For the last two years, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) have been pushing American athletes to compete more in Europe, citing a need for experience in the cutthroat racing environment there.
Belying that push, however, were thousands of dollars in prize money awarded to the winners of the sprint and distance disciplines of the SuperTour, the four month-long domestic race series. Those bonuses—$2,000 for each one, for men and women—have long served as an incentive for athletes to follow the stateside circuit, since each SuperTour race presented an opportunity to accumulate points in the season standings.
For the upcoming year, that will change: USSA budget cuts have eliminated all $8,000 of those bonuses, association staff revealed in interviews last week.
That move will almost certainly shift the priorities of individual athletes. But there will also be repercussions on a larger scale, for the SuperTour—which has served as a launching pad for a number of elite American athletes over the last decade.
“We do the SuperTour because it is the means to a strategic end. In the foreseeable future, we are going to want to emphasize the development-level racing in Europe more and more,” said Luke Bodensteiner, the executive vice president for athletics at USSA. “We will see how this change shakes out, but I think, where we are at…the emphasis is of course going to continue to be [on the] World Cup, and now also, this level below it.”
In interviews with two SuperTour veterans on Sunday, both expressed concern that the cuts could cause the series to wither—though both also said that they understood USSA was in a tight spot with regards to its budget.
Individual SuperTour races will still keep their own prize purses, which are paid out by the event organizers, not USSA. But for the time being, at least, there will be no more season-long chases for the big payouts.
The bonuses, said CXC’s Brian Gregg, are “one of the reasons I’ve raced a lot of the SuperTours—in some years, almost every single SuperTour,” he said. “I think that will really hurt, as far as the full following of the entire circuit.”
This season, Gregg started 23 of the 24 SuperTour races, and ended up a scant 25 points ahead of Lars Flora (APU) in the distance standings. That title was his second straight, meaning that he has collected $4,000 in bonuses from USSA over the last two years.
“There’s a group of older athletes,” he said, that have “sort of fallen outside the bubble of support from the national team, and I think SuperTour prize money has been a way they’ve been able to support themselves.”
James Southam, the retired two-time Olympian and 2009 SuperTour distance champion, echoed Gregg, noting that the bonuses were one of the “the few places where they [USSA] support athletes directly for something that’s purely based on results.”
Southam, who is now the cross-country athlete representative to the USSA board, acknowledged the need for European racing experience for developing athletes, and he said he thought that it’s getting easier for those skiers to accumulate it.
But at the same time, Southam said, he was worried that the SuperTour was going to become “underutilized.”
“The future of it, unless something changes, is not very good,” he said.
Without the bonuses, Southam continued, there’s little reason for athletes to follow the domestic circuit unless they’re competing for World Cup start rights, which are awarded to the man and woman atop the combined SuperTour sprint and distance rankings at various points throughout the season.
Southam said he thought attendance at the SuperTour Finals in March would continue to be strong, but that the fall races in West Yellowstone and elsewhere could see a drop as more athletes head to Europe during that part of the year.
And if skiers aren’t going to show up for the races, Southam added, “venues are not going to hold them.”
“Why hold a SuperTour if it’s just basically a JOQ [junior Olympic qualifier]?” he said. “What’s the benefit to the community to put this on?”
If the SuperTour indeed falters, the challenge, Southam said, will be for young skiers to make the jump from racing locally to racing in Europe, since the domestic circuit has served in the past as “a bridge.”
Bodensteiner, who was one of the architects of the current SuperTour format, said that he didn’t have any concrete plans to scale back the schedule. The reason the current calendar includes competitions throughout the whole year, he added, is because an increasing number of club and professional teams have been willing to travel to race them over the past decade.
“You want to match the schedule with the demands the athletes place on the system,” he said. “We had gone through a period of 10 years where we were really emphasizing the SuperTour, and pushing up the prize money, and got it up to pretty significant levels.”
Now, Bodensteiner said, USSA has made a strategic shift, with its push towards European racing. But that, he added, is based on the level of the nation’s athletes. And at this point, the SuperTour bonuses were “probably less important than emphasizing some of the other areas of the international development.”
Bodensteiner was noncommittal on the subject of future prize money, leaving open the possibility of a reinstatement of cash awards.
Southam did have one idea for combatting the potential for diminished attendance presented by the loss of the bonuses: awarding World Cup start rights to the SuperTour distance and sprint leaders, just like the ones that are awarded to the skiers at the top of the overall standings.
“There’s two key things to trying to make it in this sport,” he said. “One is funding, and one is opportunity. And if you can’t fund, but there’s an unfunded opportunity, I think it would be a…straightforward and fair way for people to earn a World Cup start.”
—Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.