KILLINGTON, Vt. — Aging athletes, new skis and a lack of snow are ganging up on the once-edgy sport of snowboarding, which has seen a marked drop in participation over the last decade.
Industry experts say it's a sign of the maturing of snowboarding, which grew at a rapid pace in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Participation in the sport dropped 28 percent from 2003-2013, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Downhill skiing also took a hit over that period but less of one — at 10 percent.
"Snowboarding has definitely gone through a maturation phase," said Jeff Boliba, vice president of global resorts for Vermont-based Burton Snowboards, which pioneered the sport. "We've hit our phases where it's been the fastest growing sport in the world. We've reached phases where it started to plateau a little bit, and then you reach phases where the economy crashed and snowboarders definitely were impacted."
After Burton unveiled its first boards in 1977, snowboarding surged in the late 1990s. The sport exploded after making it into the alternative Olympic-styled X-Games competition and the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, with flames later fanned by Shaun "The Flying Tomato" White, Kelly Clark, Lindsey Jacobellis and other Olympic champions.
But early shredders have aged and had families, which have kept them from the mountains. Some riders have returned to or taken up skiing or do both, a huge cultural shift from the "us-versus-them" mentality of skiers and snowboarders in the early days.
"It's not tribal anymore." said Kelly Davis, director of research at SIA in Washington, D.C. "It's not 'you're either a snowboarder or a skier.'"
Last week, Kyle Skrzyniarz of Flemington, New Jersey, opted to ski with friends instead of snowboard so they wouldn't have to wait for him to crank down his binding after getting off the lift.
But he's not giving up on riding.
"I just got a new board, so I'm definitely going to do both," he said.
The decline in snowboarding continued last season, with snowboarders making up just under 28 percent of visitors to U.S. resorts, down from about 31 percent the year before, according to the Kottke National End of Season Survey for 2013-2014. Snowboard sales dropped 25 percent since their peak in 2008-2009, while ski sales rose 1.5 percent during that time, according SnowSports Industries of America data.
An average of 5 million snowboarders and 6.8 million skiers took part in the sports between 2010 and 2013, according to NSGA.
The popularity of shaped, dual tip and fat skis have also made skiing easier and more versatile, allowing skiers to do rails and tricks in terrain parks. Rental shops see vacationers rent skis for a couple of days and a snowboard the rest of the week.
Snowboarder Leverett Zantzinger, 19, of Barnard, Vermont, acknowledges that skiing has become more "cool" and attractive to young people in recent years, but he's sticking with his board.
"Now, it kind of has a young face on it," he said of skiing.
Colin McLeish of Manchester, Vermont, switched to skiing from snowboarding when he was about 12 because many of the 18-year-old's friends were skiers and he found it more versatile.
"It just kind of unlocks a whole new terrain: you have glades, moguls are iffy on snowboarding. It was just a better fit for me," he said.
The snowboarding industry expects to see an uptick as the next generation of snowboarders — children of the early riders— take up the sport. Burton Snowboards has set up learn-to-snowboard parks to teach young kids how to ride and introduces young students to the sport in school gym classes worldwide.
"I think the other key factors to pay attention to are snowboarding is evolving and as we've gotten older, some of our snowboard participants who used to ride 100 days a year are now building families, they're starting a career," Boliba said.
"What we've been seeing with programs like this is we've been able to get some moms and dads who had stopped to build their careers and build their families back into it," he said.