Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles Ski Racing Media will publish on the rising cost of alpine ski racing and the lack of fundamental skill development in the U.S. We plan to revisit this topic frequently in our news coverage, editorials, and educational pieces. To open the discussion, we’ve tapped former U.S. Ski team member, NBC alpine analyst, and ski racing parent Steve Porino.
It is not news that alpine ski racing is expensive. But the skyrocketing cost over the last decade is similar to what has happened with college tuition. It has gone from expensive to astronomical, and no one really understands why or whether there has been any value added during that time. We complain, but for the most part, we suck it up and fall in step — or drop out.
Let me put a fine point on what I mean by astronomical: $500,000.
That number comes right out of a recent study by U.S. Ski & Snowboard that surveyed clubs across the country. It concluded that the total gross cost for a junior ski racing career up through the high school level could total more than half a million dollars for those in the elite programs. And there are many in private scenarios spending far more.
When I graduated from Burke Mountain Academy in 1984, the cost adjusted for inflation was $29,000 in today’s dollars. Equipment was cheap or free. There certainly were no elaborate tuning programs to sign up for, and we didn’t travel for fall or summer training with the regularity elite programs do today. Otherwise (and I have to estimate here) we probably spent another $10,000 for equipment, camps, and races. So, under $40,000 (again, adjusted for inflation) was the absolute most expensive way to ski race at that time — and that included a private-school education. Cost of racing at my club, Wilmot, in the Chicago area, was a tiny fraction of that.
Fair to say the cost has more than doubled since then, and mostly in the last decade. And while, yes, I raced in a different time, and the sport has evolved and become more resource-rich, I can assure you that this escalation in cost has not led to increased performance relative to other countries. Our international junior results over the last decade are unremarkable compared to previous generations. So it appears, much like colleges and universities around the country, there has been no value added with the increased cost of our sport.
No doubt, the U.S. leads the charge on increased cost of ski racing, but we are not alone.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Didier Plaschy, a fellow commentator and former Swiss champion who won a couple World Cup slalom races back in the late 90s. He is the co-CEO (what we would call regional director) of the Valais region in Switzerland, where he’s known as maverick and for disrupting convention. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that his fingerprints are prominent on today’s Swiss slalom team, which leads the World Cup in team slalom standings. Most of those racers are from Valais.
Plaschy coached and continues his relationship with Ramon Zenhuesern and Daniel Yule, who just broke the Swiss record of two World Cup slalom wins, which was previously shared by Plaschy himself. That is to say, the Swiss have never been very good at slalom. But Plaschy has been on a mission. First, to elevate Swiss slalom skiing, but also to alleviate the escalating cost of racing in his country — a country most Americans think of as being flush with support, both cultural and financial. Yet the rising cost of ski racing in Switzerland is becoming more of a problem.
Our conversation covered cost for developing athletes, patience, elimination of incessant and expensive glacier training, as well as the reduction of race travel in lieu of living with family and keeping a roof overhead. Plaschy holds unconventional views when it comes to dryland training and mock-skiing methods, which he used in developing his now-star racers.
If Plaschy had his way, it would be forbidden for U16 racers to ski past early May when the snow melts out on the home area, and they wouldn’t start until it covered those same trails in fall. All in, he says it costs what amounts to $38 per day to ski at home and $230 per day to ski on the glacier, away from home. A full winter season, fully optimized, is enough, he says. Otherwise, he believes we are “killing their spirit.” Add to that the aggressive nature of modern equipment and uninterrupted skiing, which is harming their immature bodies and not allowing time for fitness, rest, and life.
Plaschy has made a small cartoon with a skier inside a perfect triangle. In each corner it reads, “Family/Social Network,” “School,” and “Sport.” Keep the triangle tight, he says, or we hijack their life, and the wealthy, unwittingly, hijack the sport.
It does to me, and it jibes very much with the issues I see around the U.S. today. Are we as a nation optimizing the snow at our feet, or just doing like the Joneses and indiscriminately sending our kids to New Zealand, Europe, South America, and expensive camps in the Rockies? Then, come winter, sending them to so many races that they’re never actually getting any training rhythm or adequate skill development, while also living a semi-normal life at home?
I don’t know a single coach who believes that a racer can fundamentally improve his or her skiing by racing. While competition is an essential part of training for endurance sports, such as cycling or team sports, to feel an adversary — in alpine skiing, it is a day of training lost. A couple warm-up runs, two race runs, and you’re done. At the FIS level, that privilege costs about $300 to $400 per day.
Another recent study by a USST working group called “Health of Sport” showed the most recent crop of national team athletes averaged 45 races for women and 53 races for men in the year prior to their nomination. Both numbers skew higher than Europeans who have reached that level or better, and no doubt, the Euros travel less to get to those races. For Americans, you can conservatively add another 15 or 20 days of travel, which gets you close to 70 total. An average ski area with robust snowmaking might offer 140 days per season. If you never rested a day or weren’t blown out by weather, that’s 70 days left. If you’re of the mind that “more is more” when it comes to racing, just know this leaves about 40 to 50 training opportunities in-season. Although the number of starts is lower at younger ages, are we paying close attention to practice and play versus racing? Or are we just paying without thinking?
I hesitate to use Mikaela Shiffrin as a development model since she is such an anomaly, but one of her least-touted records is that of restraint. In her early teens, she raced just north of a dozen races per year. Otherwise she practiced. She’s never raced more than 30 starts. She started 26 World Cup races last year, and only a few skiers tallied more at 27. In this case, we’re talking about creating stars, but equally important is creating a sustainable future for our sport.
It’s simply untenable to keep U.S. ski racing alive and well at $80,000 per year, or half that.
Sadly, the system often rewards our poor choices. To use a baseball analogy, our point system rewards only home runs. Moreover, our rank is based on our two longest home runs. So those with unlimited funds can travel the country to seek a stadium with a tailwind and an easy pitcher. And then, in ski racing, we treat those two homers like RBI.
Our calendar rewards those who either live near or can access early season snow. If you run races in December, a skier with, say, six weeks of training will beat a better skier with only one week of training pretty much every time. But put them up against each other in January, and the playing field levels. Better yet, put them on equal footing in spring.
The problem is the December-ready skier will have a start-position advantage going forward. The vast majority of coaches I speak with, particularly at the U16-and-younger level, do not favor these early season races. However, there is always one voice that says, “But I need to see where my team’s pace is stacking up.” Either that or the race is on his home hill, and so this ill-fated trend continues.
Early season races force skiers from the Midwest — and, to a degree, the East, Far West and Northwest — to chase snow at distant locations so they can be ready in December. Come late April and May, when disparities in training are mitigated, weather is reliable, snow available, and many resorts are begging for business, we’re all cooked. Instead of racing in the spring, we choose to pay through the nose to chase increasingly rare snow around the globe in the fall only to squander these reliable and inexpensive opportunities in the spring so that we can be ready to race in December.
I once called this type of behavior “financial doping,” and it obviously stuck because the term has come back to me. Perhaps a bit harsh, but it clearly got some attention. Those who have the money can find training whenever and however to optimize this schedule and chase down ideal races, or more races.
In the short run, those kids come out on top domestically. In the long run, there’s little evidence to suggest our system is bearing fruit internationally, which should be the litmus. We are average at best and not better than generations past. But clubs measure themselves by the domestic yardsticks, and so begins the arms race. Program directors and coaches feel pressured to abandon best practices for long-term success in lieu of immediate gratification for parents paying big bucks. The higher the price, the greater the pressure for an ROI.
Real financial doping comes in the form of goods and services that actually buy faster times. Hi-fluoro wax and the 12-ski quiver with a $5,000 technician to optimize their setup. Believe me, no one likes geeking out in the backshop with the technicians more than me, but it would be great to save this for international competition, rather than using it to ostensibly beat the have-nots out of the sport.
I don’t like the trend. I’m told the genie is out of the bottle on some of this stuff. But, what can we control? I hardly have all the answers, but I do have a wishlist:
No U16-or-younger races in December. If you want to measure pace, arrange for clubs to get together for timed training sessions, and train with a clock. No USSA fees, no medals, no fluoros, no points. Have a good time and make lots of runs. Do the same with speed events to maximize the ever-decreasing number of venues willing to hold them. Speed points and rank at the junior level are not predictive of future success unless coupled with equally good results in technical disciplines.
Can clubs do a better job at sharing resources, rather than competing for them? Some have great fall training. Others have great spring training. How can we better coordinate? Some clubs do this already.
Limit start days and maximize starts per day. When it’s possible to run two races a day, do so. How often have we seen a venue run two starts in a day because the weather is coming in? It should be common practice. It will lower the cost, provide a practice-like volume, and leave more days open on the calendar for training, family, and school. And it will keep kids out of the lodge.
Final wish. To all the coaches who are doing the work, who know more than I do and have influenced my opinions on these issues: Please speak up and continue to add to this list. Sadly, this escalating cost has caused more and more coaches to opt out of ski racing for their own kids. And they know better than anyone where we are headed.