Op-ed: Before expanding ski resorts, we should look at golf

First Published      Last Updated May 02 2016 04:38 pm

What is the most economically intelligent bet for the future of skiing in the Wasatch? How should the public/private balance in our mountains be maintained via the Mountain Accord? There's a surprising lesson to be learned from what's happening to another leisure sport — golf.

Research data from the Ski Industry Association (SIA) and many other sources predict that ski resort visitor numbers will increase, but not necessarily the number of actual resort skiers. SIA says non-resort backcountry is where actual skier numbers are growing.

There are many reasons why: Increasing lift ticket prices, younger skiers are bored with resorts, obesity inspires more exercise, backcountry is the new cool, safety gear is more effective and affordable, safety courses are proliferating, etc.

An interesting thing is happening at resorts according to The Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson. Ski areas are investing heavily in base area hotels, swimming pools, condos, houses, restaurants, etc., to attract more casual skiers, non-skiers, and mixed skier/non-skier families.

This suggests that expanding lift-served terrain isn't what will increase Utah's resort traffic.

Now the connection to golf, which is in a tailspin of losses — from epic drops in participants and equipment sales to record numbers of course closures — including three in Salt Lake City in the last two years.

According to Bloomberg News, "Not long ago, golf was considered the activity of choice for corporate bonding and the upwardly mobile. Today companies are relying less on glad-handing on the links, and many young people are cool to a pursuit viewed as time-intensive and elitist. The result: Golf is suffering from an exodus of players, and courses are closing. The number of U.S. golfers has dropped 24 percent from its peak in 2002, to about 23 million players last year, according to Pellucid, a consulting company specializing in the business of golf. It found that in 2013 alone, the game lost 1.1 million players.

Pellucid president Jim Koppenhaver told Bloomberg, "The 18-hole round of golf is an anachronism … everybody's hooked up to their handhelds, so [today] it's social networking."

In the parallel universe of snow sports, backcountry skiers tend to be socially networked and end their day earlier than resort skiers. Climbing is tiring and conditions are generally less safe in the afternoon.

So what is replacing time-intensive golf among the younger business crowd? Cycling.

The Economist says "Traditionally, business associates would get to know each other over a round of golf. But road cycling is fast catching up as the preferred way of networking for the modern professional." 

With this in mind, Utah's central Wasatch ski resorts appear to be pushing in the wrong direction under Mountain Accord. They're not following Wayne Gretzky's advice: Skate to where the puck is going.

The data tells us our culture is changing. The next generation wants something different from mountain leisure sports than previous generations. More expensive, time-consuming leisure sports are losing popularity. Less expensive and more time-efficient leisure sports are gaining popularity.

The smartest long-term economic development scenario is one that capitalizes on where mountain culture is going — backcountry terrain — instead of where it has been. The Wasatch backcountry will continue getting more crowded. The smart economic bet is on keeping backcountry available for the next generation.

If Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton insist on lift-served boundary expansions under Mountain Accord, ski area decision makers are ignoring the writing on the wall.

The same corporate investors who want expanded base areas to attract more diverse visitors should view backcountry terrain near resorts as low-cost customer magnets for one simple reason: most young backcountry skiers will become parents if they're not already.

For example, Grizzly Gulch near Alta Ski Resort is where beginner to expert backcountry skiers find the safest and most accessible terrain in Little Cottonwood Canyon. It is also where mom and/or dad can go for their long-dreamed-of backcountry runs while their kids are at Alta or Snowbird with instructors or a spouse.

Turn Grizzly Gulch and other backcountry areas near resorts into lift served, pay-to-play terrain? By doing so, ski resorts would eliminate a key economic driver for the next generation who prefer earning their turns to sitting on a lift.

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