BOARDERS WAX THEIR PITCH
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
STRATTON, Vermont — A tribe of daredevils stormed last weekend’s U.S. Open Snowboarding Championship and the event’s sponsors pulled a few stunts of their own.
During Sunday’s slope-style competition here at Stratton Mountain, a skydiver sporting a parachute emblazoned with SoBe, one of the event’s sponsors, leapt from a helicopter imprinted with Anon, an offshoot of the title sponsor Burton. After the half-pipe finals, the afternoon before, Anon staffers hurled goggles, T-shirts and hats like grenades from a makeshift military tower.
Throughout the weekend, fans logjammed the sponsor village, waiting not-so-patiently to take on the Ross Powers figure in a video game at the FHM booth, to get hair highlights at Feria’s area, and to answer trivia questions to win orange baseball caps in Volkswagen’s den.
Despite the unexpected pitches, the event marketing was loud and clear. Announcers plugged riders’ sponsors as if they were their last names, and talked up the event sponsors regularly. They would occasionally tone it down, as in, “I wish I had on a Gore-Tex jacket,” a nod toward Gore’s support.
Some 20 years after Jake Burton turned a kitchen table upside down for a starting gate at the first U.S. Open, the annual pilgrimage to Stratton is still gaining worshippers. This time around, 500 riders from 15 countries competed in front of 20,000 fans who consider “sick,” “huge” and “hitting the pipe” to be ultracool things. The Open remains the sport’s premiere competition, even moreso than the Olympics, which many riders shun due to its commercial spirit.
This was a no-frills, rider-driven affair. There were no tickets. Metallica, Blink 182 and other music blasted from start to finish. Fans hiked to the halfpipe venue, just as some of the competitors used to do not so long ago to avoid paying for lift tickets. But after each run, riders still have to trek back to the starting gate, often signing a few autographs along the way.
It was the kind of event where a man in an army helmet and a “Listen to Johnny Cash” T-shirt holds a defaced Armani ad overhead to the delight of strangers. It was the kind of place where teens chatted with an Olympic silver medalist nursing a black eye in the rest room. Dorianne Vidal was doing just that Saturday afternoon shortly before the women’s halfpipe finals. The French looker picked up the shiner during the quarter-pipe finals the night before. Patting her eye, she said: “It feels so big, but it’s not that bad.”
Her fans were more concerned about her gear.
“Americans want to know what kind of board I’m riding, what the side cut is like, is it better than last year’s model,” Vidal said. “They want to know everything. It’s funny. In Japan, they all ask about my clothes.”
But her brown snowboard pants with the flame design on the sides weren’t lost on this crowd. Many teens stopped her to ask who made them. Her sponsor Rossignol, she gladly reported.
These types of exchanges are what action sports brands bank on to build clout with their fickle and media-savvy young customers, who tend to balk at overexposed companies with slick commercials. Take Burton, for example. Even though the Burlington, Vt.-based brand controls about 40 percent of the $400 million snowboarding market, it has broadened its base by diving into ancillary categories without using the Burton name. It owns Anon goggles, Radar helmets and Gravis casual footwear and sportswear.
At the event, Burton and other companies gave away stickers like candy thrown from a parade float. Many fans quickly customized their outfits and snowboards by patching them on their clothes. Nonapparel types also used stickers to promote their causes. Recording artist John Mayer and The Journal, a nonprofit magazine geared for art and action sports enthusiasts, also doled out decals.
Taking a break from the slopes Saturday afternoon with his son and Time Inc. marketing director Taylor Gray and his family, Sports Illustrated president E. Bruce Hallett explained why Sports Illustrated for Women sponsored this year’s Open.
“This event attracts a very young cool group that connects with sports in a way that’s different from the way young people connect with traditional sports,” Hallett said.
He was also reminded of something SIFW editor Susan Casey pointed out after the American men swept the half pipe in Park City, Utah, last month.
“She looked out at the crowd and turned to me and said, ‘Bruce, see all these women? These are my readers.”
They’re also pretty big spenders. At the FHM party Saturday night, Octagon exec David Schwab said earlier in the day he’d met a teenager who’d spent $107 for a snowboard rental and lift ticket.
“They spend some serious money on this sport,” said Schwab, whose firm reps Olympians Kelly Clark and Powers.
Grenade Gloves, Deviant Clothing, 93 94, and a few other entrepreneurs used the Open to talk up their clothing lines and try to gain some market share from big guns like Burton and Salomon. The 93 94 name refers to the sport’s glory days. Powers has no apparel plans, but summed up the snowboarder-soon-to-be-an-underground-designer trend this way.
“Everyone goes out snowboarding, spray-paints some stuff and gives away clothes. In L.A., it actually works once in a while,” referring to Grenade, a brand started by his friend, silver medalist Danny Kass.
A RLX Polo Sport-sponsored athlete who also endorses Burton, Powers said he has held off on signing any post-Olympic endorsement deals, because he, Kass and bronze medalist Jarret Thomas are holding out for one with Coke. Like many in the crowd, Powers said snowboarders can be misportrayed by the media and Madison Avenue as hellions. There’s no question partying is part of the culture, but they also “spend a lot of time riding and training hard, and then we celebrate,” he said, taking a minute to shout out to fellow snowboarder Gretchen Balbiler, a Britney Spears look-alike.
That might explain the homemade sticker on his Grenade sweatshirt: “Beer: the performance-enhancing drug of choice of America’s athletes.” Fans caught an eyeful of Powers’ favorite brands by playing Activision video games at the FHM booth. The game features branding like an RLX banner on the course. Despite the breakneck speed, kids clue into the brands and buy accordingly, said T. Eric Monroe, chief executive officer of the United Skateboarding Association, who manned the FHM booth.
Harder-to-find labels were also causing a buzz, but in a deliberately understated way. After Friday night’s quarter-pipe at the Open, the Grenade Gloves crew stood out in their secondhand military attire and shaggy haircuts. Kass and his brother, Matt, are the driving force behind the year-old June Lakes, Calif.-based company. With his signature slouch and long black hair, Kass looks like a Goth-inspired teen, instead of the reluctant poster boy for snowboarding.
Asked about his business plans, Kass stared back with the enthusiasm of a statue, but then mentioned the brand’s plans to add army-inspired apparel later this year. Uniform-type shirts, jackets and windbreakers will be sold. That’s why “the Grenerds” were giving away clothes at the U.S. Open. But Kass said he had no idea how many stores would carry the line or already do.
That was a question for his friend in the cap knitted with a profanity, who made a crack about porn stores. But Grenade is no joke, and Kass is said to take in a seven-digit salary through his company and sponsorship deals. Like many in the crowd, the Grenade Gloves crew understand how sarcasm can at least delay, if not stop, the publicity and commercialization storming their sport. When a reporter passed on the chance to have the Grenade logo stenciled with spray paint on her jacket, one of the Grenade guys protested, “C’mon. It’s artistry.”
Some of the gang affiliated with Grenade have started Deviant Clothing, a collection of sweatshirts, T-shirts, cropped tanks and thongs. Founded by a group of friends from Rutland, Vt., the line will make it debut at specialty stores this summer. They wanted to introduce the line at the Open, since they’d been going to it for years, said April Henning, a 20-year-old Fordham University student.
Cofounder Bruce Sirjane said hundreds of Deviant items were doled out because so many of “the people they want to sell to” were there. Asked to describe those customers, he said, “Evil.”
Not everyone had smart-alecky answers about their apparel businesses. Keir Dillon said he and his fiancee, Julie Doff, are unveiling Dillon Design this fall in Japan. Aimed at snowboarders, skateboarders and surfers, the streetwear collection will bow in the U.S. next year.
“The cool thing about snowboarding is you can wear a Champion sweatshirt or Calvin Klein and Kenneth Cole,” Dillon said. “The whole word is style. Everyone is unique, from the way they do a trick to what they wear.”