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Numbing Numbers


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For all of its advanced technology—fiberglass-titanium shaped skis, space-age suits, rapid cable-detaching chairlifts—skiing is less than advanced when it comes to statistics about itself. My qualifications for saying so are founded on a flaky 40-year obsession with statistics.

I once worked near Wall Street as the nonferrous metals market editor of a newspaper. There I analyzed abstruse numbers, such as copper and zinc shipments, while skiing in Vermont and the Catskills on the weekends. Later, when I joined SKI, part of my job was to edit the magazine’s business publications. I was fascinated by skiing’s murky statistics. No one seemed able to nail down the number of skiers, or even of ski areas, let alone what Joe’s Alpine Shop did with unsold merchandise. In the evenings, I noodled stats of boot shipments like some guys do crossword puzzles. I still do.

Like others, I’ve been puzzled by the failure of participation to grow in the last quarter of the 20th century. National ski-area visits flattened at 40 to 50 million per winter. Without the arrival of a bunch of baggy-panted teenage snowboarders, visits would have been lower.

In the 1950s and 1960s, by contrast, skier participation doubled every half-dozen years. Hundreds of “new ski areas appeared. Many were community hills with a ropetow, which sprouted into statistical existence when they installed T-bars, platter-pulls and chairlifts.

The hills that couldn’t afford additional lifts, a base lodge, snowmaking and rising insurance costs went under. I recently clicked onto the website New England Lost Ski Areas. It lists 492 extinct ski areas, a number roughly equal to all of the areas across America today. A host of convenient, inexpensive places to ski have disappeared.

Cost has also affected growth. In the 15 winters from 1951 to 1966, when the sport expanded at a record rate, the price of a lift ticket rose by 66 percent. In the same number of winters from 1978 to 1993, when participation flattened, the adult ticket increased by 180 percent.

Two score winters ago, a skier riding on a chairlift looked down and saw the slopes dark with skiers. “My God, he said, “there must be a million of them. The skier sitting next to him whistled in agreement, and so it was.

If the method was crude, it wasn’t any worse than what followed. Beginning in the mid-1970s, flawed sampling by organizations as prominent as Nielsen and the National Sporting Goods Association showed the sport to be bigger than had been guessed. Ergo, participation must be growing. From a million or so, we had swelled to more than 15 million skiers. There was no such growth. The numbers didn’t correlate with real visits to areas. The true measurement today is about 6 million active skiers and boarders. A third are younger than 18 years of age.

Skiing has always counted on youth for expansion, and the seeming good news is that the number of kids in school has returned to the record levels of 1972, when skiing was concluding its most rapid growth ever. But there’s a hitch. Three years ago, the U.S. government found 7.3 million fewer non-Hispanic white students in school than in ’72. That’s almost a 20 percent decline in the racial makeup of kids who, historically, have sustained a sport known for its WASPishness and European complexion.

How has it affected skiing? Look in the liftline. How many black faces do you see? How many Spanish-speaking voices do you hear? Ethnicity, cost and a loss of community hills stunted the sport’s growth, but activity has recently turned up. The winter of 2000-01 was the busiest on record, with 57.3 million visits. Cheap season passes have motivated people to ski more. True, almost 30 percent of visits are by people snowboarding. But notice that I didn’t say snowboarders. A full 28 percent of people interviewed by the research firm Leisure Trends say they both ski and ride. This crossover may frustrate a few flaky statistics nuts who’d like to know the numbeer of pure boarders and skiers. Purism be damned. In multiculturalism lies the future!

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