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.
"Jesse is a very unusual athlete, in my book," says Patti Campana of Amherst, Ohio, Csincsak's home town. "His mind thinks different than other kids his age." When Csincsak asked Campana to be on the board of his new nonprofit, she agreed immediately.
Their first fundraiser was a lowly steak fry. "We rented out the Amherst Eagles Hall," recalls Ryan Lahetta, who helped organize the event. More than 500 people showed up -- out of a town of 13,000. "Amherst is just thrilled with Jesse," Campana says.
Since then, dinners and other fundraisers -- sales of snowboarding calendars, mostly -- have provided J-SAK with an operating budget of about $10,000 per year. At first the idea was to support Ohio riders. But when Csincsak moved to Colorado, the program followed him.
Campana says that in addition to being promising riders, applicants for J-SAK grants must demonstrate a certain amount of social awareness. Last year, she recalls, J-SAK turned down two sisters who'd applied because they couldn't manage to see beyond their last run. "Their mother was an officer in USABA" -- the United States of America Snowboarding Association -- "and so they never really thought they had to do their part to give back," she says. Past recipients have agreed to mentor young riders and give talks to local youth organizations, among other projects.
"Jesse doesn't want to deal with people who aren't serious," says Campana. "We want people who want to make it to the top." Although J-SAK's board reviews applications, the final decision is made by Csincsak.
Baker-Haight, who is 25, applied after she happened to notice Csincsak's truck parked in Lake George. The truck had his website advertised on the back, and she logged on and applied for some cash. Csincsak called her a few days later and invited her for an interview. "We went riding through Peak 8's pipe," Baker-Haight recalls. "I'm not much into superpipe, and these were eighteen-foot walls." Still, four runs later, she had a new sponsor.
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The amount was typically small -- a $300 season pass, about $500 in professional-organization membership dues and the promise to pay a handful of competition entry fees. Maybe later, if things go really well, J-SAK will buy Baker-Haight a gas card to help pay for the daily drive from her home in Woodland Park to Breckenridge. "But every bit helps," she says, pointing out that the most she's ever won at a competition was $100. "I wouldn't be here now if it weren't for Jesse."
J-SAK sponsors five other riders, one of whom, naturally, is Csincsak. But he says the real kick is being the guy who doles out the cash rather than being the one begging for it. "People come to me now. I get the phone calls instead of me calling them."
Of course, it shouldn't have to be that way. This past January, a record number of spectators traveled to Aspen to watch young athletes hurl their bodies off motorcycles, over jumps and down steep pitches. The Winter X Games included daily live telecasts on ESPN and were broadcast in ten languages to more than 145 countries and territories around the world. They were seen by more than 100 million people. Somebody's making money off of snowboarding; there's no reason the athletes involved should have to beg for scraps.