Now that the summer heat is high and the dog days of August approach, it might seem time to head to the beach or a high mountain lake. That would be a good thing to do, but for members of the FIS it should also be time to reflect on the call to action given by several key committees at the annual FIS Congress.
This year, FIS members met in Varna, Bulgaria, whose throbbing Tiki bars on the beaches of the Black Sea, pounding tunes 24/7, made for an unlikely location to call for a serious new direction in snowsports.
But three weighty committees agreed: we must change the alpine World Cup in order to reverse its protracted decline as a viable television and fan entity.
TV ratings are down, way down, reported the FIS marketing committee. The only people watching televised sports are in the 50-plus demographic. Teens and millennials are barely tuning in. But of greater concern to the FIS more concerning is where people are watching. Germany, Switzerland and Austria comprise 75 percent of the alpine World Cup’s global TV viewership.
Looking a bit deeper, that concentration is even more worrisome. If every set in Switzerland and Austria were to be tuned into skiing (and they are not), the sport would be reaching 14 million. If 10 percent of the German audience tunes out, the FIS has real troubles. But the recent figures indicate the FIS broadcasts are digging a deeper hole — off 22 percent. The 90-million German market is the platinum nugget for the FIS television, but the patina is dulling and there seems to be no polish in sight.
Fortunately, at the congress in Barcelona a year ago, the FIS named Sweden’s Secretary General, Niklas Carlsson, to chair the alpine World Cup Committee. He is a relative youngster for the FIS to put in a position of note, a forward thinker with a diplomatic flair. Carlsson opened his first full meeting with a reference to the cocktail napkin in a Portill0, Chile, bar full of jotted down thoughts that became the World Cup, courtesy of Serge Lang, Bob Beattie, and France’s Honore Bonnet.
“We are all here because we love the World Cup, and it is hard to change something you love,” Carlsson said. “We need to encourage new ideas, new things.” He added that the circuit is in a “mid-life crisis.”
To long-time observers, the words were startling. After all, the World Cup had been chaired by Erich Demetz, who used the rule of “no”: no change, nothing new, not ever. Any minor step and some major, like prize money, occasionally rattled down at tortoise speed from on high, the FIS Council. But for 20 years, not a single transformational thought went up to the council.
In an invigorating but tempered message, Carlsson asked members to put on their thinking caps during the summer — What might be done to revive the World Cup? He scheduled an open discussion forum to be convened at the annual fall meeting in Zurich.
What a difference a generation makes.
Switzerland’s Bernhard Russi, as the chair of the very powerful alpine executive committee (AEC), echoed Carlsson’s thoughts. Only the FIS Council can be absolute, but the AEC can come pretty close. Russi noted that the sport needs change, though he declined to define what that might be. Somewhat less energizing than Carlsson (he is Swiss, after all), Russi allowed that change means sacrifice and that it was time to “row the boat a little bit faster.”
As an aside, the IOC provided some change in naming the Nations Team Event as a medal sport. FIS President Gian Franco Kasper has been the strongest advocate for team events during the past decade, but he has received push back, primarily from the working group of World Cup coaches for whom change is pretty much an anathema.
Thoughts of evolution, not revolution, came through loud and clear from the various committees. It is an opportunity for all FIS members to use the next few months considering an energizing new direction for the FIS and the alpine World Cup. No one, particularly Carlsson, thinks change will be easy, but it must be more than a discussion. So to those of you involved, please take the time think while you are dipping your toes in the sand or angling in some glacial water.