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A few years ago, I started to notice clumps of scruffy-looking young men loitering around the parking lot of my favorite snowboarding hill, Loveland. Their arrival was in synch with my departure: My weekend strategy had been to arrive early and then leave after four good hours, hoping to beat the I-70 afternoon slog. As I walked to my car just after lunch, these guys would look around furtively, then approach like drug dealers, flashing wire-cutters.
"Hey, can I clip your ticket?" one would ask, hoping that I'd hand over my lift ticket so he could fasten it to his own jacket and get a half day of free riding, courtesy of me. My friend Rich, a doctor, loved these meetings.
"I've got a better idea," he'd say. "How about you get a job instead?" Then, as the pack slunk away, he'd add up the cost of their equipment per boarder: $400 for deck and bindings, $100-plus more for boots, maybe a couple hundred bucks each for the latest jacket and pants.
"Maybe you shouldn't do a sport until you can afford it," he'd conclude loudly.
I'm pretty sure Rich didn't change anyone's mind. After all, the snowboarding lifestyle has always been about living on the cheap. Drive up Berthoud Pass, and most winter days you'll pass groups of young riders hitching their way back to the top, trying to squeeze in another free run.
With rare exceptions, this frugal outlook is true even if one has the skill to make it into the ranks of professional snowboarders. Sure, professional riders get the groupies, have the weed and have earned the right to say, while making conversation on a chairlift, "Really, an accountant, huh? I'm a professional snowboarder." Pros get to cop the sno-rappa attitude.
But they don't have the money. The truth is, being a professional snowboarder is far more about attitude than it is about cash. At January's Winter X Games, the internationally televised pinnacle of the sport, winners -- most of whom paid their own way to Glitter Gulch -- walked away with legitimate prizes, up to $20,000 for a top spot. But Pat Bridges, editor of Snowboarding magazine, estimates that on average, pros earn between $18,000 and $30,000 per year -- more Le Peep than LeBron.
Drop down the list, from superstar to mere touring pro, and the rewards are even more paltry. Lesser competitions pay prizes calculated in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. In snowboarding, the designation of "professional" is only a decimal point away from "amateur." That explains why, at any big event, the parking lot is crammed with RVs packed like clown cars with competitors.
Sponsorship deals, too, are usually more about visibility than liquidity. Got a deal with gear behemoth Burton? Awesome! But in all likelihood, what that really means is that you get a free deck once a year, maybe a pair of new boots thrown in. And that relationship with Red Bull, the energy-drink company that seems to toss its swag at any event featuring teenagers and the possibility of a spectacular crash? You might get a few bucks. More likely, what a young hotshot will get is enough free Red Bull to ruin the health of a lab rat.
Add in the high costs of the sport -- lift tickets, competition entry fees -- and "you see a lot of incredibly good riders who live off their couches," says Jesse Csincsak, a mid-level pro who lives in Breckenridge. "But they don't live off of ramen and out of their cars because they want to."
Tired of the grind, in recent years several of the tour's more creative riders have decided to change the direction of the money flow. "If you're not making the podium, nobody's going to approach you," notes Jill Baker-Haight, who's scheduled to compete in the boardercross event in this weekend's Gravity Games at Copper Mountain.
Rather than wait for sponsors to find them, a handful of riders have flipped the tables and become sponsors themselves. Danny Kass, winner of last month's Vans Superpipe competition in Lake Tahoe, is one of the few riders who actually make a living at the sport. But he also sponsors his own team through his apparel company, Grenade Gloves.
Being your own sponsor has a certain "fuck you" appeal. "I got sick of trying to promote myself," Csincsak says. "I got real tired of being the guy sending out riding photos, saying, 'Hey, look at what I can do.'" So he tried something even more radical: He started a non-profit foundation to give money away to aspiring competitive snowboarders struggling to pay for their snow jones.
Csincsak, who is 22, moved to Breckenridge three years ago after falling in love with the town during a competition he attended while in high school. Any sane person with a goal of riding in the Olympics doesn't stay long in eastern Ohio. "We don't really have ski mountains," he says. "It's more like ski valleys."
Aside from the mountains, the first thing Csincsak noticed after moving west was the social stratum. "There's two classes here -- your rich and your not-rich," he says. "There's really no in-between." He started giving away some of his ski days to more down-and-out friends. It felt good. So in 2001 he started J-SAK Snowboarding, a 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to giving handouts to deserving riders.