When six of the biggest names in freestyle skiing—including 2003 World Superpipe champ Tanner Hall and Canadian jibbing legend JP Auclair—abandoned sponsorship salaries estimated at $40,000 apiece, hooked up with some British venture capitalists, and founded the Armada Ski Company last fall, the move had an impact the size of a Switch 900. Not only had Armada raided the new-school stables at Rossignol, K2, and Salomon, it seemed poised to take over the burgeoning pipe and park ski markets. But as Armada ramps up for its first full year of production, delivering pairs of twin-tip AR5's and ARV's to specialty shops this month, people in the industry are wondering: Can a company founded by a handful of skiers with sagging pants survive in the cutthroat ski business?
For one thing, it's not clear that a strong demand for Armada's skis even exists. The twin-tip category has doubled in the past three years, but it represents less than five percent of the 600,000 skis sold annually. Still, Armada CEO Hans Smith thinks there's a profitable niche for a ski company built around freestyle's core image. "There isn't a single brand that kids want to identify themselves with, he says. To capture the youth, Armada offers an assortment of hoodies and trucker hats alongside the skis on its website, and is positioning itself as the only company dedicated exclusively to freestyle and freeride. "Salomon is such a huge company, says Auclair, explaining how Armada will differ from his former sponsor. "We just got the feeling that they didn't really care about this side of the sport.
Forget for a moment that Salomon built the first twin tip in 1998—the 1080. Rossignol, K2, and Salomon might argue that the new-school category wouldn't even exist if they hadn't invested so much in its growth in the first place. Salomon alone has coughed up more than $150,000 to promote the U.S. Freeskiing Open, and the three companies have pumped close to $1 million each into the sport in the last four years. "You can't really argue that Salomon doesn't care about freeskiing, says Hal Thomson, communications manager for Salomon. And all the "core talk aside, by focusing on such a small niche, Armada is bucking the successful such a small niche, Armada is bucking the successful industry model. "Skiing is a very difficult market to break into, says George Couperthwait, a product manager for Rossignol. "The brands that succeed globally address all segments—freestyle, freeride, and racing.
There are other pitfalls as well. Armada's dream team need only look to its main competitor, Vermont-based Line. That company, which also focuses on twin-tip skis, had to cancel its first shipment of bindings last summer because its manufacturer withdrew from China after the SARS outbreak. A glitch like that can devastate a small company like Armada, while hardly causing its giant competitors to skip a beat. "Armada has good people, cautions Line founder Jason Levinthal. "But starting and finishing are two different things. We've survived eight lean years. Good luck to anyone else wanting to get into that game.