Jake Burton is taking his snowboards to China. If things break right for him, maybe the Winter Olympics will end up there, too.
Unwilling to bow to the narrative that business must be suffering as snowboarding's growth flattens, the man who brought the sport to the masses has opened five dozen stores in a country with only around 50,000 riders but an overall population of 1.35 billion.
"It's a huge growth opportunity," Burton said this week in an interview with The Associated Press, while in Vail to host his U.S. Open snowboarding contest. "China's got the mountains and, obviously, the economy, and the people there love the freestyle thing. We've taken snowboards to a lot of places, but we've never taken them to a market where it's as small as it is there right now."
Now 60, and recovering nicely from a replacement of his left knee, (He rode his snowboard in Vail on Thursday, three weeks to the day of the replacement) Burton is making yet another move into an Asian market that he first went to in Japan, which hosted the inaugural Olympic snowboard contest, then in South Korea, which will host the next one.
Beijing is in the running, along with Almaty, Kazakhstan, for the 2022 Olympics. Burton isn't depending on a China victory to make his business work there. But it certainly wouldn't hurt.
"The inevitable hype that comes along with it is amazing," he said. "But you can't connect the Olympics to doubling this or doubling that."
He doesn't shy from the statistics in his own country. A slow economy, better technology in skis and ski apparel, along with the increased availability of terrain parks that snowboarders brought to the mountain but now share with freeskiers, have contributed to declines in participation and sales, especially when set against the numbers in skiing. Among the stats: Snowboarders made up about 28 percent of visitors to U.S. ski resorts last season, down from 31 percent the year before, according to the Kottke National End of Season Survey for 2013-14.
Then again, the snowboarding industry did not exist in 1977, when Burton quit his day job in Manhattan to develop a board. That career change spawned an industry that now produces more than $500 million in merchandise sales annually. Burton, who has kept his company private, is estimated to have between 40 percent and 70 percent of that business, depending on the sector. He says since its third year of existence, Burton Snowboards has turned a profit every year.
"For sure, snowboarding as directly compared to skiing, it had its run. Nothing goes forever, right?" Burton said. "There's ebb and flow to everything. But nobody's going to tell you that snowboarding is going away."
He's among the few people in the business of running action-sports contests who hasn't given in to the trend of piggybacking freeskiing events onto snowboard contests. The Olympics, Winter X Games and Dew Tour have done it. The inventor of the modern-day snowboard doesn't see his company going that direction, however.
"We support those events, but it doesn't feel right for this event," he said. "It's not part of our heritage. It's like, we could start making skis tomorrow, but I don't think that's what people are looking for from us."
So, to grow the business, which is now in its 39th year, one thing Burton is doing is looking at China. He doesn't blanch at the thought that someday, 10 percent of his sales could come from there.
"I'm not saying that four years down the road, we have to be there," he said. "But we have to have some expectations and follow our investment. We follow the market."
Original title by Bellingham Herald:Burton finds opportunity selling snowboards in China