A Balancing Act: Keeping World Cup Skiing Relevant

Audrey ManganJuly 11, 20135
Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR) on his way to third place.  Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus.
World Cup athletes competing in Oslo, Norway, in 2012. Television interests have influenced the evolution of the Holmenkollen 30/50 k over the last few years, and the event continues to represent the challenge of keeping cross-country relevant while staying true to the sport. Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus.

Every year, at the International Ski Federation’s (FIS) spring Calendar Conference, the media company responsible for the production and distribution of FIS World Cup and World Championship race coverage gives a presentation surveying TV audience data from the last season. The presentation from Infront Sports and Media is a kind of performance review for the entire sport. Coaches, administrators and organizers from around the globe attend the meetings to play a part in the creation of future World Cup calendars, but a key part of the process is the consideration of how many people tuned in to the races they either participated in or produced over the last year.

The inclusion of a television viewership presentation at this meeting makes clear the fact that media plays a significant role at the highest level of the sport. FIS makes no secret of this; last summer, newly promoted FIS Cross-Country Race Director Pierre Mignerey spoke openly about television’s influence on the World Cup in an interview.

“We can like it or not but today a high-level sport cannot live without television,” he said. “Without substantial television coverage in Germany, Cross-Country skiing, like most winter sports, would get in great difficulties and even probably perish in short term. Germany and Poland are the largest countries in terms of Cross-Country skiing viewers. It is no coincidence that the most important World Cup sponsors are German companies.”

In short, television viewership is critical to the very existence of the sport. The size of the World Cup’s audience every year directly affects the amount of sponsorship dollars that TV, organizers, FIS and ultimately athletes and national teams can negotiate.

“The development of our sport (like all high-level sports) requires to take into account the interests and wishes of television,” Mignerey continued last July. “This does not mean that we accept all the proposals but generally what television has looked for (create dynamic competitions, attacks, failures, strategy. Etc.) has been in the right way and has never put the essence of our sport in danger.”

A central challenge of FIS’s spring meetings, therefore, is to set a new World Cup calendar that strikes a balance between the interests of television and the interests of  the other parties who play a role in the circuit: organizers, national governing bodies, national teams and, of course, the athletes. Representatives from each demographic play a role at the conference on committees and sub-committees, and the decisions  reached at the meetings are, in theory, a compromise between all parties involved.

This spring, those compromises included the decision to keep a longer ski exchange penalty in the 30/50 k in Oslo, Norway, the creation of a new nordic opening weekend across all nordic disciplines in Kuusamo, Finland, a temporary break from city sprints, and an overall shorter season.

Knowing that television plays no small role in the World Cup calendar, it’s worth asking which calendaring decisions were made with whose interests in mind. To begin to understand the reasoning behind next season’s schedule design and their implications for national teams, we called up U.S. Ski Team head coach Chris Grover, who attended last month’s Conference and sits on the cross-country World Cup committee and the Executive Committee.


Athletic Decisions Dominate Pre-Olympic Races

According to Grover, the Conference was relatively low-key this spring. Many of the calendaring changes between the 2013/2014 season and the one before it have to do with athletic needs, not television’s. Specifically, many early season race formats were set to accommodate training and team selection needs before the Olympics, which is the highlight of next season.

“There are some variances in terms of the schedule from year to year — how many relays you can get in, if you can get in a skiathlon before Christmas,” Grover said. “I think one of the main considerations that always plays into that, especially in an Olympic year, is that a lot of the teams and coaches really want to use the World Cup as their trials, and want to be able to pick their Olympic teams based on races they’re going to see at the Games.”

This is why there are so many skate sprints and classic 10/15 k races before February; those races are the shorter, individual events that will be seen in Sochi.

“Bigger teams in particular are trying to pick out their four best skate sprinters and their four best classic skiers, and so that becomes a little more paramount in an Olympic year,” Grover said.

The Olympics also partly explain why there are no city sprints on the schedule. Grover says that coaches generally want to pick their Sochi sprinters based on results from courses that most closely resemble Sochi’s challenging terrain, and city sprints are simply too flat.

The calendar also makes considerations for a pre-Olympic altitude training block, Grover said. The last pre-Olympic World Cup was placed in Toblach, Italy, specifically for the venue’s proximity to popular altitude training venues in central Europe, where most World Cup athletes will likely train on the break before flying to Russia.


Where Audience Influences the Calendar: Strategies to Generate Hype

One major difference on the calendar next season is on the very first weekend. Kuusamo, Finland, site of the Ruka Triple mini-tour, is the season opener next season instead of its usually start in Northern Scandinavia. FIS decided to start the World Cup in Kuusamo this winter because its possession of a jumping hill allows that weekend to be a one-stop season kickoff for cross-country, ski jumping and nordic combined. Grover says FIS hopes the event will boost hype at the start of winter.

“One goal of the cross-country committee and FIS is to really have a nordic opener. So Kuusamo has the opportunity to combine forces with nordic combined and special jumping,” Grover said. “They feel that’s a way to build interest in the nordic sports when you start them all at once, so I think we’ll continue to see that be the kickoff weekend. Over the next few years that opening weekend may rotate a little bit more between Kuusamo and Lillehammer.”

Television’s interests show again in Oslo, the penultimate weekend on the World Cup. It’s one of the highest-profile events of the year, and it’s also a venue that has already seen significant change to its races in the name of spectator interest. The 30/50 k, originally an individual event, became a mass start in 2009 before ski changes were added to increase the importance of strategy and increase spectator interest. Last year, the race was changed again with the audience in mind; more distance was added to the ski exchange pit to add even more drama.

After a trial run of the newest format, it appears that the penalty component — and its accompanying ski changes — are here to stay for at least another year in Oslo.

“The feedback from television was positive; it provided more interest to the television spectator,” Grover said. “And the athletes — Kikkan [Randall, one of FIS’s athlete representatives] surveyed them, and she’s obviously surveying athletes on all kinds of issues on the World Cup. And they were mixed on that particular question, as I recall.”

According to Grover, approximately one third of the athlete survey respondents were supportive of the exchange penalties, another third preferred exchanges without the added time, and another third were against the concept of ski changes altogether.

“So it kind of comes out a little bit of a mixed message, but I think what you end up with is two thirds of the athletes saying ski exchanges are great, but some debate within that group in terms of how long [the penalty] should be,” Grover said. “So right now, it’ll stay at that longer distance.”

Grover added that his personal opinion on the penalty wasn’t strong one way or another.

“It did not play to our advantage last year, but that’s just because we had some athletes that didn’t necessarily make the best tactical decision as to whether to change skis or not on some of those exchanges,” he said. “I think they learned their lessons a little bit about it, and will be stronger in the event next year. But…as a nation it’s the same decision making process for everybody, so everybody’s in the same boat and I don’t think it necessarily takes away from the race from an athletic perspective.”


How Much Television Influence is Acceptable?

One of the ideas Randall brought to the conference as an athlete representative was a proposal to return the Oslo marathon to its original form — an individual event with no possibility for ski changes, just every athlete against the clock. The last time Holmenkollen hosted an individual 30/50 k was in 2008.

The motion didn’t go through for 2013/2014 — Vegard Ulvang, the leader of the FIS cross-country committee, told the NRK last month that an immediate change would be impossible for organizers. But he also suggested the individual format could be considered again down the road.

“It is very interesting that today’s practitioners so strongly desired [to bring the] interval start back,” Ulvang said via translation. “It is clear that the idea of ​​the individual’s struggle with himself through the forest remains very strong. So the question is whether the public thinks the same way, or if the athletes want to sing a song that nobody is interested in listening to.”

The kind of event that takes place in Oslo, and the ongoing discussion surrounding the format, can be seen as a distillation of the challenges skiing faces to meet the sometimes-conflicting needs of its stakeholders — to keep itself relevant while maintaining the “essence of the sport,” as Mignerey put it.

As the leader of the U.S. national team, Grover believes it is part of his job and of others in a similar position to help keep the sport relevant.

“Frankly, it’s part of our responsibility is to make sure that cross-country stays popular, and cross-country continues to grow in popularity and that people are interested and tuning in and watching it,” he said.

Regarding the mass start, ski change, and penalty aspects to the Oslo 30/50 k, he says, “if it’s one of those things that can make a difference in terms of popularity then I think we need to support it.”

Ultimately, Grover thought the evolution of formats and rules on the World Cup should account for the interests of everyone that participates in the circuit, from the athletes, to television, to the organizers, teams, and coaches.

“It’s a balance for sure…all those energies really need to be balanced in these calendaring decisions, and decision about the rules for a specific event,” Grover said. “The television is a big part of it. And you know, there’s other sports that are part of the FIS family that are really struggling with their television viewership and maintaining their market share, and I think we’re probably very fortunate in cross-country in that we’ve had leadership over the past however many years that has allowed this port to change, that has made steps to modify the types of races that we do to make those races more attractive for television. And because of that, we’ve built interest and a fan base in the sport and I think it’s critical that we continue to do so.”

Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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  • Tim Kelley

    July 12, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    It would be simple to do a test to see if ski racing formats the World Cup fosters are truly relevant to the sport of cross country skiing. The test would be to have the Swedish Vasaloppet change its format from a 90 km point to point race to a 1.5 km sprint qualifier loop. And then see how many skiers apply for entry into the race that year.

    If 20,000 people apply to gain entry to do the new “sprint Vasa” – then World Cup ski racing formats are surely relevant to the sport. But if only 200 skiers applied, then perhaps one might conclude that some of the World Cup formats are irrelevant marketing executive-contrived derivatives of the sport that have little to do with the soul of cross country skiing.

    BTW – isn’t cross country skiing supposed to be about health and life-long fitness? Then why are decisions about the sport made based on the numbers of people sitting on couches watching TV? If the WC was relevant, the voice of cross country skiers would not be drowned out by the sound of remote controls being clicked.

  • skidog

    July 13, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I liked the article. I didn’t know that Germany and Poland were in the driver’s seat. I realize that the article is about what’s behind the decisions on calendar and race format – I was surprised that growing the audience was not really discussed. In that regard, i think that an overhaul of the fis cross country website would have the greatest impact. The calendar is not easy to decipher and with all the various race formats and wc categories it is a challenge for anyone to take a casual interest. The recap videos are great, but the way the results are flashed on screen with no explanation and lousy headings leaves one very confused when trying to decipher what’s going on at an event like the tourdeski or wc finals: e.g. Overall wc resultsare not easily distinguished from overall wcfinals vs current day’s results vs overall sprint results etc. I think this sort of confusion is a huge barrier to entry for potential audience.

  • T.Eastman

    July 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    Hmmm, watching paint dry or watching a World Cup/Olympic 50K mass start race…

  • teamepokeedsbyn

    July 13, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    I kinda think it is easier for a typical tv viewer to grasp the workings of a mass start race, vs an interval start. But, I believe, with the documented increased speeds from wax, ski and grind technology advancements over the last 20 years, marathon mass start race distances (especially freestyle) should be bumped up at 10% -15%, to make for more dramatic finishes, and less chance of mass sprints through attrition. Seems like too much drafting and pack skiing going on, especially in blazing fast 50k skate races.

    And while your at it, maybe the world might be interested in seeing women ski a true marathon (at least two hour) race in world cup and Olympics. I would like to believe the best world cup women are fit enough to race the same distances as men. Hell, the women pro cyclists are requesting to be able to race the full length TdF next year. Men do not consider the 30km a marathon distance, so why should the ladies.

  • jacquesdn

    July 14, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    @T.Eastman did you happen to catch the 50K from Val di Fiemme this year? Here is a link in case you missed it. http://vimeo.com/60963283

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