Thanks to Lance Armstrong's remarkably close Tour de France victory and the nearly nonstop broadcasts available on the Outdoor Life Network, cycling shone brightly in America last summer. At the height of the three-week race, OLN generated some of the highest ratings in its nine-year history. We aren't begrudging cycling its long-awaited recognition, but with Americans tearing up nearly every genre of skiing, what's it going to take for competitive skiers to finally enjoy the same mainstream breakout?
"Whether you're talking about rodeo or bungee jumping, says U.S. Ski Team coach Phil McNichol, "people follow great competitors. If they hear that some kid from New Hampshire is dominating, then they'll take more interest in skiing.
Fair enough, but the U.S. Alpine Team had 14 top-three finishes last year, producing one of its most successful seasons in decades, and when Park City hosts the FIS World Cup this month, the home team will boast seven skiers with legitimate podium chances. Beyond the alpine crew, Jeremy Bloom and Travis Mayer have given name recognition to one of the strongest mogul teams in history, and new schooler Tanner Hall is dominating slopestyle events. The biggest potential breakthrough by a skier into prime time, however, comes out of left field: At press time, big mountain skier Jeremy Nobis was in negotiations with NBC for a reality television series titled The Extremists.
All of which would seem to indicate that a single year of success doesn't guarantee a surge in popularity. "It's probably not going to happen in one season, admits McNichol. "In order to break out, Bode or someone else would have to win multiple years in a row—like Lance.
Ultimately, however, everything hinges on the bottom line. To date, competitive skiing hasn't proven to be a strong ratings generator. Regular-season NFL games consistently garner 6.0 to 9.0 ratings, and last year, the Super Bowl received a 40.7 rating, representing 137 million viewers. By comparison, NBC's coverage of last February's World Alpine Championships—when Bode Miller took home a gold—received an anemic 1.7 rating, equaling roughly a million viewers. These numbers mean that there may in fact be fewer chances to watch skiing on TV this winter. NBC will televise eight World Cup events again this year, but at press time its Winter Gravity Games were on hold, possibly till 2005. Meanwhile OLN, which televised 11 World Cup events the previous season, was still deciding what its skiing coverage would look like. There was speculation that the network might reduce coverage.
For Americans to really embrace skiing as entertainment, says Bode Miller, it's going to require a better way—helmet cams, anyone?—to package the adrenaline of the sport. "We need somebody to televise skiing in an exciting way, he says. "Like Monday Night Football. Think about it. Monday Night Skiing—but we could do without Hank Williams, Jr.