When listening for ski coverage on television or radio, you need only keep your ears tuned for one sentence. It comes sometime after the meat of the program, once the sportscasters have gone over endless pro team scores, news and trades, college stats, player interviews and even the high school wrap-up. Finally, the anchor will straighten up in his chair and pause as the camera angle shifts. Then you'll hear the key phrase: "And elsewhere in sports..."
That's the signal that maybe, just maybe, there will be some skiing coverage. Even if there is a World Cup in the States, even if an American wins, even if nothing better happened that day except a battle of the network stars, you will hear nothing about skiing until that phrase is uttered.
Skiing fans have accepted it, but we still have trouble understanding it. Skiing is exciting, healthy, fresh and fun. Sure, it's also incredibly expensive. Short of sending every kid in the U.S. to Austria, where they'd have a poma in the backyard, it would be tough to get around the non-participation issue. But that still doesn't explain the lack of viewership problem, because the typical major league football, baseball and hockey viewers are not participants either. They are Sunday sofa surfers. And the ratings-hog Olympic sports¿figure skating and gymnastics¿offer a purely voyeuristic experience. Few can imagine making those moves, let alone fitting into the sequined outfits.
Skiing is not an obscure or non-athletic sport. It is known by nearly everyone and most people understand its inherent skill and daring. But when it comes to watching and listening, even skiers don't follow skiing (either because they're not interested or because they can't find it).
Viewer interest and coverage is a chicken and egg relationship, where each facilitates the other. Historically, only the Olympics are a compelling enough reason to give skiing ample mainstream coverage. As a result, it has been up to the Olympic broadcasters to package the sport for a general audience. To raise the interest level, CBS pioneered some new production techniques leading up to the 1994 Olympics, such as the lipstick camera at snow-level to capture speed, and the motion cam that follows skiers down the hill. Those developments, while interesting, did not on their own sell the sport.
"Ultimately, we need heroes," explains U.S. Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelly. Hero worship is already helping freestyle skiing. The mere presence of Jonny Moseley boosted two freestyle events¿the Sprint Bumps and Jumps and the Jonny Moseley Big Air Invitational¿from cable to network TV, a huge leap for the sport.
Kelly is optimistic that NBC, the network of the next five Olympics through 2008, will help breathe new life into all ski coverage. "Having done nothing with the network previously, we met with them immediately after Nagano and already our relationship with NBC is much more closely involved than it ever was with CBS," Kelly says. What that hopefully means is ramped-up coverage leading into the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Sam Flood, NBC's producer for ski coverage, recognizes there has always been interest in skiing from the hard-core skiers. "The key for us is in growing that interest to a broader audience," says Flood, who also produces track and field for NBC. "In the Olympics, track and field is much like skiing in the winter¿the centerpiece sport, the core of the Games," explains Flood. "The 100-meter champion is like the men's downhill champion." But track and field and skiing have another thing in common. They are upstaged in ratings by gymnastics and skating, respectively, where viewers become engaged in the story behind the performers. "We have to give people a reason to care, to be for and against people," says Flood.
To do that, the network is not developing new technical devices, but instead concentrating on good storytelling. But fear not¿that doesn't mean exhausttive profiles in place of race coverage. No offense to certain Swiss downhillers, but viewers want more action and less intimate moments with some racer guy picking mushrooms in Adelboden. Instead, the stories will be interwoven throughout the action, during slow parts of the run, before the action starts. "That's where to tell the story, to give people information on the person that is surprising and compelling. You have to get personal," says Flood. That's where the heroes come in, with the power to let their stories generate interest in the entire sport. Look no further than baseball to see how a couple of players and their home run chase revived a sport. NBC isn't in this alone. Perhaps the biggest boost for skiing has been in having three consecutive pre-Christmas weekends of racing in North America in recent years, which puts skiing in the spotlight at home. U.S. Skiing fights a constant battle with the Europeans to retain those races, and it has the ammunition of a high success rate on its side. Since 1991, the U.S. has run all 39 of its scheduled starts, while the rest of the world had a 40 percent failure rate.
Even when the show moves to Europe, it's not as if ski fans are completely abandoned. The Outdoor Life Network has broadcast a full World Cup schedule for the past three seasons. This year's World Alpine Championships in Vail, Colo., were expected to garner over 20 hours of network coverage between ESPN and NBC, by far the most significant coverage of a World Championships.
So if it's skiing you want, you will get more (or at least better) coverage. Will it ever have a major league audience? No way in hell, to put it straight, but that's not all bad. Part of the reason you don't hear more about skiers is that they're not getting arrested, beating each other up, going in to rehab or holding out for higher paychecks. They're just doing their thing...elsewhere in sports.
Edie Thys can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; check out her previous columns at www.skimag.com.