Eye-catching billboards lining the freeways and slick four-color brochures touting Utah's varied ski attractions tell one story. The stark numbers, however, tell quite another.

One of Utah's longtime economic icons - its ski industry - isn't doing nearly as well as the local tourist hype suggests. And just as telling, perhaps, is that the national ski market isn't doing a whole lot better.That's big trouble for a state that unabashedly tells the world it has the "greatest snow on Earth"- on its license plates, no less - and which has made skiing one of the cornerstones of its economic development plans.

While Utah has always been a small player in the national ski market, its share of an almost stagnant ski market has dwindled by nearly 10 percent in the past two years.

The problem locally is merely part of a national crisis facing the whole ski industry. The number of skiers in the United States has grown only slightly during the past four years, creating panic among resort owners and equipment manufacturers across the country.

With current skiers aging and few new skiers taking up the sport, the industry appears to be in for some hard times.

A study done for the Colorado ski resorts by McKinsey and Co., a New York marketing research firm, showed that if resorts and ski manufacturers continue to do business as usual, the number of skiers in the nation will increase by only 0.5 percent between now and the year 2000.

That means the resorts that do grow are really only stealing skiers from other resorts.

And Utah is losing out in the national skier swap.

Utah's share of the national ski market was growing at a brisk rate until the early 1980s. Between the fall of 1978 and the spring of 1983, the state's share of the ski market, as measured by national skier days, grew by 37 percent, according to figures compiled by the National Ski Areas Association. (A resort chalks up a "skier day" each time one skier spends at least half a day on the slopes.)

Utah never did have a big share of the national market - 4.8 percent at its peak - but it had a growing share until the spring of 1983, when the first warning signs were seen.

Utah's market share hovered at the 4.8 percent level for three years, while the market shares for Colorado and Rockies' region (including Utah) continued to show general growth. Then in the winter of 1986-87, Utah found it couldn't even maintain its holding pattern, and the state's share of the national market began shrinking.

Last year Utah claimed only 4.4 percent of the national ski market - a drop of 10 percent over two years.

More cause for alarm is that the state is also having difficulty hanging onto its local skiers. A study of the 1972-73 ski season by Utah State University showed that 55.4 percent of the state's ski days came from resident skiers. Six years later, that figure had dipped to 53.1 percent. While no statewide study has been done since, a proprietary survey completed for a major resort in Utah, a resort labeled "typical," showed that for the 1987-88 ski season, the resident portion of total skier days had further dipped to 38 percent.

Colorado made a similar discovery recently and the state's resorts are making a strong effort to appeal to their own skiers.

Skiing has a $365-million impact on Utah's economy by some estimates. Out-of-state skiing accounts for $200 million each year. A dwindling ski market could prove economically devastating to the state.

Ski Utah, an organization that promotes the ski industry, believes the strong 1988-89 season will kick Utah's share of the national market up again.

"This year, our skier days are going to be up 10 percent over last year and 5 percent over our record year," said Bob Bailey, executive director of Ski Utah.

But if 1988-89 is a record year, much of the credit goes to a disastrous ski season in the East. Industry experts attending the national convention of the Ski Industry Association in Las Vegas last week told the Deseret News that Western resorts benefited from the East's brown slopes as Eastern skiers flocked to the Rocky Mountains and California for decent snow.

Bailey knows that. "I'm worried," he said. "I shouldn't say I'm not worried. I think we need to be concerned."

So what's our problem? Part of it is the nationwide perceptions that skiing is hard to learn, expensive, time-consuming, cold, unsafe and meant for young people, not older people and families.

Part of the problem is unique to Utah, though.

Parker Research Consultants, a local research group, went to the Colorado ski resorts last year and surveyed out-of-state skiers there about why they chose to ski in Colorado and not Utah. The number one reason: lack of a night life in Utah.

If that made you immediately think of Utah's conservative liquor laws, that's not the whole problem. Asked what was meant by night life, the typical response was, "A nice meal, restaurants and romantic dinners."

The problem is part of a growing national demand for a ski "experience." People want more than just good skiing in their ski vacation. They want fine food, a night life, some intriguing shopping, sightseeing and entertainment for the children, said Tom Brown, account manager at Fotheringham and Associates, a local public relations firm employed by the Utah Travel Council for the past six years to sell Utah skiing.

Research conducted by the firm showed that people coming to Utah for their ski vacations are spending at least one day of that trip away from the slopes, shopping or sightseeing. The entertainment offered in that extra day is critical to bringing vacationers back next year.

Bailey thinks part of Utah, at least, has got the night-life problem solved. "I agree that downtown Salt Lake City is not nearly as exciting as Jackson Hole, but Park City can be as exciting as Jackson Hole."

The rest of the state is coming along. "We have fine dining experiences," Bailey said. "We have the ability to serve liquor now. We have fine wines available now. The liquor store in Park City has one of the best wine collections you'll find anywhere in the United States."

The Salt Lake area could use a few more nice restaurants and badly needs more live bands, he said.

But the dearth of entertainment extends to the daytime as well. Utah is perceived as having an overall lack of vitality and variety.

Parker and Associates found that many Colorado skiers passed over Utah because the Beehive State didn't offer a wide enough variety of other entertainment besides skiing.

On the other hand, a pre-season survey of 10,000 people who requested information on Utah skiing shows that Utah is valued for its incredible snow, reasonable prices, variety of ski areas and its convenience (close to airports, etc.)

So why isn't Utah selling its strengths sufficiently to outweigh its debits? Lack of money. Lack of leadership. Lack of know-how.

Utah and Colorado inevitably compete for the same skiers because the two states have similar terrain and a strong appeal to out-of-state skiers. When the resorts in one state flourish, it is often at the expense of resorts in the neighboring state.

Yet Colorado's marketing arsenal is 10 times the size of Utah's. Utah spends between $5 million and $6 million annually in state and private marketing dollars to bring in skiers, Brown said. Colorado spends nearly $50 million each year to lure skiers.

"The sheer weight of numbers would indicate that Colorado has the potential to smother Utah in the share race, if Utah resorts . . . allow that to happen," Brown wrote in a recent presentation to the Utah Travel Council.

The resorts may, indeed, let that happen. Not because they want to, but because they can't pull together enough to combat it.

There is a serious lack of cohesiveness and leadership among Utah ski resorts. Brown identified the lack of leadership as one of the major challenges facing Utah's ski industry.

"The Utah ski industry suffers from the inability to coordinate individual resort programs and bring cohesive resolve to issues ranging from marketing to political programs," Brown said.

Bailey attributes the leadership crisis to the different goals of the various resorts. Alta has very different goals than Deer Valley, he pointed out. The resorts have radically different clientele and sharply different prices, and each resort is happy with the niche it has carved.

Deer Valley wants to be one of the most pricey resorts in the country, Bailey said. It's proud of that status. That makes Deer Valley reluctant to get together with Solitude and Alta to create a ski package that can be used at all of the resorts.

The divergent styles of the various resorts have kept Utah from sending a strong, united message to prospective skiers. Ski Utah has helped ease the problem, but it is a long way from being solved.

"Even though everyone has banded together for the greater good, you can still detect the suspicion that somehow one resort is losing business to the others, or one is being favored," he said.

That suspicion has to go if the Utah ski industry hopes to survive in an increasingly competitive national market.

"We're working on that right now," Bailey said.

Why Outsiders Ski Utah

1. Great Snow

2. Reasonable prices

3. Variety of ski areas

4. Close to downtown Salt Lake City, airport, etc.