SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - After its meteoric rise in the 1990s, snowboarding in the U.S. has leveled off dramatically in the past decade, according to a study published in the National Ski Areas Association Journal.
The number of active riders plummeted to 2.1 million last season --the lowest participation base since 2002. The study, conducted by consulting firm RRC Associates, found that snowboarders accounted for about 25 percent of the snow sports enthusiasts in 2012, a number almost unchanged since 2005.
"The numbers suggest that the industry is approaching a tipping point for snowboarding that will represent a significant challenge for snow sports; in addition, they also suggest that a path forward will require more than just passive acceptance," RRC Associates Director Nate Fristoe wrote.
Stuart Maas, director of sales, marketing and information technology at the Powder House, said he's noticed a drop in snowboard rentals over the past few years. While the South Lake Tahoe ski and snowboard rental shop recorded record-breaking days in December and snow sports participation still seems to be increasing, snowboard sales have shrunk, Maas said.
"We did see exponential growth and thought that that would continue. But it seems to have plateaued. There was a lot of hype and a lot of people got on the band wagon, but now they remember how fun skiing can be," he said.
Maas is one of the winter recreationists who's reverted from snowboarding back to mostly skiing, a switch he attributes to a desire to keep challenging himself on the slopes. Plus it's just easier to navigate flatter terrain with two boards and a pair of poles.
Though he runs a specialty snowboard shop, Shoreline of Tahoe's Operations Manager Ryan Parker plans to teach his 1-year-old son to ski before strapping him into a snowboard. Skiing gives young athletes a unique background in edging and balance, he said. Like Maas, Parker also mentioned skiers' ability to access more of the mountain.
"I feel like the industries play off each other pretty well. A lot of the younger generation gravitated toward snowboarding because it was so new, but now freestyle skiing has made a resurgence," he said.
Parker said he hasn't noticed any ill effects to the business from snowboarding's drop. Sales are still tied more closely to the state of the economy and snow conditions, he said.
The NSAA study warns if resorts and businesses want to keep snowboarding off life support, they'll need to draw younger riders and more women to the sport.
Many of the groms who started riding in the 1990s are approaching 30 years old, and the average snowboarder is "entering important family and career-building years," the study read. Almost 38 percent of riders last season indicated they were part of a couple or had children, as opposed to 23 percent a decade ago.
The study found that the sport is also skewed gender-wise. Over the past 15 seasons, men have made up about 70 percent of domestic snowboarding visits. Fristoe writes that the snow sports industry should reconsider teaching techniques to make up for that gap.
"Snowboarding's stall is a very real phenomena, and while some might argue that its effects are regional in nature or don't directly impact their individual operations, the entire industry will suffer if the issue is ignored," the study read.