Lindsey Vonn returned home to Utah this spring with about as much fanfare as the return of a Monarch butterfly to the mountains near her home in Park City. The world’s best woman skier, winner of this year’s World Cup and the darling of sport fanatics in Europe, found anonymity at home. Snowsports competitors are far from household names here in the land of baseball, football and basketball.
But skiers and snowboarders who win gold in the Winter Olympics, or fail to, become famous overnight. That’s because both the Winter and Summer Games command television audiences the size of professional football, and these Olympic audiences are more diverse and affluent. They are nearly as passionate as NASCAR fans, and more passionate than the followers of college sports and the NBA.
Indeed, while Vonn and Bode Miller received little notice for winning World Cup prizes last winter, Vonn is most remembered (under a different name) for falling during a practice run and her miraculous recovery at the Turin Olympics, and Miller for turning up but failing to deliver.
In short: the Winter Olympics commands a large and engaged audience. This audience is primed to go ski or ride or, even more importantly, learn these sports. To put it in a marketing perspective, the Winter Games generates far more interest and enthusiasm than, say, the “Got Milk?” campaign ever will. The simple task for winter sports is to tap this interest.
Make no mistake: nothing holds a torch to the Winter Olympics when it comes to television viewing. Based on a 2007 national poll that asked what sports and sporting events Americans watch on television, 62 percent of American households said they watched the Winter Olympics, compared to 61 percent who watched the National Football League and 59 percent who watched the Summer Games. In contrast, the Winter X games drew close to the bottom of the list in viewership, where tennis, the NHL and Indy car racing hang out.
(Yes, the X Games draws a sizable audience of younger viewers and offers a good chance to tap new customers as well. But let’s focus on the Olympics for the moment, since it’s a bigger opportunity and it comes along only once every four years.)
The Winter Olympic stats are even more impressive because they show viewing by gender as 51 percent female and 49 percent male. The Winter Games have previously received a bad rap from the ski establishment because they are thought to have a disproportionate number of woman viewers. But there are plenty of men watching, and in a world where Title IX and the wide gains in participation of women in all skiing disciplines have changed the consumer demographics on the slopes, the female audience isn’t such a bad thing, either.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
In the months prior to the last Olympics in North America (2002 in Salt Lake), Leisure Trends Group teamed with The Gallup Organization to quantify interest in the Olympics among skiers and snowboarders. Our goal was to identify ways to increase the baseline of participants and therefore fill the pipeline which then, as now, had some sizable leaks.
The percentage of Americans who identified themselves as skiers and snowboarders and who watched the Olympics in 2002 was staggering: 92 percent watched, and 96 percent of those said they enjoyed the events. As one might suspect, the demographics were appealing: high income and skewed slightly older (84 percent were 35 and over).
But the real question was whether or not watching the Olympic competitors over relatively short periods of time stimulated enough interest among non-participants to make them want to try any of the sports, the way Red Lobster ads whet appetites for shrimp and crab. The answer was a resounding affirmative, with great interest in trying skiing (especially those age 25 and over) and snowboarding (16 to 24). The impressive numbers netted down to about 8.3 million Americans—out of the 22.5 million who were either interested or very interested in trying one or both of the sports.
We have learned to be careful with the larger numbers for a variety of reasons, all of which have to do with the frailty of the human mind and its inability to stay connected to reality. The best example of this is when we asked a group of potential scuba divers why they had not tried the sport yet, and many answered they “could not swim” or were “afraid of water.” The 8.3 million figure excludes those types of potentials.
What was appealing about the potential group was its ethnic diversity. A surprising 32 percent of Hispanic viewers, 24 percent of Afro-Americans and 57 percent of Asian Americans expressed a keen interest in one or more of the Olympic downhill sports. In contrast, the percentage of Caucasians was a disappointing 17 percent (though still the largest in total numbers).
Potentials had a tendency to be under age 24 or 55 plus, indicating an awareness that to learn and practice the sports would take time—and those two age segments tend to have the time available to take up a sport. When asked to list what had prevented them from trying skiing, “no time” was mentioned by one in five, and was the second most-mentioned.
Other obstacles included access (22 percent mentioned there were no nearby resorts) and cost (16 percent), and 8 percent said travel could present a problem.
But these are the same reasons (access, time available, cost) that committed participants give for not skiing more often or for why they have quit. Nothing new here! Many of these obstacles can be overcome with information and an invitation. Now that you know what’s stopping would-be skiers and riders from starting our sports, you can make the process easier for them.
THREE OBSTACLES . . .
What would get these potentials on the slopes to give the sports a try? Surprisingly, the answers had little to do with the mentioned obstacles, except for cost.
There were three main obstacles. The first was awareness, or lack of it—what do I have to do to try the sports? Of all potentials, only 11 percent were aware that there might be a ski club near their home, and only 39 percent were aware there was such a thing as stores that sell the equipment and clothing needed to ski and ride.
The second was a lack of basic information: what is the right equipment (including clothing), and how do I learn about it, how do I get to a ski area—and, very important, will the ski area have the right terrain for me? How much does all of this stuff cost?
The third aspect was social: can I get my friends to do it, how come I have never been invited, and “hey, I would give it a shot if someone asked me to go skiing.” Put the invitation to ride or ski in the form of a vacation, and 70 percent of the potentials said they would seriously consider taking the invitee up on it.
What is clear is that the downhill ski and snowboard industry has an opportunity once every four years to connect to a huge audience of Olympics viewers.
In 2010, the industry has an additional advantage: the games will be held in a time zone when most North Americans are awake. Many of the ski and snowboard events will be televised live in afternoon weekend prime time and therefore, in an age of instant information, viewers will see more events live.
. . . AND THREE SOLUTIONS
What should the industry do? What does any red-blooded American boy do when he sees a beautiful prize who seems interested, a little shy and looking for someone to help? He figures out how to come to her aid.
The aid is in the form of answers to three very simple questions.
1. What do I have to do to try? How about going to a special ski and snowboard info website? While no snow sport company can afford 30 seconds of television time, an Olympic sponsor like Visa would have a lot to gain, at very little cost, to send viewers to websites that answer question number one.
2. How do I get smarter about equipment (“yes, you can rent”), apparel (“parkas keep you both warm and dry”) and learning (“ski resorts have the right terrain and instructors that make learning easy”)? Cost, compared to fun, for post-Olympic specials offered mid-week is less than Hawaii and about the same as Disney World. Websites and sport shops can help spread the word.
3. Can I bring my friends? Yes, and make new ones, too. The social aspects of skiing run from sharing experiences with others in your lesson classes to rumbas’ at after-ski parties and your choice of fireside restaurants or cheese fondue American-style.
The answers may seem rudimentary to aficionados, but must be made clear to get neophytes to try.
Remember, technology has changed dramatically since 2002, or even 2006. With the right connections, with the right signage, with the right cooperation from Olympic sponsors as well as the U.S. Ski Team, the industry will have the interest of 23 million potential skiers and riders and a committed interest from 8.3 million, nearly all of whom can be reached through the Internet.
The message cannot be empty. It must answer the questions and provide options to purchase that are attractive and doable during and in the weeks after the Olympics, and even into 2010-11.
Opportunity knocks once every four years. In 2010, the knocking is especially loud. And when you look at the numbers, you simply have to answer the call.