It’s called the “money booter” and it’s all that stands between Kalispell native Tanner Hall and another gold medal at the ESPN Winter X-Games.
A two-time champion at the X-Games, 19-year-old Hall is in fourth place heading into the final run of January’s slopestyle competition in Aspen. He leaves the starting gate, throws his skis perpendicular to a long metal rail, then slides down it perfectly, tricking at the end. On the slopestyle course, there are more rails and specially designed jumps. Hall spins and slides, twists and carves with the sort of uncanny grace that’s led the press to describe his skiing as “impossibly smooth.”
Toward the bottom of the course, Hall takes aim at the money booter, the colossal jump at the end of the run. He points his skis straight downhill and clears his mind. Not checking his speed, Hall hits the jump faster than any competitor has all day. His velocity carries him crowd–pleasingly high over the snow. Arms at his side, Hall completes nearly three full rotations in the air.
When he sticks the landing, the crowd erupts and fellow competitor Pep Fujas rushes out and tackles Hall in a spasm of congratulation.
The announcer shouts into his mic, “That’s got to be gold!” Viewers at home are told that “trick to trick,” Hall’s performance was “pure technical mastery.”
For mastering the money booter, Hall wins his third straight gold medal at the X-Games and collects a $14,000 purse. Microphone in his face, Hall tells the world that he wanted to do more on his last jump, “but I got scared,” he says, “so I just slowed it down.”
It’s a modest moment in Hall’s otherwise precocious career. At 19 years old, Hall is a reigning king of the freeskiing movement, a co-founder of the Armada Ski Company and a star of ski films like Area 51 and Degenerates. At last count, reports his proud father Gerry, Tanner’s annual earnings were “well into six figures.”
For Hall, every jump is a potential money booter. He’s paid by companies like Oakley to wear certain gear and generate a certain amount of attention. That means skiing for the cameras, an art Tanner is refining into a science. In the mornings, before a day on the snow, he stretches to prevent injury. At night, he studies video of himself flexing and contorting in midair.
“He doesn’t go to sleep at night until he gets that done,” says his 23-year-old brother Tyson, who manages Armada Skis from the company’s headquarters in Costa Mesa, Calif.
With Tanner acting as the company’s celebrity frontman, and Tyson working behind the scenes, Armada Skis claims to be “What skiing will become.”
Armada is following a trend that started several years ago when skiing began to recover much of the thunder stolen by snowboarding over the last twenty years. Today, skiers like Hall comfortably embody the hooded sweatshirt disaffection of snowboard and skate culture. They ride new twin-tip skis and they’ve filed an edge for themselves that’s pushing their commercial appeal well beyond the slopes.
For Hall and other skiers, the real money booter is the jump their sport is making in the direction of big-name advertisers and sponsors. At its core, skiing may always be about having fun and experiencing the outdoors. But it’s the branding of athletes and the packaging of images that attracts the largest pay-offs.
On its fringes, from flashy slopestyle to backcountry freeheel skiing, the sport is entering an interesting phase, wherein athletes like Hall meticulously craft their own individualized brand appeal, while mainstream labels like Nike look for ways to capitalize on skiing’s rejuvenated sense of cool.
“I think it’s awesome that we’ve been given the go-ahead to be cool again,” scoffs ski film legend Glen Plake. The mohawked star of such classics as The Blizzard of Ahhs and License to Thrill, Plake and another skier with Montana roots—Helena’s Scot Schmidt—tried to fortify the image of skiing just as the snowboarding craze was taking off. That happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s when filmmaker Greg Stump pushed the word “extreme” into the commercial vernacular.
In a 1999 story about the sport’s 25 most influential people, Skiing magazine explained that Stump “gave birth to all-American Extreme, with a capital e. Now there are Extreme Combos at Taco Bell, notes the wizard behind Blizzard. That kind of says it all.”
Plake, who made his first ski turns as a two-year-old on Pattee Canyon Drive in Missoula, says Hall’s success represents “another link in the chain.”
“It’s like we’ve gone back to the hotdog circuit 30 years ago,” says Plake, recalling the knee-pumping, bump-busting, spread-eagle days of hotdogs like Bobbie Burns and Wayne Wong. Burns went on to found his own company, which still manufactures The Ski. Wong eventually wound up pitching product in a 1973 Pepsi commercial.
Plake and Schmidt picked up where Wong and Olympic champion Susie “Chapstick” Chaffee left off, with each finding careers as marketing vehicles for the sport.
Skiing magazine explains it like this: “Schmidt opened not only eyes but corporate pocketbooks. K2 and The North Face rode Schmidt right to the cash register.” Then came Olympic sensation Jonny Moseley, who “reached beyond ski-centric consciousness into pop culture” with his market appeal.
Today, there’s Tanner Hall, who’s “trying to sell even more stuff,” says Plake.
As did Plake, Hall brings to skiing a marketable, anti-establishment appeal. “He’s trying to urbanize it back into the city,” says Plake of Hall’s hip hop style.
In a poster for the Armada ski team, Hall isn’t shown skiing. Instead, he’s photographed from the waist up, looking tough and straight-faced. He’s wearing a hooded Oakley sweatshirt, a gold chain and a white sweatband around his head. In the photograph, Hall is standing in front of what appear to be the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip.
It was in Vegas, at this year’s annual SnowSports Industries America (SIA) trade show, that Armada Skis made its first big splash. The exhibition hall was divided into sections, one for skiing, another for snowboarding. Traditionally, the ski side of the show is pretty tame, while the snowboarding side tends to get rowdy.
But this year at the Armada booth—on the ski side—the company turned up the volume, offering free booze, music and a vision of where the ski industry is headed.
“It was one of the most exciting things I’ve seen on the ski side,” says writer Peter Kray who covered the show for Ski Press. “The ski industry needs it.”
That night, Red Bull and vodka flowed freely, as did a shared optimism about the company’s chances of stealing business away from the ski establishment. Armada is taking on the heavyweights, like K2, Dynastar, Atomic and Rossignol, which also sell twin-tips.
Last fall, Hall walked away from a lucrative and longstanding sponsorship deal with Rossignol. The move had some industry insiders furrowing their brows in disbelief. How could a 19-year-old kid turn his back on the likes of Rossignol?
“I wanted to be a part of this, of something for the future,” says Hall, explaining his decision to commit himself to Armada.
“It was a step back, but a huge step forward,” adds Armada team manager Eric Iberg. “He was the last piece of the puzzle for the company—the next icon, which is what he is.”
Armada Skis makes twin-tips—skis that are shaped like snowboards in that their tips are curved upwards at both ends. The design allows for greater versatility when it comes to throwing tricks like the ones Hall has built a career upon: the Cab 540, the Rodeo 720 and the D-Spin Toxic Grab.
These dynamic, jaw-dropping moves are what make the Winter X-Games appealing to advertisers from outside the ski industry. The blue-chip brands lined up to sponsor the ESPN event include Jeep, Motorola, Mountain Dew, Taco Bell, PlayStation 2, Verizon Wireless, Ore-Ida Bagel Bites and Right Guard Xtreme Sport deodorant. Other freeskiing events are sponsored by Paul Mitchell hair products and General Mills’ Nature Valley Granola Bars. With the food giant’s backing, the U.S. Freeskiing Open offered a total of $60,000 in prize money this year.
“It’s all youth marketing,” explains Rossignol product manager George Couperthwait. Couperthwait was Hall’s contact at Rossignol when he skied for the company. “The reason why they get behind it? Because of the ratings. There’s a demographic that they’re targeting and they get a concentration of that age group.”
It’s members of the 10 to 30-year-old set that are also driving demand for ski films. The films—pioneered by Warren Miller—tour the country every autumn as a psyche-up for the coming season, then go into re-runs inside ski shops and apres ski bars around the world.
A skier’s image is largely defined by the films in which they appear. As for Hall, says Couperthwait, “He tries to put out a certain image. He tries to take it to an urban style, a skateboard style, that’s part of it. But really, he’s just a kid who loves to ski.”
On the slopes, Hall skis for fun—and several sponsors. In addition to Armada, Hall represents Red Bull energy drink and Giro helmets. His next film is being entirely funded by Oakley, which has produced full-page magazine ads featuring Hall. In one ad, Hall is shown sliding—skis thrust sideways—atop the rails of a swing set in some unidentified city park. Between the lines, the ad tells consumers that they don’t need to climb mountains to be as cool as Tanner Hall. They just need to wear Oakley pants, goggles and accessories and trick on skis down at the neighborhood park.
While Hall’s style of skiing continues to bask in the flash-bulb glow of companies like Oakley, the market for twin-tip skis remains relatively small. During the 2001-2002 ski season, the SIA reported that alpine ski companies sold a total of 742,440 units and generated $226 million in sales. Of that, $5.5 million came from the sale of twin-tip skis like those marketed by Armada.
That’s a tiny market share, only about 2.5 percent. But it’s a share that’s clearly growing. Ski areas around the country—including Big Mountain, Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee—have added terrain parks specifically designed to attract twin-tip skiers. Targhee has also introduced twin-tips to powder skiers frequenting its snowcat operation.
Whether in backcountry powder or terrain parks or sliding sideways down railings in front of unsuspecting office buildings, Hall and the skiers on the Armada team are leading ambassadors of the twin-tip movement.
“It’s so image-driven, and to have six completely different personalities on a team,” says Hall, “Armada can appeal to everybody.” At least everybody who might buy a pair of twin-tips.
In 2001, the industry magazine Ski Press ran a headline that tried to sum up the growing appeal of skiers like Hall: “Look who’s holding the winning hand, now.” The cover photo shows a group of freeskiers sitting at a card table, lights turned down low and drinks all around. In the right of the photo, there’s Hall, a nonchalant leader of skiing’s new breed.
“What Tanner Hall represents is a way for the ski industry to reach that snowboard market,” says Ski Press’ Peter Kray. “He is someone who appeals to a lot wider group of people.”
To put it bluntly, Kray says, “He’s going to sell a shitload of Oakleys.”
If Tanner Hall is Oakley’s ambassador to the hip-hop, twin-tip ski generation, then freeheel skier Ben Dolenc is Nike’s missionary to the young professional masses.
Freeheel, or telemark skiing has never generated much buzz in the media, nor have its practitioners ever seen paychecks like those doled out by the X-Games. But now, as telemarking emerges as what some in the media have dubbed an “espresso sport”—a trendy passion for city-dwelling weekend warriors—the largest and savviest marketer in all of sports has taken notice.
“He’s just as good for us as we are for him,” a Nike ACG spokesman told the Denver Post after inking a sponsorship deal with Dolenc, who attended college in Montana before returning to Colorado to ski full-time. The Nike spokesman went on to say that, “As far as snow sports are concerned, [freeheel skiing] is definitely the area where we’re seeing the most rapid progression.”
But that progression has yet to buoy the careers of some of the best freeheel skiers in the world, including athletes like Whitefish resident Reid Sabin. In 1999, Sabin became the first American in history to win a World Cup telemark race. He went on to claim a consecutive pair of World Cup titles, which made him a legend in the world of telemark racing. Yet he’s never made a dime from skiing.
“A lot of people have said, ‘You should get an agent.’ But I’ve never put my energies in that end of the spectrum. I don’t want to think of it as a business,” says Sabin. “I’ve had my fun. I’ve never really been into the whole spotlight thing. I’ve done some shooting with photographers and I end up just pulling my hair out.”
Companies like Nike ACG and Polo RLX—both makers of outdoor wear—latched onto the tele-trend only after skiers like Dolenc proved the sport was both extreme and photogenic.
Still, freeheel’s market appeal remains a tough sell. Josh “Bones” Murphy’s Unparalleled Productions has made strides toward increasing the sport’s profile through its series of tele-specific ski films. But along the way, Murphy has met resistance from both sponsors and avid telemark skiers.
“There have been these retro grou-ches, the ones who say, ‘This is our sport, go away,’” says the Tahoe-based Murphy. “When you talk to them and say, ‘Your sport is marketable,’ they get pissed off.”
While a few tele athletes have been swept up in Nike’s largesse, they remain exceptions. Murphy says that’s because within the freeheel industry, there’s a wonkish emphasis on gear over personality. There are no Tanner Halls of tele, no star personas attached to the products freeheel companies are trying to sell.
“You look at the advertising, like for a backcountry shovel,” says Murphy. “Well, the magazine ad will just have a close up of the shovel. Who’s going to get excited about going skiing by looking at a shovel?”
This year, Unparalleled Productions lost K2 as its key sponsor. That’s put Murphy in a bind. He jokes that for what sponsored skiers like Tanner Hall spend during a day of skiing and filming from a helicopter, Unparalleled Productions could fund an entire project.
For ski filmmakers and photographers, the Hollywood of the sport appears to be Jackson, Wyo. At least it feels that way on a bluebird day in late February. Hall is there, along with a host of other skiers and producers prowling the slopes and backcountry of the Teton Range.
At Jackson Hole Ski Area, one crew is staging a shoot using a helicopter and a couple of snowmobiles. The snowmobiles pull skiers at top speed toward a jump that airs out into a picturesque bowl. The chopper hovers above the bowl, maneuvering at the right moments to capture the airborne skiers on film.
Over on the backside of the Grand Targhee Ski Area, Powder magazine is trying to keep up with the skier it recently named the best in North America: Seth Morrison. Morrison wears a full-facial protective motorcycle helmet when he launches backflips from terrifying heights at terrifying speeds.
“He’s the one who’s really out there stomping,” says Hall, who spends the day with a film crew sponsored by Oakley. They hike out to Cody Bowl, near the Jackson Hole Ski Area. A shooter with Poor Boyz Productions and a photographer with Freeze magazine are there to capture Hall in full flight.
Flip McCririck, the photographer with Freeze, says Hall’s best trick of the day is a “really clean Cab 540.”
“He tried some other things, but they weren’t quite as pretty,” says McCririck.
At the end of the day, Hall and the crew retire to their condo. Rap music pulses from a boom box and on the television, the Resort Sports Network plays the latest ski films.
Hall collects himself for a brief interview. He talks about leaving Kalispell for Utah, where he attended the Winter Sports School before dropping out. He name checks his heroes in the business, guys like his former roommate C.R. Johnson and the trio of freeskiers known collectively as “the three Phils.”
Hall shifts uncomfortably in his seat, offering only glimpses of what it’s taken to become one of the world’s most successful freeskiers.
“I was young, you know,” says Hall, recalling his arrival on the freeskiing scene at age 14. “I just watched, kept my head down. You learn that there’s a time when you don’t talk, you ski.”
Hall mentions that he once broke his collarbone—an injury that happened without his having fallen down or collided with anything. Apparently, Hall landed on his feet after a jump with enough force that his clavicle simply cracked.
“I’ve seen guys get hurt and not be able to come back. Things change so fast,” says Hall.
For now, Hall is among those skiers setting the pace: traveling in search of great turns and jumps, shooting film on the best days, then chilling back at the condo. As the evening goes on, Hall grabs a handful of Oreo cookies and sits down with his laptop to watch video clips of himself.
With Hall at the condo is a mix of skiers from the U.S., Canada and Europe. Their accents create a poly-lingual blend of dude-speak. One kid shows up wearing a giant silver chain with a medallion in the shape of a grenade. Another with an ice pack on his knee stays busy coining new terms to replace hopelessly square words like “radical” and “extreme.”
Watching the ski action on TV, he says, “That’s steezee.”
This confuses another of the group, who asks, “What’s steezee?”
Apparently it means stylish.
A few minutes later, the television lights up with footage of Tanner launching high off the edge of a super pipe.
“That’s all T right now,” says one of the crew.
Tanner barely looks up. He’s busy with his laptop watching clips that appear to have nothing to do with skiing. They’re all about a lifestyle—scenes of young, hot skiers walking around Park City, Utah in hooded sweatshirts.
“You could do a lot of lifestyle in Park City,” says Hall, clicking through image after image, searching for the ones that will take him, and his sponsors, to where they want to be.