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The most important race in Michigan?

Tue, Jan  19, 2010 - By Ken Roth

Here’s a tricky question.  What’s the most important cross country ski race in Michigan?  You get three guesses.

Did you guess the Vasa?  That’s a good guess.  With its long colorful history and dedicated trail the Vasa should be the answer, right?  Strike one.

Was your next guess the White Pine. Excellent choice.  With it’s unrivaled reputation for fun, and its status as Michigan’s oldest point to point course, that has to be the answer.  Wrong.  Strike two.

Even though you’re down in the count 0-2, you probably think you’ve got me in the corner now.  It has to be the Noque.  With it’s magnificent 50k course, national caliber competition and huge turnout, that has to be the winner, right? 

Take a seat on the bench next to Brandon Inge, because you just struck out swinging.

The most important race for Nordic skiing in Michigan; drum roll please… was held January 16th, the REI Frosty Freestyle, at Huron Meadows Metropark. 

Now before you think I’ve been inhaling too many fumes from the hot box hear, me out.  Because, the answer is all about the numbers, and it’s hard to ignore numbers.  You can close your eyes and pout like an 8 year old, but at the end of the day the numbers tell the story, and here are a few of them.

Skiing in Michigan is getting progressively older and slower.  Sorry, but it’s true.  What’s the largest age group in Michigan Cup races over the last couple of years?  Based on the most recent Michigan Cup results, the largest number of male participants are overwhelmingly in the 50-59 age group, second place; 40-49.  The number of men versus women participating is about 2 to 1.  These are not encouraging numbers.

You don’t hear much discussion in the great Leno v. O’Brien late night television debate about going after the coveted 55-60 year old demographic. And, even though it’s nice to get that A.A.R.P. discount on hotels in Grayling, it’s not a formula to insure the strength of skiing. So the first thing to remember is that our sport is graying at an alarming rate.  

Here’s another other important number. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, the participation rate for Americans in 2008 for Cross Country skiing was 1.6%.  That compares to 6.5% percent for downhill skiing, 10.2% for off road mountain biking, and 49.5% for bowling. 

If those numbers make you feel sad, they should.  We are getting our butts kicked by cheerleading; participation rate of 2.9%! 

You think that retail sales aren’t a good measure of participation rates.  Let’s say they’re off by a factor of 100%, then our participation rate is 3.2%.   That means we’re about dead even with muzzle loading; 3.4%.  However, I’ll follow the money and stick with the 1.6% number as a starting point.  By the way, if we lived in the U.K., “cue sports” would be crushing us, with its 17% participation rate.

The participation number explains a lot.  It explains why you get funny looks from your co-workers when you tell them how you spent your weekend.  It explains why Nordic skiing often gets the short straw when it comes to State spending.  It also explains why the Frosty is the most important ski race in the state. 

If Nordic skiing is to continue its viability as a competitive sport for the Michigan Cup, and if it is to continue as a viable form of recreation with access to good venues, we need to have more people, and younger people participating. 

As the economic downward spiral in Michigan continues, and services and programs compete for scarce dollars, it is critical to our sport that our participation numbers go up, and that we bring young people in.

If Michigan’s participation rate is average, and given it’s lard ass reputation, it’s hard to believe that it is, but if it is average, that means that in Michigan there were about 160,000 people who skied a minimum of one time last year.  If our reputation for lethargy is correct, and we are about half the national average, then we had about 80,000 one time skiers. Given that the top five participation sports in Michigan are Power Boating, Volley ball, canoeing, bicycle riding, and bowling, I think there’s a good argument to be made that we’re closer to the 80,000 number.

By comparison, snowmobiling is a $27 billion industry nationwide, and is credited with generating 85,000 jobs in the U.S.  Snowmobile participation rates nationwide are about 8%. Once again, using our Michigan yardstick, I am quite comfortable rounding that  up to 10%.  Either way, snowmobiling represents about 800,00 to a million participants in Michigan.  Next time you wonder why snowmobile trails get so much maintenance, and special concrete skids are poured on highways to accommodate snowmobile crossings, that should answer your question.

According to SEMCOG (Southeastern Michigan Council of Government) the July 2009, population for Southeastern Michigan was about 4.8 million.  If those people are average, that means about 76,800 of them skied once last winter.  If we can move the average number of skiers in Southeastern Michigan to 3.2%, that means about an additional 76,800 skiers for the state.  That may not seem like a lot, but, it’s almost double the number we already have.  Imagine the impact that would have on participation and retail sales state wide.  Do you think that would make it a little easier to fill the pipe at the Vasa trail head?

More importantly, when bureaucrats are setting their spending priorities, they tend to listen to the squeaky wheel.  Another 76,000 skiers sure could make a lot more noise.

That brings me to the Frosty Freestyle.  Since Southeastern Michigan has so much of the State’s population, it only makes sense that if you want to increase skier rates, you go to where the people are.  I’m not suggesting that 76,000 people are going to ski the Frosty. But, it certainly isn’t beyond imagination that the number could reach 1,000 people.  The domino effect that level of participation would have state wide could be huge. It could add tens of thousands of additional skiers annually.

Anecdotally, the 5K Frosty was won by a 14 year old boy.  You don’t think that kid’s going to be asking his parents for a new set of skis and few more trips up North?

Alexey Vermeulen, winner of the Frosty Freestyle 5K cross country ski race

Alexey Vermeulen, winner of the Frosty Freestyle 5K cross country ski race

If you’re thinking that  you don’t like to race, or you like to have the trails to your self, or if you live North of West Branch and aren’t too concerned about trails access, let me ask you this?  How do you like the condition of your DNR groomed trails this year? How’s the snow plowing on that DNR maintained trail head parking lot? How confident are you that your favorite trail will still be accessible for only non motorized traffic  next year?  If you’ve been following the trends in trail maintenance statewide this year, you should be afraid; yes very afraid.

One quick way to fix  skiing’s low numbers is for a race in a large metropolitan area to attract a lot of attention.  Attention brings people, and people bring power.  What would happen if a local celebrity skied the Frosty next year and it was on the 6:00 news. Anyone have Jeff Daniels’ phone number handy? Remember what happened when Oprah ran the New York City Marathon?  Running became hot again.

The bottom line is that for our sport to thrive, we need more women and younger people.  Attracting people  in large metropolitan areas to ski is the easiest way to do that.  If the Frosty developed into a large race attracting several thousand people, imagine what it would do to benefit skiing state wide.

Don’t think it can happen -- remind me -- how many people skied the first Birkie?  Oh yeah, 35.  We’ve got that beat  already!