The prestigious Switzerland-based Nissan Freeride World Tour recently announced that it was creating a separate men’s and women’s freeride tour. Entering its 4th season, the Nissan FWT has been the most well-publicized and well-funded series of big mountain extreme skiing and snowboarding competitions in its short tenure.
What the tour didn’t say in its one off-handed sentence on the subject in its latest press release, was that the female athletes are being dropped from the professional tour altogether. In emails to the women, the invite-only tour cited a lack of competitors and that the women were lagging behind the men in ability, line choices, and media attention.
Previously, riders who made the cut were treated to star media coverage and promotion, and descended some of the ski world’s most intense faces on a one-run, visual inspection basis, under cameras hovering in helicopters above. The prize money was higher than most other ski competitions, and the athletes’ accommodation and pass expenses were covered by the tour.
Jess McMIllan, skiing in FWT competition at Sochi, Russia. Courtesy McMillan
Yet this season, instead of traveling around to the five venues in Europe, Russia, and North America, the women will be expected to compete in a slew of 14 qualifying events (mostly in Europe), on their own dime, for little to no media coverage or prize money. The 5-8 top points scorers from this will be invited to the final event of the pro tour for men, the Nissan Xtreme by Swatch at Verbier.
Nissan FWT Nicholas Hale-Woods organizer stated in an email to the athletes, “We understand some of you may see this set-up as a "regression" for Women Freeriding. We firmly believe the contrary for different reasons.”
The Nissan FWT also stated that it was still the “premiere Tour” for women, but compared now to the US-based Subaru Freeskiing World Tour, its' support for the women’s effort rings hollow. “What they are putting out in the media is not true or positive; we see through it,” said 2009 Nissan FWT champion Elyse Saugstad. “If they were creating a separate pro tour for women that would be one thing-but this-you can’t say it any other way-is a demotion for women.”
David Carlier, a spokesman for the Nissan FWT stated in an email, “This move is not to demote women. The biggest issue is that these events are called qualifiers. But in fact they are World Tour for women.”
Athletes pointedly disagree. “Am I supposed to travel around the world now, going to these events, spending what-tens of thousands of dollars of my own money, more than you can ever win in Verbier?” asked skier and three-year veteran of the tour Jess McMillan. “What are you even qualifying for anymore? There is no pro tour. It is a huge blow to women’s snowsports. It’s really sad and frustrating.”
A 2010 Nissan FWT women's podium, receiving checks for putting it on the line. Courtesy McMillan
In response to the given reasoning, the women charge that they are not competing against the men,therefore their progress should be measured against their own benchmarks, and on an invite-only tour, the organization has the power to expand the number of competitors, and that they were not promoted at all to the media by the tour organizers.
The ski and snowboard industry was taken off guard by the announcement, made after pro tour schedules for 2011 had already been sent to both male and female competitors.
Beanie Milne Home, speaking as marketing director for Switzerland-based Faction Skis, which sponsors and markets to male and female freeskiers, agrees with the athletes. “Having women competing for a spot in one final event, in my opinion takes away from the top athletes, any media that there was will be reduced, as writing about the women's qualifying tour events will fall even lower on the priority list for many people. Alongside this, the cost of travelling and competing will be something that women have to face indefinitely with the new tour format. Women often have much smaller sponsorship pay, because they are unable to get as much exposure, and lower prize money, so competing becomes unsustainable for most female athletes, thereby reducing the field rather than increasing the field.”
The support that the tour gave to the sport of women’s big mountain skiing and competition was invaluable, in setting a standard, pushing the limits, and providing a platform for aspiring young female skiers, who will continue to push the envelope farther.
The women who have competed on the tour have sent a petition to the Nissan FWT organizers as well as the major sponsors, in an effort to turn the decision around. “This isn’t just bad for the women, it is bad for the tour and bad for the sports of skiing and snowboarding in general," said Saugstad.
In the meantime, in the ski industry, suspicions run high that it was a funding issue, and not the stated reasons for dropping the women. However, it is unclear whether the sponsors, many of whom invest a good deal of time and money in their female athletes, were a part of the tour’s sudden decision. As of this article, no one at title sponsor Nissan, presenting partner Swatch, or suppliers Scott or Dakine had responded to requests for comment.