Winter X Games Spotlights Women Spreading the Shred In Action Sports
It used to be that male athletes were the primary innovators and participants in winter action sports. Then young girls started following their fathers and brothers to the slopes. Decades later, the once male-only industry now includes talented women who are world-renowned professional athletes.
Meet Kelly Clark, Elena Hight, Lindsey Jacobellis, and Grete Eliassen. Together they are among the biggest names in winter action sports who are a growing segment of professional athletes fighting to take their sports – snowboarding and freeskiing – to the next level.
Clark is a decorated X Games champion, three-time Olympian (2002, 2006, and 2010), and two-time medalist (gold in 2002 and bronze in 2010). According to US Snowboarding, Clark’s “amplitude and bag of tricks have earned her more wins than any other male or female snowboarder in history.” In 2011, at Winter X Games 15 she raised the bar in women’s snowboarding by being the first female to land a 1080 in competition, which solidified her “nothing is impossible” philosophy.
Hight is a fierce competitor who made her own mark in snowboarding history at the 2013 Winter X Games. She became the first rider (male or female) to perform a double backside alley-oop rodeo in a halfpipe competition. And to further put her feat in perspective, even fellow superstar boarder Shaun White (yes, that Shaun White) had not landed that trick in competition.
Jacobellis is a dominant snowboardcross rider who is a two-time Olympian (2006 and 2010) and a silver medalist (2006). The seven-time Winter X Games champion missed all of the 2012-2013 after tearing her ACL, but she is back and ready to make a run for gold at the Olympics and the X Games.
Eliassen pushes the envelope in slopestyle free skiing. She has soared to the top of her discipline with six Winter X Games medals – two of which are gold – and is destined to compete in the 2014 Olympics.
According to the research firm Board-Trac, the action sports industry has a combined total market size of $17.5 billion. Further, the 2012-2013 ski and snowboard season brought $3.4 billion in retail revenues. Noticeably, fans recognize that the industry has evolved from purely being a lifestyle to mainstream sports.
ESPN’s X Games is largely responsible for the increased global demand for action sports. Its winter event kicks off this week in Aspen, Colorado (January 23-26). Last year, the on-site attendance was 114,500, which was the highest number of fans who have attended in Winter X Games history. Another 38.6 million people in the United States tuned in to the live or rebroadcasted telecasts, which was up nine percent from the previous year.
However, despite the growing popularity – at Clark’s last glance – the snowboarding industry is comprised of 70% men and only 30% women.
“If women only represent 30% of the business in snowboarding, there is a huge opportunity to grow and capitalize on that market, and it starts by increasing participation.” Clark said.
Growing the participation of women in action sports just might be easier said than done. However, the first step in creating change is listening to the athletes who know exactly what it takes to compete at a high level day-after-day.
Forbes.com caught up with Clark, Hight, Jacobellis, and Eliassen for an email roundtable to discuss breaking down gender barriers and spreading the shred of women in professional action sports. Here are their observations and recommendations.
FORBES: What is the current state of women in action sports? What changes have you noticed in the landscape of women’s participation?
Clark: I would have to check the stats, but last I heard participation is about 70/30 men to women in snowboarding. And that goes up through product sold, as well. I have seen women’s participation grow dramatically over the last 20 years.
Hight: In the last decade, I have seen the amount of women participating in action sports, particularly snowboarding, has increased dramatically. It is amazing to see so many more girls and women out on the mountain.
Eliassen: I have seen a tremendous increase in the participation of freeskiing over my career. The best way to grow the sport of freeskiing will be to create more female content online. We no longer have to rely on television networks to show a 10 second clip of women being active. But today we can post photos on Instagram, blogs, and create video content ourselves with our GoPros. We are going to see a huge shift in the next couple of years with the female action sport content that is available.
Jacobellis: The progression and the number of women in action sports is amazing. Look at not just snowboarding, but freeskiing, skateboarding, motocross…women are pushing the boundaries every day. The more we get a chance to showcase what we are doing on TV to young girls, the more they will want to get involved.
FORBES: What are the opportunities to grow the market for women in action sports? What does the women’s side of the business of action sports need to maintain its sustainability and accessibility?
Clark: At first glance, I would say women tend to shop more than men. And typically, women have most of the buying power in households. If women only represent 30% of the business in snowboarding, there is a huge opportunity to grow and capitalize on that market, and it starts by increasing participation.
Hight: Women are just starting to realize that action sports are something that they can participate in and the more that this knowledge and interest spreads, the larger the market will become; action sports just needs to continue to reach out to women and create opportunities and marketing strategies for them to feel engaged. In many ways, action sports are marketed mostly to men, because they are male dominated sports. The gap in this approach is that women respond to other women, not to men. I believe that in any avenue, especially sports, there needs to be specific marketing geared towards women.
Eliassen: The opportunities are huge! Companies need to start stepping it up and start creating women specific content. Oakley did a great job a couple years ago by producing a women’s specific action sport movie including skiing, surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding. Also, I had the chance to create a women’s freeski movie called Say My Name, which was one of the first ever women’s ski movies.
Jacobellis: You are always going to have that gap between men and women from an apparel or equipment marketing standpoint, but, just like you have seen with women’s tennis, there are opportunities for fashion brands, cosmetic brands, and other health and beauty brands to tap into this young market.
FORBES: How has the corporate community responded to women in action sports? Describe your endorsements and relationship with sponsors.
Clark: Action sports has room for individuality, there is not a specific mold to fit into. So there is opportunity to be yourself and it is a privilege to be in a place of influence and be a good role model for young women. I have amazing sponsors who have supported me most of my career. Riding for companies like Burton, I get to have input on product and get to work on company initiatives.
Hight: I believe that as the corporate community becomes more and more involved in action sports, they are taking advantage of the influence that women have in the space. There are not as many professional women in action sports so it is important to capitalize on the women that are there influencing and inspiring the up and coming generations and the females who are getting into action sports.
The corporate sponsors that I work with – Toyota, Repreve and GoPro – have been huge assets to my career. They have helped with many training opportunities and help provide me with the backing that I need to continue to pursue my dreams through snowboarding.
Eliassen: My sponsors have been tremendous throughout my career. When I had the idea of creating my own women’s ski movie, all my sponsors were on board. When I wanted to see how high I could actually jump on my skis – Red Bull helped me make it a reality. Oakley has been one of my sponsors since I was 15 years old. It has been awesome to see a brand like Oakley that was so male dominated become a very creative female brand.
Jacobellis: My sponsors have been amazing, as I have had a number of them for many years. It seems as though each year there are a new crop of companies that want to come in and sponsor athletes. I know that without my sponsors I would have not been able to achieve the things I have achieved in my career.
FORBES: Women receive equal prize money at the X Games, is that your experience throughout the action sports industry?
Clark: All events should be equal in prize money, and I am glad that snowboarding has had that in its history. I am not familiar with other action sports. We don’t compete on different jumps or ride smaller halfpipes; we are out there riding the same things that the guys are.
Hight: Since I have been a professional snowboarder, there have been so many opportunities for women in my sport. We attend most of the same events as the men, have equal prize money and get the same amount of TV coverage as the men. Not every sport is like that, however. There are still imbalances as far as overall dollars made, salaries and biases about what men can do that women can’t, but I believe that the women’s side of the industry has grown so much that it cannot be ignored any longer.
Eliassen: Yes, women receive equal prize money at the X Games. It has not always been that way, but they were one of the first to implement equality across the board for everyone. It’s not the same at every contest. For example, at the Dew Tour with a pool of 25 men and women only 8 women advance to the finals and 16 men advance to the final. The Dew Tour’s reasoning is television coverage. They believe people want to watch men’s skiing and snowboarding over the women’s disciplines.
Equality is starting to get better at the events, but the main gap is in the television coverage. Women’s action sports are still not televised equally as men’s on television. I am hoping this changes more with internet coverage, but it just needs to be the same, period.
FORBES: Are there significant challenges or misconceptions facing action sports athletes? What are challenges associated with increasing female participation in action sports and keeping them there?
Hight: One challenge that action sports athletes face is that these sports are so new that the following is not as large as traditional sports. Because of this, the pay in action sports is much lower than in any ball and stick sport, which makes it difficult to make a lasting, profitable career choice.
Eliassen: The misconception people believe women do not participate in action sports because they never see it on television. Therefore, if the media showcases the women that are participating in action sports we will see an increase. I am on the mountain almost every day in the winter and I can tell you for a fact that half the population is women out there.
FORBES: What are the biggest obstacles in the action sports industry? Are there specific barriers to entry?
Clarks: With most winter sports cost and access is a barrier. Equipment and lift tickets are some biggest ones. As an industry we need to be aware of what will sustain us and cause us to grow. Working to create access will be a big key in the future of our sport. I saw the need and started a foundation to create access for youth to pursue their dreams in snowboarding. Over the last four years, the Kelly Clark Foundation has helped over 100 youth all across the US participate at a high competitive level and entry level.
FORBES: What does the future of actions sports look like?
Clark: The expansion of action sports in the Olympics this year we will continue to see growth. Action sports have been so successful in the Olympics because it is relatable. One event cannot define our sport but it is a good opportunity to represent our sport to the world and invite people to enjoy it.
Hight: Action sports are going to continue to grow at a very rapid rate. They are a part of a lifestyle that is very relatable and exciting to be a part of. This will continue to draw in more and more men and women into action sports throughout the world. I want to continue to snowboard professionally and hopefully help inspire people to pursue their dreams.