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Participation and Diversity in Snowsports: An Interview with James Mills

May 8, 2018 | 2 Comments

It’s safe to say we can all at least agree that the simple thrill of skiing and snowboarding is one of those inherent universal bonds — a sensation that certainly transcends racial and ethnic identity.

Yet, the diversity gap in snow sports still feels exceptionally large. People of color sense second glances at ski resorts, and onlookers are curious to know POC on the hill.

“We make a huge economic impact on the resort and it’s surrounding city that we visit…though, out of the hundreds of pamphlets that I [have] received, I have seen one mountain with people of color,” said Peggie Allen, president of National Brotherhood of Skiers. “People think it’s great to see large groups of African Americans on the mountain, and we still get looks that say, ‘What are all these black people doing here?’ In Albany, New York, our logo is ‘Who says we don’t?” she said.

Image courtesy of Outdoor Afro by Eugene Lee.

Historically, the snow sports industry and media has overlooked the coverage, representation, and inclusion of African Americans. As a result, marketing materials, publications, and product catalogues continue to reflect a deficit of diversity, despite existing needs to encourage inclusivity.

In an annual survey, Learn to Ski and Snowboard asks members of the National Ski Areas Association to share their observations of the participation of four broad ethnic groups—African American, Hispanic, Asian, Eastern European—compared to the year prior.

“We use the responses to gauge what we do for future years, but it’s not scientific—it’s a tiny sampling of anecdotal responses,” said Executive Director Mary Jo Tarallo. In the most recent survey, the majority of 30 anonymous responders from across the country reported that they saw little change.

One of the greatest limiting growth factors of user groups in snow sports is their proximity to ski areas. Another inhibitor is the overall national population growth among ethnic groups, which is contingent on socioeconomics and migration patterns.

“The growth of the African American [population] is very static. There’s also no influx immigration of African Americans into the U.S. As different household compositions improve with greater economic stability, their fertility and population growth goes down,” explained Nate Fristoe, Director of Operations for RRC Associates — a market research and data analysis firm with a focus in Mountain Resorts and Parks and Recreation.. “Every segment [of people] grows proportional to socioeconomic status and that also determines an ability to [financially] engage in the sport,” he said.

The most comprehensive demographic report for the snow sports industry is released by the National Ski Areas Association. The report’s comprehensive data set breaks down the ethnic composition of skiers and snowboarders, based on ski area visitation and how that’s changed over time, explained Fristoe. (NSAA was unavailable for comment and we will update this article according to their available response.)

Image courtesy of Outdoor Afro by Eugene Lee.

“Hispanics and asian growth are the groups that are growing the most in the U.S. If I’m a marketer trying to figure out the biggest target groups to grow those are the groups with the greatest potential,” said Fristoe.

Snowsport companies and brands may welcome diversity on the surface, but racial, ethnic and cultural inclusivity also necessitates improvements across marketing materials and staffing structure.

“By all means, the [snowsports industry] and all of the ski resorts are very welcome to the National Brotherhood of Skiers—but as welcoming as they are, it’s not showing up in their promotional information…I can get you ten models from NBS right away,” said Allen.

SIA sat down with author and podcaster James Edward Mills—an expert on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoor world—to find out how we can all help bridge the gap of diversity in snow sports.


How can the snow sports industry shepherd ethnic and racial diversity?

Mills: The ultimate question to how is the why: Why should the industry care about diversity? ‘To make sure that everybody is welcome in our industry,’ is a good reason, but it’s not good enough.

The most important reason why the industry should and must become more diverse is because our country is becoming more diverse. By the year 2042, it’s predicted that the majority of population will be non-white. If nothing changes and the majority of the population has no affinity for skiing—and you sell ski vacations, ski clothing, and lift tickets—then the majority of the
population has no interest in your product. The best reason to [welcome diversity] is that it makes good economic and business sense.

What are the biggest missed opportunities with regards to marketing to African Americans?

Mills: Frankly, any missed marketing opportunity is tragic. If your brand has no marketing that targets the National Brotherhood of Skiers that’s a huge missed opportunity. If you have no magazine ads, product literature, or catalogue placement that includes people of color then an entire segment of the ski population is not seeing themselves. Without that degree of representation, you lead that demographic to believe that it is not worth your time to acquire their business.

A lot of ski organizations chase the target audiences that they think they can get. When you look at the fact that the ski business is not expanding much and consider where expansion opportunities might be, the first place is underrepresented segments of the population.

The missed opportunity is failing to look into these demographic audiences and finding points of relevance: What is it that is appealing about my product, resort, and community that would attract this segment of the population? I think the biggest missed opportunity is not cultivating the cultural competency that would allow you to identify what some of those missed opportunities might be.

So, how do we improve cultural competency?

Mills: The industry—ski, outdoor, and travel—needs to decide that this is a population that they want to approach. If you go into [marketing to African Americans] reluctantly, you’re doomed to fail. Too often, I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s too hard,’ or, ‘We tried and it didn’t work.’ You need to fail, fail often, and fail quickly so that you can move on.

Here’s the step-by-step process for bridging cultural and social gaps, according to Mills:

1. As an industry, we need to decide that [marketing to people of color] is something that we are going to do no matter how hard it is or how long it takes.

2. We, as an industry and community of skiers, need to go to where people are: historically black colleges, predominantly African American communities, and we need to develop relationships within those communities and with community leaders.

3. Once you get into these communities you need to establish relationships and rapport with advocates within those communities that would ultimately turn around and become your ambassadors.

4. To make serious inroads, ask those communities very sincerely and explicitly, ‘What do you want from us that will help you become our customers?’ Too often, community advocacy begins with, ‘We’re going to tell you what you need,’ rather than asking them what they want. Typically, when you tell someone what they need and it conflicts with what they want, you will be at loggerheads.

In what ways can snow sports products be improved to meet the needs of African Americans?

Mills: From my personal experience, and from the people I’ve known for years, one thing that black women tell me is that ski pants don’t fit their figures. African American women who are skiers are constantly saying that ski pants are too narrow in the hips and too tight in the size.

If [product designers] were to take the time to ask [African Americans], ‘What do we need to do style and sizewise to make ski pants appealing to you?—which has never been asked before—we would get a big cross section of purchasing power. Color pallets can be expanded to appeal to people who aren’t white. Very few colors used for ski industry apparel are flattering to darker skin tones. I constantly struggle to find clothes that compliment my color, simply because the product shades are so bland.

What is the most genuine way for brands to initiate outreach to new consumer demographics?

Mills: Be very explicit in the ask. There’s nothing wrong in commerce to say, ‘I want your business.’ It’s not offensive to say, ‘I want to sell more products to people like you.’ We can be subtle, humble, polite and discrete in the ask—but we have to be clear as an industry. Literally say, ‘We have two people of color on our ski hill. We want you as our customers. We want to sell you clothes. We want to sell you ski passes. We want you to become a part of our community. How do we do that?”

That may sound ham-handed, but nothing is more flattering than to tell someone that you want them. That you’re eager to have them. That they’re welcome. If that were to happen, just imagine! If a very explicit invitation of welcome and appreciation was extended to the African American community from the ski industry, it would be huge.

Image courtesy of Outdoor Afro by Eugene Lee.

I don’t think that anyone is remiss in understanding that there is a lack of representation of people of color. That’s why the magazine article in Outside is groundbreaking. It wasn’t my idea, but I did write it. Outside wanted to fix this and asked me, ‘What can we do?’ My solution was the same one I just outlined: show people of color. Put them on the cover.

During this evolutionary period, how can brands acquire imagery of African Americans to show that representation in marketing materials?

Mills: Most photographers shoot the subjects they know. If you don’t know black skiers, you’re not going to shoot black skiers. People in the industry are very warm hearted and don’t want to be offensive. The last thing they want to do is say, ‘Oh, you’re black. Can I take your picture?’ But that’s the level of explicitness that we need.

The lack of participation and representation was deliberate. We need to be equally deliberate in creating new images. I’m not suggesting that we hire actors. We do need to go out of our way to find these athletes, because they’re out there. They’re with their families, on the bunny slope, taking lessons, and getting dropped off in helicopters.

If somebody came to [those black athletes] and said, ‘We want to show that people like you are here. Can we take your picture?’ the response would be infinitely more positive than you would think. Even if they say ‘no,’ it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask the next person.

The caveat is that you also can’t front-load images to make it seem like there are more people of color than there actually are.

What are detrimental stigmas about people of color that skiers and snowboarders across racial identities can help to improve?

Mills: There are people in our community that will tell you right now that black people don’t and shouldn’t ski. We need to stop that.

The last thing you want is for someone to say, ‘My people don’t do that, so I won’t,’ as opposed to, ‘This is where I get personal pleasure, spend time with my family, get physical exercise, and commune with nature—and I do this regardless of the fact that I’m a person of color.’

We need to disavow ourselves of the notion that there are certain types of people in the world that don’t do what we do. If [skiing] is something that’s good for me, it should be good for everyone, and everyone should try. We need to make sure that anybody who can put on a pair of ski boots and get on a chair lift will feel that they, too, can one day become an Olympic athlete or ski a black diamond run or take their children down a blue run. We need to pin our economic survival on diversity.

2 thoughts on “Participation and Diversity in Snowsports: An Interview with James Mills

  1. As a Black current 30yr snowboard instructor and former World Cup competitor, this subject is very close to my heart. I have recently had talks with the marketing department of my resort (a large resort part of one of the biggest ski corporations), and they seem keenly aware of the issue. The time is now!

  2. I’ve been a skier for more than 50 years and grew up in the 60’s I have seen my fair share of “diversity” or lack thereof.
    True I had a better than most experience in the world of “snow-sports” as it pertains to exposure. But lets address the ELEPHANT in the room. I have not seem a reflection of “people of color” in Ski advertisements in any of popular media platforms. All beit I personally have been featured in several over the years with yet another article (with photos) to be published June 2018.
    There has been an overt lack of exposure in the “large hall” Point of Purchase!

    I welcome more than mere conversation, I want the opportunity to have our images (people of color) exemplified in a way that it is beneficial to all parties for inclusion and expanding the diversified images across all color and gender boundries.

    I have had the pleasure to work with some of the TOP Ski manufactures and snow sport magazines in the country! I have been featured in magazine ads, posters , TV and radio. But I’m just one person. Much more can and needs to be done. I am always available for the next interview, and photo shoot to help bolster the SIA product.
    Let’s continue the conversation!

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