Mark Sullivan has snowboarding roots deeper and more expansive than most. He has founded magazines, announced major contests, and worked for influential companies. Today he is focused on growing Tailgate Alaska, a festival of the backcountry that brings pros and average riders together in celebration of big mountain shredding. On a more local note, he was the catalyst for this site and remains an inspiration. Over the years that I have known Mark, he has always held passionate opinions about our culture, not as someone that looks to capitalize on its success but as someone that owes his happiness to its soul. I recently caught up with Mark to discuss a few topics, here is a bit of our discussion, enjoy.
7YW: Congrats on the success of Tailgate, it has come a long way from a walled tent and a wood stove. When you launched it, what were you hoping to achieve?
MARK: When it started the goal was simple - to share the mountains and snow in Alaska with more riders who would appreciate the best conditions anywhere. From there, it has grown into sharing responsible access and backcountry education while bringing more people to the mountains of Valdez than ever before. As far as that goes, it has been a major success - the next step is developing the television/media side of the event, while maintaining its integrity to the most dedicated recreational and professional riders in the world.
7YW: I have always liked that Tailgate puts pros and every day riders together. You were a big part of another contest that was infamous with integration of dirtbag (drunk) fans with elite (drunk) pros. What story best reflects the renegade nature of the Open in the 90's?
MARK: The most obvious story that comes to mind is the Cage at the 1996 US Open. Prior to that, the US Open was always the best party of the year for snowboarders- in particular the halfpipe final. My goal was to up the ante and do something that embraced the history of the halfpipe party while taking it to the next level, while promoting our publication, Ei. One night, over a couple of cold beers, Pat Bridges and I formulated the idea for The Cage. We wanted to replicate the scene in the movie the Blues Brothers where they were playing a gig behind a chicken wire fence while the crowd shelled them with beer bottles. Only for us, the idea was to keep the beer bottles from hitting the riders. So on our way to the US Open we stopped at the New Hampshire state liquor store and filled the Ei Tour Van with Country Club Malt Liquor tall boys - something like 40 cases. The key to the plan was simple, get up earlier than the staff of Stratton and set up our area on the side of the pipe - I figured by the time they figured out what had just happened, it would be too late.
So we got up to the side of the pipe at 6am and started to build the cage which consisted of a couple of rolls of chicken wire and some 2x4s pounded into the deck of the pipe. When the first Stratton employees showed up at 8am, we were done building the cage - one walked up to me and asked, "What do you guys think you are doing?" My unbroken reply was, "We are building a private viewing area for Jake." Not reading my bluff, the helpful employee offered, "Do you need a table and garbage can?" "Yes." From that moment, I knew we would pull it off.
By the time the finals rolled around, the Cage was totally out of control (to plan) - and it was time for phase 2 - to bust out the mascot uniforms ( I have always subscribed to the idea that multiple contingency plans cannot all be stopped at once). When Pat and I got back with the mascot uniforms on - it all broke loose. It seems people in the cage thought Stratton had sent us as an olive branch to calm the waters. Instead it started the closest thing to a riot a snowboarding event has ever seen. The cage collapsed, empties skittered down the walls of the pipe, bodies spilled out in every direction and the finals got put on hold until some semblance of order was restored. Two years later, I started announcing the Open.
To me it is sad that for many, the high water mark of the US Open happened 16 years ago. It was the mark of the beginning of the end, or maybe the end of the beginning, to loosely quote Winston Churchill.
7YW: I had held out hope that the Open would somehow regain its glory on the East Coast, but sadly Burton finally relented and made the move west. What are your thoughts on the move to Vail and what do you think it says about snowboarding culture in the East?
MARK: For me as a kid growing up on the East Coast, the US Open was my personal, in the flesh connection to pro snowboarding. It was the first time I got to see all of the great riders in person - guys like Craig Kelly and Terry Kidwell. And after the event was over, the pipe got opened to the public and we got to ride the same stuff as them. It was always the most highly anticipated weekends of my year, until I really discovered powder.
I am more disappointed by the fact that kids who grow up on the East Coast will have more limited access to the top level of the sport - beyond autograph signings at movie premieres. Granted, that was in a different time, but I always felt Burton could have moved the Open to an East Coast mountain more open to the good times and participation nature of the old US Open. While the roots of the Open were Stratton (and Snow Valley before that), I think there were a lot of resorts on the East Coast that could have done a better job as host - like Waterville Valley for instance.
Overall, I think it sends the wrong message to kids on the East Coast, something along the lines of, East Coast snowboarding isn't at a high enough level for professional riders and competition. And today, riders from the East Coast like Jake Blauvelt and Pat Moore didn't make a name for themselves until they left the East Coast. I think the message it sends is that East Coast snowboarding is not as relevant as it once was.
I’m afraid it will become something like the Galatea Effect, or the self fulfilling prophecy. And that would be a shame.
7YW: On a marginally related note, Jenkem recently ran an article on the influence of corporate money on skateboarding. One passage stuck out to me,
"If they [corporations] are successful it may not change the ideology or performance of skaters like myself that have been involved in the activity for many years, but it will change the ideology, the space, and economics of skateboarding for younger skaters, and alienate older skaters from a social world they helped create and maintain until it was invaded by and sold to outsiders."
Snowboarding is arguably farther down the sell out path. Given your legacy in the sport and as a father of young snowboarders, I am curious your thoughts
MARK: I read that same story in Jenkem and I have to say that it struck a chord. Perhaps the most revealing part of that story is the ending when it refers to the death of skateboarding in the early 80s. In the 70s skateboarding was something that was pure - done for passion - it grew steadily until skateboarding became mainstream - widespread in popular culture. The athletes started appearing on TV and in mainstream magazines and corporate sponsors poured cash into the marketing of the sport. When corporations try to understand something that is as intangible as passion, they end up watering down the ideals and values that grew the sport in the first place, in an effort to make it something that everyone can understand and relate to. Making something that is complex easy to understand, in a lot of cases replaces passion and personal accomplishment with ego and public notoriety, which is good for a few, but not necessarily the sport at large.
That's when it started alienating the people who helped grow skateboarding in the first place, and when the corporate sponsors lost interest, the industry imploded. The good news is that not everyone saw it as a fad, and the lack of funding behind the sport drove the passion back to the forefront and paved the way for modern (street) skateboarding (and the birth of modern snowboarding).
Snowboarding could be fast approaching a similar tipping point - it does not matter to people like me - I have always made my own path in the sport and I will still go ride in Alaska and progress my snowboarding (even at my advanced age), so if a company like Red Bull lost interest, or Burton eventually failed, it would have no bearing on my involvement with snowboarding, or my passion for the sport.
7YW: We are coming up on an Olympic year, where corporate attention will once again look to capitalize on snowboarding. We have run the sticker "Terje was Right" which pretty much proclaims our feelings, but I would be interested in how you feel about snowboarding in the Olympics.
MARK: For me this is a tough one - I was working at Snowboarder magazine in 1998 when Terje boycotted. But I knew, even then, that one voice is just that. And I am still on the fence if that decision had a detrimental effect on his career and his viability to the (at the time) emerging world of corporate sponsors in snowboarding. He was the first potential financial “Shaun White” for snowboarding.
Personally, I took a different approach to the Olympics. First of all, I would never have gotten into skiing (then snowboarding) if not for the Olympics (and James Bond). In 1984, US Olympic skiers dominated for the first time in the sport and the United States became a real threat to the world of European dominated skiing. It served as a catalyst for my life long involvement in winter sports.
In 2002, I was able to announce the Salt Lake Olympics (it was a real rush instigating the cheers from 25,000 fans) and took a job as the expert on snowboarding for NBC Sports. I have now served as the expert on snowboarding for NBC Sports for the past three Olympics - and each one was filled with personal growth, understanding for the sport of snowboarding, the influence of outsiders and the importance of outside money and media to our sport.
That said, the very first broadcast I worked on in 2002 eclipsed the reach I had with 15 years in endemic magazine publishing. And now, 3 Olympics later, more than 100 million viewers in America have watched and in many cases been introduced to snowboarding through NBC's portrayal of the sport. I have been lucky to work with guys like Todd Richards to make sure the message delivered through the broadcasts does the sport justice, honors the endeavor of the athlete and never ending quest for progression. While there is no doubt that Olympic snowboarding has contributed to the gap between pro riders who have and pro riders who have not, I think that snowboarding in the Olympics is part of the progression of the art of snowboarding - and the weight of the potential windfalls that come from Olympic success have driven halfpipe riding to entirely new levels.
7YW: The flip side to the Olympic circus are backcountry contests like the World Freeride Championship and Supernatural. Do you think these type of contests will play a larger role in snowboarding as we move forward?
MARK: Selfishly, I hope so. These are two examples of events that are driven by real riders and have the interest of progression in mind. I think that these events can help bridge the gap between the large scale of network TV events like the X-Games, Dew Tour and Olympics and what is accepted by core snowboarders as the cutting edge- video part style riding. I know for my event, we have re-developed the judging formats to reward video style riding with much more emphasis on freestyle than any big mountain competitions in the past. Also, being run by snowboarders ensures there is a desire for constant evolution. With these events - I hope change will be a constant - and show that snowboarding is a sport that you can't define or put your finger on - it is supposed to be a creative outlet and an artform as much as a regulated and rule book officiated sport.
7YW: While I have been critical of the X Games, I think the real snow competition has been a big step forward in contests while at the same time making non contest riders and the filmers relevant again. Sadly, there has been no such innovation for photographers. For our generation of riders, the still image was the most powerful medium, today it is fast becoming an after thought or worse yet an Instagram. You once presided over the glory years of snowboard photography, how do you feel about today's situation and is there a way to bring the photographer back to the forefront of snowboarding?
MARK: This is also part of the evolution of media. I do not try to live in the past but believe that progression is linear, ie you don't know where you are going unless you know where you come from. My feeling is, the digital photography revolution gave snowboarding both its most creative photography but also has watered down the barrier to entry - so that now anyone can be a 'pro photographer' with the investment of a couple of grand. When it became cheaper for companies to buy cameras and give them to people with little experience (but the ability to check their work instantly) - marked the beginning of the end for professional snowboarding photography. As budgets for company photo shoots dried up, so did the ability of a photographer to make a living off of a single endeavor (like snowboarding). I think for a short time, digital photography injected a lot of energy and creativity into the sport’s photography, before making it less lucrative.
Today there are still plenty of people with a dual passion for photography and snowboarding, so there is hope, as long as your goal isn't to have shooting snowboarding photos make you rich. Then again, the sport has not been rewarding enough to keep the most talented photographers in the sport - guys like Trevor Graves, Kevin Zacher and Jeff Douglass have all moved on to areas of photography (or other endeavors) that can pay the bills.
The photography role models aren’t really there as mentors (more would be competitors) and the business has become more cut throat over the years as the barrier to entry has been dramatically reduced. (I got my start in the ‘industry’ following Trevor Graves around the deck of a pipe - learning what it took to shoot snowboarding images - and he was totally open to take me under his wing. I wonder how many of today’s top photographers are willing to teach a 15 year old kid about their craft?)
7YW: The insurgence of web based media over traditional print has forced companies to change their approach from traditional advertising. How do you think the riders and supporting teams need to evolve to be sustainable going forward?
MARK: The transition away from print has taken a lot longer than the pundits predicted in the first dot-com bubble of the early 2000s. It is interesting to see this transition taking place right now. Companies and riders are becoming more and more responsible for putting out their own media (as evidenced by so many webisode series put out by riders and companies, rider blogs etc.), yet the world of snowboard print seems to still be charging ahead. I wonder how long this will last. It is up to the magazines to redefine themselves and offer content that is significantly different than can be found on the web. I believe that the web is more of a direct competitor than ever for print publications - with the web cannibalizing so much content from print, the biggest challenge will be to differentiate print from its online competitors in the future.
In a recent interview with ESPN.com, Pat Bridges, who is the editor of Snowboarder Magazine said, “I think we as snowboarders need to have more influence -- and by "snowboarders" I don't mean people who ride less than 10 days a year.” While on some level I agree with that statement, I feel the that idea needs to be expanded. The industry as a whole needs to better embrace the standards we hold snowboard athletes to - to inspire the next generation and to constantly, through incremental progression, take the sport to a new level. If everyone in the snowboarding industry genuinely believed in that progression, I do not think there would be any debate over waffling participation in the sport. It would still be growing.
If you look at powder surfing or splitboarding – powsurfing/noboarding commercially is about a decade old, splitboarding has been around for about 20 years – today, both have a tremendous amount of energy put not only into the riding, but into the industry side as well. It is no surprise that these small segments are now growing quickly - not due to the progression in riding, but in my opinion, due to the overall energy invested by individuals into the riding, technology and media in these segments. Five years ago, both of these categories were growing, but nothing like we see today. It’s funny how their growth has mirrored the industry side more than the progression of the actual riding. Conversely, despite the explosive progression in halfpipe, slopestyle and big air snowboarding, and mainstream exposure like never before seen, the growth of our sport has stumbled.
If the sport of snowboarding as a whole continued to challenge convention - people would not be talking about a glass ceiling of growth. Lets face it, snowboarding is easier to learn than skiing, less costly to get into and more satisfying in powder conditions. I do not see any other reason why ski growth has surpassed snowboarding aside from industry/idea stagnation. Recently, powder board design has taken a new direction and has a new influx of energy from across the industry - and together, these segments are now the fastest growing in snowboarding, despite the fact they are so specialized.
On the flip side, collective energy has been a primary benefactor of freeskiing.