Olympic Champion Vonn Seeks More U.S. Ski Races to Market Sport

Ski Champion Lindsey Vonn
Lindsey Vonn during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Giant Slalom on Oct. 23, 2010 in Soelden, Austria. Photographer: Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

Olympic downhill champion Lindsey Vonn is calling for more ski races to be held in the U.S. to boost the sport in between Winter Games.

“The U.S. market is not used enough,” Vonn, the most successful female skier in U.S. history, said in an interview at the start of the World Cup season in Soelden, Austria, on Oct.

21. “It’s such a big market. If we had one or two more races, we could really expand that, and it would make ski racing so much more popular.”

American skiers and snowboarders won a record 21 medals at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in February, including six golds. Yet, U.S. fans can only see their top athletes in live action in two races in Colorado, with Aspen hosting a women’s World Cup event next month while the men will be in Beaver Creek in December. Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, will also host World Cup races for both men and women. The rest of the 39 women’s competitions, and the 40 men’s races, are held in Europe.

After winning the Olympic downhill and gaining a bronze in the Super-G, Vonn had a small role on NBC’s Law & Order television show, went to the White House, and opened trading on the Nasdaq stock market. The 26-year-old has eight corporate sponsorship deals, endorsing Red Bull GmbH, Rolex Group, sportswear producer Under Armour Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co., the world’s biggest consumer-products maker.

‘Wrong Timing’

Although interest in the sport is increasing, more U.S.- based events would boost television ratings, Julia Mancuso, a double silver medalist in Vancouver, said in an interview. Mancuso finished 12th in the giant slalom in Soelden, which was won by Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg.

“Everyone wants live sports and we can’t necessarily do that in the U.S. because it’s the wrong timing,” said Mancuso, the 2006 Olympic giant slalom champion. “It’s hard to ever get the same exact bit of buzz that they get over here in Europe. But I definitely think it has improved, and people have become more interested.”

This season’s World Cup races and the World Championships in Germany in February will be shown on NBC’s Universal Sports cable channel, which reaches 57 million American homes. NBC, which reaches 99 percent of all U.S. households with television sets, will broadcast the women’s giant slalom in Aspen and the downhill in Beaver Creek.

Some 16 million Americans participate in skiing and snowboarding, according to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). The U.S. ski industry had revenue of $2.6 billion last year, according to Los Angeles-based research company IBISWorld.

Location Problems

Gian Franco Kasper, president of the Oberhofen, Switzerland-based International Ski Federation (FIS), said in an interview that the governing body wants to add events in the U.S. but that practical issues are preventing it from doing so.

“We asked the U.S. Ski Association and also the Canadians to have more races on the East Coast,” said Kasper, who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee. “We are now more or less completely in the West. They unfortunately, for the time being, cannot find any organizers on the East Coast.”

Some private owners of U.S. resorts don’t want to close down their ski courses for a world cup race, while there isn’t a “public interest” in showing a lot of ski racing among the big American broadcasters, Kasper said.

USSA spokesman Tom Kelly said the American group is focused on improving the current events, rather than adding races.

Championship Catalyst

Winning the bid to host the 2015 World Championships in Vail, Colorado, may work as “a catalyst to build more recognition for our heroes in the U.S.,” Kelly said.

U.S. ski racers Vonn, Mancuso and Bode Miller -- who won gold, silver and bronze in Vancouver -- “transcend their sport and they actually are almost a lifestyle brand,” Andrew Judelson, chief revenue and marketing officer at the Park City, Utah-based USSA, said in an interview.

“We need to leverage those athletes to create interest not only with active fans of ski racing, but with the general consumer,” said Judelson, a former National Hockey League executive who joined the USSA this year in a new post partly aimed at boosting interest in snow sports in between Winter Games.

Vonn, who will next race in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 13, said skiing needs to promote its young athletes similarly to how the men’s and women’s tennis organizations do on their global tours.

“We have great characters in our sport and we should use that better,” said Vonn, who finished 18th on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden. “You can build the stories and build the characters, and then everyone can follow. Everyone has their person that they like, and they want to know more about them. There should be more marketing and interaction.”

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