the early 1990s when the equipment started improving.

About 25 percent to 30 percent of Snowshoe's clientele are snowboarders, which is typical for resorts, Stevens said.

Snowboarders tend to be the first on the slopes and are often out early in the season, while skiers tend to wait until all the trails at a resort are open, he said.

Although the old and the new, skiers and snowboarders, are learning to share the slopes in peace. But it wasn't always so.

"That view is similar to the philosophy when Bob Dylan went from acoustic to electric," Stevens said. "Everyone said 'we'll never listen to him again.' And some skiers said 'if you allow snowboards on the slopes, we won't go there.'

"Most [resorts] in the region allow [snowboarding] now," he said. "For us, it's pure business. A snowboarder buys the same lift ticket as a skier."

Several ski resorts, including the well-known slopes of Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado, offer terrain parks that give snowboarders a chance to do the aerial tricks that make the sport so compelling to watch.

About 30 percent of snowboarders skip traditional ski resorts altogether and go backcountry, riding hills in a more natural setting, Winterstick's Lorenz said.

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