Freestyle is at the heart of snowboarding the same way racing is at the heart of skiing. The idea and feeling of freestyle snowboarding is what draws so many people to it, and what keeps them snowboarding. It could also be why so many people, especially in the Midwest region of the US, seem to age out. Any snowboarder in their 30s has a long list of people they used to snowboard with, that haven’t bought a lift ticket in decades. These riders also have a laundry list of injuries and broken gear from riding park as teenagers and young adults. Tired of repetition and being broken means small hills and high consequence terrain parks just don’t draw them in anymore.
And then there’s skiing and NASTAR. Who hasn’t heard of NASTAR? It’s that group of annoying ski racers who take up a third of the hill every Wednesday night just to try and ski around some gates in as straight and efficient of a line as possible. People attempting to make their perfectly identical turns come out in droves, and they have great fun doing it. It's not uncommon to see people in their sixties running gates and then having a pint in the bar after. There is huge money in ski racing, and I’d be willing to wager that its lower risk, lower consequence gate bashing has something to do with it. While the professional racers may be flying down Birds of Prey taking on high risk and consequence, bashing gates doesn't have any of that.
Yet, there is nothing like this for snowboarding. Nothing to keep people coming back after they’re over the risk of breaking ribs on rails or their heads and knees on icy jump landings. Something about having kids you have to take care of and paying your own hospital bills just takes the heart right out of the sport as a whole. But does it have to be that way? Why can’t snowboarding have a freestyle version of NASTAR where people just come hangout every Wednesday, in a park that doesn’t threaten to break you?
To do this for freestyle riding does require a different kind of park. No huge table tops or high consequence rails, and features that encourage flow and creativity over going big. This is where the bowl park comes in. Transition riding from top to bottom of the run, maybe with some hip transfers and some creatively mounted rails. All designed less around going bigger and higher consequence, and more around encouraging flow and creativity. The rest can be taken care of by the contest design.
First of all, judges suck. For all I care, you can set up a table with mannequins as a feature and jib off their heads. This isn’t about who is going the biggest, but about who has the most style. The technicality of the trick doesn’t matter as much as the flow of the line. If you can lay down a run that’s inspiring to the whole crowd, that makes them want to become a better snowboarder, you win. If you’ve gotten better as the night or the season has worn on, you win. If you came out and had a good time with friends new and old? Yeah, you win too. It's more about enjoying life over enjoying adrenaline based thrills.
Snowboarding doesn’t have to be about going the biggest and contest judging. That’s not what made it popular to begin with. Having fun and hanging out with your friends made it popular, the feel of freedom of movement and big sweeping turns. Not being a bunch of stiff skiers made it popular. Contests are stiff. Everyone has their music in trying to get stoked to throw down as hard as they can, trying to best everyone around them. Just because the 90s media got caught up in EXTREME! doesn't mean that snowboarding has to die on that hill, too.
In order to make sure these events don’t get out of hand and turn into an endowment measuring contest, each night has a theme. No, not costumes. A riding style theme. “Butter Night” means each trick has to be some sort of press. You can have a switch night, glued to the ground night, even a snowskate night. All of these things encourage you to become a better, and more creative rider rather than to take more risks. They also encourage you to learn from others and be social.
Craig Kelly was right when he said "Freeriding will always be the driving force." The media and marketing may have ignored that style of riding during the 90's and 00's since it's less flashy, but that was their fault. Snowsports areas don't have to follow the media, and there is a reason that Korua can see an uptick in sales with the release of every "Yearning for Turning" video that comes out. And a way to encourage this sort of riding where the terrain doesn't exist is to build a terrain park that encourages it. Which could also be scaled up at major resorts into big contest style designs.
Freestyle is at the heart of snowboarding because humans love complexity. Freeriding is the hidden driving force because the complexity of life causes us to seek simplicity. The industry didn't evolve to this point, it's always been at this point. It's just not always been recognized.
Instead of terrain parks being an afterthought for teenagers and young adults, or even designed specifically for them, you can make them interesting to everyone. We all know rad snowboarders who just got bored of riding their small hills or injured out with "the concussion talk". But a well built terrain park hosting social contests can draw them back, just like NASTAR keeps skiers coming back to those same small places.