The 2015 Winter X Games hit the ground running Wednesday night with the women's halfpipe finals. Due to the big exposure and prize money of this event, despite being in late January, it is the apex of the competition season. All of the gym time, airbags, disgusting gluten-free food, and scary first trick attempts since last April are geared toward this event.
Maddie Bowman, who earned the first ever Olympic Gold Medal in women's Superpipe at the Sochi games, was forced to sit out most of the training time leading up to this X Games due to microfracture surgery last April. Her first day on snow since her Gold Medal run was in November and she returned to competition at the Dew Tour. With the pressure of an Olympic Gold Medal now on her back, missing nearly all of her training time, and no new tricks in her bag, Maddie came into this competition season a little nervous about where she would end up on judges' sheets. That anxiousness resulted in her working harder than ever, skiing halfpipe and gyming nearly every day, all over the clamor of her body telling her to take a break.
Last Wednesday night, smiling through all the nerves and pressure as she always does, Maddie claimed her third straight X Games victory in difficult halfpipe conditions against the best skiers in the world. This victory, even considering all her other accolades, was the sweetest for her. Very few things are as satisfying for an athlete to overcome great adversity and doubt to reach great success. Unfortunately for Maddie, the next morning she logged on to Freeskier.com.
Freeskier is a publication and website largely devoted to covering the park skiing and freeskiing scene. It started around 1997 as XM (Extreme Moguls) Magazine by Bradford Fayfield, Chris Tamborini, and others, but as mogul skiing wasn't exactly ripe for huge advertisements and readership, the group picked up on the growing trend of park skiing and Freeskier Magazine was born in 1998. By doing so, they joined Powder and the two-year-old Freeze Magazine in the saturated, but growing market for the attention of young skiers.
From 1998 to 2005, Freeskier played mostly second fiddle to those two other media outlets. Freeze was an enormous presence in the young freeskiing scene with their contests, huge photo events, and I can personally attest to their role in mentoring young athletes in a time long before national teams. Let's not forget that people can now say all kinds of stupid things while drunk without fear of being held accountable by "Overheard." However, when Transworld surprisingly cut Freeze, Freeskier inherited many of their readers and advertisers and accidentally became the biggest name in media for young freeskiers.
Freeskier's most notable reaction to Freeze's demise was the publication of Ski Time Magazine. If you ever wondered how a 16-year-old freeskier on acid saw skiing, this was your big chance. To this day, Freeskier does not produce any Parkasaurus-style photoshoots or US Open-type events that play a role in the development of freeskiing. To my disappointment, Freeskier did not show a big effort to fill the void left by Freeze as a leader in the industry.
The evidence of Freeskier's lack of integration in the sport is evident today. I did a quick, very unscientific poll of ski X Games athletes and only 25% knew the editor of Freeskier and 60% followed Freeskier on either Twitter or Instagram – which says a lot if you know how much X Games athletes spend on Instagram instead of learning actual social skills.
The athletes' social networking savvy was high enough to find a post on Freeskier.com on Thursday about the women's halfpipe event. In this post, Nate Abbott implies that there was not enough drama in the event and that Maddie knew she would win, so she doesn't even try to grab. He also quoted an anonymous source within the production of X Games to speculate on her mentality and training habits rather than asking someone who might have actual knowledge of it. Like one of her coaches.
Alas, good sense reporting is not provocative. Freeskier knows this much better than I do, and being provocative is what Freeskier needs to drive online traffic in an age where print media is on life support. Newschoolers.com crushes Freeskier.com in traffic by nearly three times. Newschoolers has a community that is, if anything, controversial and has that edge that Freeskier desires. Unfortunately, being provocative in a small ski industry is not easy. Only 12% of Freeskier's audience is women and the professional women skiers, who make much less money than their male counterparts, desperately need the media that Freeskier can give them, so there is little chance they will abandon Freeskier. So Freeskier played a card from the Medieval Ages and decided to pick on the women for some controversy. What they lack in creativity, they certainly made up in political strategy.
Most concerning with this situation is that the freeskiing industry, and more specifically the females in it, does not need provocative articles calling people out. They need help with funding, training, and media that supports their cause. Freeskier's piece was entirely self-serving in that regard and celebrated their lack of understanding of the state of the sport. In another unscientific examination of Freeskier's Instagram account, only eight of their last one hundred posts featured women and half of those posts were selfies. I'm not joking. The only significant coverage Freeskier has given women on their Insta feed was Michelle Parker's Takeover which was paid for by Mountain Hardware, and the unfortunate truth is that the Takeover shots are pretty rad and should have been featured on their feed anyway. The article makes the statement: "[Women] do not get enough credit for the toll [skiing] takes on their bodies and the imbalance between risk and reward." Freeskier need not look very far to find someone to help provide such credit – especially if there is a mirror nearby.
There is certainly a place for criticism within the ski community and probably more criticism than there is out there now. But criticism that causes stark division within such a small industry is counterproductive. If Freeskier would like to sit at the adult table to discuss how to help push women's skiing forward, they are certainly welcome, but their own bottom line shouldn't be their primary concern within that discussion. Without a doubt, freeskiing needs more talented and successful female skiers. But more than that, freeskiing needs media that understands our industry and knows how to effectively support the commercial success of our athletes, both male and female, without this kind of self-interested, controversy-hungry coverage. Our industry needs many more Maddie Bowmans and far fewer Freeskier Magazines.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Christus / ESPN Images