NEW YORK -- Burton Snowboards of the U.S. drove a wedge into the industry when it introduced a proprietary board design in the 1990s. But with the number of snowboarders worldwide hitting a plateau in recent years, the company is now reaching out to rival makers to keep the sport going.
Burton sponsors Japanese snowboarder Ayumu Hirano, who, at the tender age of 15 years and two months, won the silver medal in the men's halfpipe event at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games on Tuesday.
Recruiting future stars from early on is one of Burton's key strategies for enhancing its brand name. It signed a sponsorship agreement with Hirano when he was in the fourth grade of elementary school. Two years later, he came in first at a U.S. competition hosted by Burton. The company has also sponsored snowboard sensation Shaun White of the U.S. since he was 13.
Snowboarding saw a global explosion in popularity in the 1990s. But according to SnowSports Industries America, the number of snowboarders peaked in 2010 through 2011 and started to decline. The snowboarding boom also ran its course in Europe, and many of those involved in the industry are now hoping that the Olympic Games will help rekindle the sport's popularity.
The history of snowboarding cannot be told without Jake Burton, who quit his office job and founded Burton in 1977. He created the industry through trial and error, experimenting in the early days with a snowboard that used a rope attached to its front edge for control. In the 1980s, snowboards took on their present style and won the hearts of the young. New brands flooded the market, eventually totaling more than 200.
But in 1993, he made a decision that effectively turned his back on new market entrants.
Usually, boot bindings are attached to a snowboard using four screw holes laid out in a square shape, but Burton introduced boards with a three-hole, triangular configuration. According to the company, this design allows for 83 million ways to adjust stance widths and angles and enables riders to take better advantage of the board's side-to-side flex than the standard four-hole layout.
Burton also adopted screw holes with a diameter of 5mm, whereas other brands use a 6mm hole. Jake Burton made these decisions in pursuit of good sliding, but he had to pay a big price: The snowboard industry was divided into one against 200.
Getting back together
In the meantime, snowboards have been increasingly made under original equipment manufacturer agreements. In fact, more than half of Japanese snowboards are made by venerable snowboard maker Ogasaka Ski Manufacture, based in the city of Nagano. In overseas markets, Europe's major ski maker Head is emerging as an OEM heavyweight, nipping at the heels of Burton, which sticks to in-house production.
So far, Burton has maintained its dominance. A survey by U.S. research company Statistic Brain found that Burton controlled 55% of the global snowboard market as of 2012.
But in the 2011-2012 season, Jake Burton responded to the dwindling popularity of snowboarding by opening the door to rivals. His company introduced a new binding model that has 6mm screw holes so it can be used with other brands' snowboards. The company has not disclosed how much the new binding helped its sales. But an insider at Burton's Japanese unit said, "Users of other snowboard brands are choosing our new binding, so we are gradually getting good results."