I recently saw an Instagram post from a very fast skier, Jimmy Krupka, that struck me.
The post shows three things: Jimmy ripping slalom turns at the Murphy Roberts Holiday Classic in Steamboat; Jimmy standing on a podium with a big check; and Jimmy waving cash around with rap music playing in the background. It’s amazing.
But when I say, “amazing,” I don’t mean it in a generic way. What I mean is that I was genuinely amazed to see that Krupka won money at a ski race. Because while every race is different—the location, the terrain, the weather, the snow, the course, the athletes—one thing is almost always the same: There’s zero prize money up for grabs.
Jimmy is 21. He’s been racing since he was 7. And, these days, he’s in about 50 FIS races per season, which equates to at least $2,500 in registrations alone—never mind travel, gear, and all the other costs I won’t even bother mentioning. Across his entire career, he’s barely made a financial gain.
“I won $500 at the 2018 Holiday Classic in Steamboat, $125 at the latest US Nationals Parallel Dual Race, and $750 at the Holiday Classic this year,” he says. “So that’s $1,375 total in my 14 years of ski racing.”
I find this to be a problem. And the standard response from the greater ski racing world is probably something along the lines of, “Well that’s just ski racing for you,” or “That’s how it’s always been.”
But—and forgive me if this is naive—when was the last time race organizers really tried to incorporate prize money? When was the last time they tried to allocate a few hundred dollars of race fees to go back to the racers? When was the last time they approached a local business about helping with prize money? When was the last time they approached a major ski brand about helping with prize money?
Hosting ski races is hard and expensive. I get that. And I get that NCAA athletes can’t accept money, and how there are other nitty-gritty roadblocks in certain situations. But normalizing prize money for ski races at large—especially for higher-level races—is 100% possible. Just look at other sports in the outdoor industry: freestyle skiing; freestyle snowboarding; skateboarding; surfing. For them, prize money is not only normal, but expected. If there’s not cash up for grabs, athletes have very little incentive to even show up.
Honing in on just one of those sports, I touched base with Jesse Mallis, who’s head freestyle skiing coach at Stratton Mountain School. He explained that his high school athletes can win $2,000 in a local rail jam and, when they travel to bigger events like the Aspen Open, they’re looking at $5,000 for first place. At the very least, lower-level events award hundreds of dollars to those standing on the podium.
Meanwhile, let’s not ignore what’s happening closer to home on the World Pro Ski Tour. Winners are seeing $10,000 per stop. $10,000. How? Sponsors. The WPST organizers spend a massive chunk of their time finding companies to contribute prize money. Of course, these athletes are skiing at a World Cup level—even Ted Ligety is putting his hat in the ring lately—but who’s to say this model can’t be replicated on a smaller scale for other races?
I don’t know what ski racing would look like if money was on the table. Maybe the talented kids who can’t afford the sport would be able to stick with it if they brought home a check every weekend. Maybe the skiers unsure about their ambitions would push a little harder knowing there’s something to win other than pride.
Maybe everyone would be a little faster than usual because, while money isn’t everything, it’s definitely something.