Snowboarders help industry grow

FRANCESTOWN – If you want to know why so many people are so excited about the reopening of Crotched Mountain Ski Area, consider two numbers from the National Ski Area Association.

The first is 490. That’s how many ski areas were operating in the United States last winter.

The second is 735. That’s how many ski areas were operating in 1982.

America lost one-third of its ski areas in two decades.

That isn’t news to New Hampshire ski fans, who have long watched a process that could optimistically be called consolidation and pessimistically called shrinking.

As late as the 1970s, New Hampshire was sprinkled with dozens of small ski areas owned by families, including Big Bear in Brookline, Birchwood in Londonderry, Twin Tows in Milford and Bragdon Farm in Amherst. All shut down, usually because of the rising cost of insurance.

By the start of the 1980s, midsize mountains such as Temple Mountain, Crotched Mountain and Whaleback began to suffer, too – hit by an aging population of skiers, the need for costly items such as snowmaking and high-speed chairlifts, plus a run of bad weather.

The industry consolidated, becoming dominated by giants such as American Skiing Co., which owns Vermont’s Killington, Maine’s Sunday River and New Hampshire’s Attitash/Bear Peak, among others, but even those giants have struggled financially.

A few midsize areas survived – Pat’s Peak in Henniker and Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Mass., are nationally recognized standouts – but as recently as the late 1990s, things looked bleak.

Now, as Crotched demonstrates, they look a little less bleak. The main reason? Snowboarding.

According to National Ski Area Association figures, the total number of ski area visits in the country – basically, the overall number of daily lift tickets purchased – hit 57.6 million last winter, breaking the record set just two years earlier. Even 2001 – when the Sept. 11 attacks hurt travel – was good for the ski industry, with the third-highest tally ever.

Yet hidden within those numbers is the fact that downhill skiing has stagnated. After falling by one-fifth in the first half of the 1990s, the number of skiing visits has remained almost unchanged since, floating around 40 million.

Snowboarding, on the other hand, has boomed, growing from 12 million visits five years ago to 17.1 million last year. Almost one-third of total ski area visits come from snowboarders.

More important for an industry that has struggled to attract new customers, snowboarders are young. The NOAA says the most common age bracket for downhill skiers is 38-48 – for snowboarders, it’s 14-24.

Ski areas that once sneered at “grungy boarders” now embrace them. All trumpet their terrain parks, wide-open runs full of half-pipes and rails and other structures that leave skiers befuddled but let snowboarders shine.

Crotched Mountain’s terrain park is in the area’s prime spot, right behind the lodge, so showoffs can really show off.

Combined with increasing attempts to draw nonskiers or beginners, notably with ever-more-popular tubing runs as well as easier equipment such as skate skis, and more flexible varieties of lift tickets, the hope among snow-sport fans is that things are looking up – or at least, no longer looking down.