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The Pros are back following the money; Steamboat hosts Feb. 6-8 races

1st February 2021 | Craig Altschul

Resorts in this article: Steamboat

GS star Ted Ligety plans to compete on pro tour and World Cup circuit

GS star Ted Ligety plans to compete on pro tour and World Cup circuit

Copyright: World Pro Ski Tour

While the NCAA struggles with allowing college athletes (read: “amateur”) to accept pay for play, the honchos of collegiate sports might be advised to take a closer look at the ski world which ended that debate for their sport nearly a half century ago.

That decision is magnified and will be on full display Feb. 7-8 when the newly rejuvenated World Pro Ski Tour tosses out a $50,000-plus prize purse in a “made-for-TV” COVID winter event on Steamboat’s Howelsen Hill, the city-owned ski area that has been in continuous operation for more than a century.

The racing schedule for the “City of Steamboat Springs Carnival Cup” begins Saturday (after COVID-19 screenings each morning). Qualifying rounds begin at noon, followed by the Carnival Cup Round of 32 at 2:30 p.m. The Round of 16 to the finals is under the lights at 6 p.m. followed by an awards ceremony and fireworks. 

Monday’s Moose Barrows Trophy Round of 32 is at 12:30 p.m. with the Round of 16 to the finals at 7 p.m. Barrows is an affable Steamboat local remembered for eternity for a spectacular crash (think “agony of defeat”) at the Grenoble Olympics in 1968. The Alpine Bank Junior Challenge will be staged in between.

TV coverage extensive

FloSports, a fast-growing subscription TV streaming network, will carry events live (the races also will stream on Facebook Live and Ski Racing Media). CBS Sports Network will package the highlights a week later in prime time. A tour-produced reality show, “In Between The Gates,” will air a few weeks after that on Outside TV.

“Managing a sports event during the pandemic presents plenty of challenges,” World Pro Ski Tour CEO Jon Franklin told OnTheSnow.com."We are following strict COVID protocol set down by the State of Colorado, Routt County and the town of Steamboat Springs. It will be an exciting TV show with no spectators allowed on Howelsen Hill. Everything will be spaced out from inside the TV truck to the numbers of people allowed in Olympian Hall at one time. We have the same issues as the NBA and NFL.”

The head-to-head formula of the World Pro Ski Tour is exciting.  - © World Pro Ski Tour

The head-to-head formula of the World Pro Ski Tour is exciting.

Copyright: World Pro Ski Tour

Franklin makes a convincing case, and many, if not most, ski racing spectators would agree, that the pro racing format — a basketball-style tournament starting with a field of 32 racers, whittling down to just two — is compelling and can be thrilling to watch. The head-to-head, Mano a Mano racing on a dual slalom course including leaping off three large bumps is not only challenging but fraught with the knowledge that one slight mistake can easily knock a racer out of the dollar chase.

Further, to win the event title, a racer has to do it all over again five times (rounds of 32, 16, 8, 4 and 2). It can be so exciting on TV that parallel racing will be included in the 2022 Winter Olympics at Beijing, China.

Sponsors for the Steamboat event, largely making up the prize purse, include Tito’s Handmade Vodka, White Claw Hard Seltzer, Tuff Shed, Flatirons Subaru, Alpine Bank and Reven Pharmaceuticals.

Franklin plans on some 50 racers heading to Steamboat to try and qualify but, by far, the biggest name is expected to be Ted Ligety, skiing first at Steamboat as a pro and then heading off to Cortina, Italy to race Giant Slalom in the World Alpine Ski Championships as a veteran member of the U.S. Ski Team.

Ligety, 34, from Park City, Utah, is a two-time Olympic champion. He has seven World Alpine Ski Championship medals, including a historic gold medal “hat trick” at Schladming, Austria in 2013. Ligety has won the World Cup giant slalom title five times.

The ‘pay to play” issue

But, back to the pay for play issue. “Cash prizes to athletes has honestly never been an issue since the 70s and early 80s,” explains Tom Kelly, the communications face of the U.S. Ski Team for nearly 30 years. “The basic issue was somewhat in the Avery Brundage era of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) — remember Karl Schranz not being able to ski in the 1972 Olympics and the following period. 

“The IOC made some sweeping commercial changes in the mid-1980s. Cash prizes to athletes became the International Ski Federation (FIS) norm in 1990. It’s never really been an issue since. Athletes are free to compete where they wish,” Kelly said.

The Pro Tour emerged from the fog of the battles over “amateurism” between Brundage, head of the IOC, and FIS head Marc Holder. Brundage was a Chicago millionaire who passionately believed athletes accepting money from equipment manufacturers was a cardinal sin. Holder, a savvy Swiss lawyer, had the racers on his side. All it took to blow the issue sky high was Jean Claude Killy, the sport’s glamorous superstar of the era, to be told by the Brundage-led IOC to return the gold medals — downhill, Giant Slalom and slalom —he earned at the Grenoble Olympic Games of 1968.

The Pros began amidst all the rancor with a push by Friedl Pfeiffer, founder of the Aspen Ski Company. Killy and Stein Eriksen, the smooth-skiing Norwegian, joined the tour, among other recognizable names, and it was on its way to a 40-year run. Former U.S. Ski Team head coach Bob Beattie took over the tour with Benson & Hedges cigarettes, ironically, as the sponsor. 

Spider and Claudine

The Spider Sabich saga in 1976 propelled pro skiing into headlines well beyond the sports pages. Sabich, with movie star blond hair, blue-eyed looks, had been a U.S. Ski Team star before turning pro and winning its championship. Sabich met French-born singer-actress Claudine Longet, the beautiful ex-wife of singer Andy Williams, at a celebrity ski race and their whirlwind romance took ever-glitzy Aspen by storm. It ended tragically when Longet shot Sabich (she claimed accidentally) and he died on the way to the hospital. The trial was a media sensation.

The tour flourished anew with Maine restauranteur Ed Rogers and his Colorado partner Mike Collins at the helm. Chrysler-Plymouth became a major sponsor, TV continued to be enamored by the excitement head-to-head racing could generate and prize money grew and grew. Rogers further energized the tour in1988 by bringing in twins Phil and Steve Mahre, gold and silver stars at the Sarajevo Olympics.

Then, along came unknown Austrian racer Bernhard Knauss and the tour cash purses became so strong that, over the next two seasons, Knauss deposited more than $700,000 in his hometown bank in Schladming, Austria. This by a skier without a single World Cup win or Olympic medal.

The Pro Tour ran out of gas after it was sold to marketers DelWilber + Associates which, in turn, sold it to Fox’s Family Channel in 1996. The TV network soon dropped sports programming, no major sponsor could be found, and the tour sat dormant for the next 20 years, strangely when it was at its high point of popularity.

The light began to shine back through the tunnel in 2017 when Vail businessman Dan Leever, who had recently purchased Ski Racing Media, became chair of the tour and, with a small group of investors, began the pro tour re-launch with Franklin as CEO. 

The future: “The post-COVID future will see the revitalized tour grow bigger and better with more events, sponsors, enhanced TV coverage and prize money each year,” Franklin projected. Perhaps the time is ripe once again. Stay tuned.

Pro Tour CEO Jon Franklin sees bright future for the events.  - © World Pro Ski Tour

Pro Tour CEO Jon Franklin sees bright future for the events.

Copyright: World Pro Ski Tour

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