Masters Rankings And Future National Masters
Back in February 2003 an op-ed article appeared on fasterskier.com written by notable businessman, coach, and athlete Torbjorn Karlsen that offered up a suggestion of AXCS creating a nationwide masters ranking list as well as possibly using the Subaru National Masters Championships as a finale to a season-long points system. For those not familiar with this article, here is a link.
Up to my eyeballs at the time in emergency planning for the snow-less Subaru NM2003 in Anchorage, Alaska...it has now taken over four months to finally sit down and respond to Torbjorn’s original ideas. In creating this response, it became apparent that this would be a great chance to outline for the ski community the vast array of challenges and opportunities for the Subaru National Masters event as well as for AXCS as the national masters association.
Buckle up, this is going to be an interesting ride.
First off, what Torbjorn found out shortly after his article appeared is that the AXCS Board and National Office has been kicking around the idea of a nationwide masters ranking list since the AXCS was founded in Spring 1998. This is certainly not a new idea! Why then hasn’t it happened? Three very good reasons.
Reason #1: Quantifying Results
There are very few (if any) occasions in any winter that a significant percentage of any adult age group will compete head-to-head. Sure, ASM Series events will catch the majority of “performance” skiers at least once, but that still won’t provide head-to-head match-ups. Even something huge like the American Birkebeiner will only contain perhaps half of the top skiers in any group...and even then, is it fair when skiers in the same age group start in separate waves? To factor in multiple race distances makes the job even more difficult. Using “baseline” skiers is an option but it depends on being able to subjectively determine the “best” skier or skiers in every age group...every year. Not at all an easy process!
Reason #2: Manpower
A meaningful national ranking system is not a casual task. At best, AXCS would have to be able to track and database dozens of event results nationwide, then have the capacity to factor those results using whatever kind of mathematical formula someone could come up with to create a ranking system. Whereas junior and senior rankings may only involve perhaps 400-500 skiers in a year, a meaningful masters system could potentially involve up to 25,000 skiers each year! Simply put, unless the system was so simple that skiers themselves could administrate their own ranking via xcskiworld.com, a ranking system is beyond the organizational capacities of AXCS.
Reason #3: Community Demand
AXCS community surveys dating back to 1998 have consistently shown only lukewarm interest in ranking lists. There is little doubt that if we could figure out a way to make it realistically work, that over time more masters would care about rankings. But right now, someone like Torbjorn is very much in the minority. It’s really a chicken and egg situation where we can’t really develop the system without support (financial and otherwise...meaning...more AXCS members and more xcskiworld.com readers), yet at the same time widespread demand for a system won’t probably ever exist until more masters could see the potential benefits.
OK, so is this a dead idea? No, not really.
This summer the American Ski Marathon Series will become part of the AXCS structure. This is pretty much just an administrative change but it does open the door to the start of at least a partial ranking list centered around the ASM Series races. One concept that the AXCS office is working on is to create a formalized system for wave start placement at all ASM Series races that could eventually be translated to other major ski events as well. Yes, this system will involve some of the same challenges in quantifying results as well as manpower demands. The upside is that AXCS can make this race-start ranking system a major membership benefit. Meaning...eventually skiers would only be able to get premium race start placement if they are in the rankings. But you only get to keep your placement if you keep your membership current. What we do know already is that demand for this particular application of masters rankings is significant. Skiers and race directors nationwide are getting more and more frustrated with the subjective nature of most wave start systems. If AXCS could solve the problem, that’s a big first step.
Should the wave start rankings happen and catch on, one immediate result would be rapid growth for the AXCS. That could, in turn, provide the leverage for the manpower and technological demands of ranking expansion into more races. At that point, Torbjorn’s ideas would have at least a chance of seeing the light of day.
Now to the Subaru National Masters part of the equation. Some background first.
All modesty aside, under the leadership of the AXCS, the National Masters Championships has become the premier championship of its kind in all the world. We’ve got everything from a nationwide promotional net to an increasingly-sophisticated event planning and execution template. All good, good, good. Shouldn’t have any problems right?
Well, here’s the short list.
a. Numbers -- Unlike the junior and modern senior nationals, the National Masters has to market itself (and hard) in order to gain an audience. When someone hosts the JO’s, they know they will get 300+ kids. The senior nationals is now so heavily weighted with juniors and college skiers that there is now a near-guarantee of 300+ skiers there as well. But the NM, every year is a huge challenge to design the event so that we have enough skiers that sponsors and host venues will be continually excited about the event.
Just how much numbers impact an NM event is amazing. Literally everything from site selection, to scheduling, to event design revolves around numbers. If we don’t get them, pretty soon we won’t have a Nationals. It’s that simple.
b. Venues -- AXCS would like to be able to take the Nationals anywhere in the country that wants to hold the event. The problem is that a diminishing number of sites have the right combination of elements. Limiting factors include risk of snow (very real these days ANYWHERE at low altitude); marketing problems with really high altitude venues (will the low altitude skiers show up?); organizational experience and infrastructure; distance to major transportation and skier markets; existing events to avoid and use as hooks; etc, etc, etc..
Going right back up to numbers again, venue selection is so much tougher with Masters because we have to convince skiers that each year’s event site is worth a week or couple days worth of vacation. A junior or college skier just gets in the van or gets on the plane and goes to other championship events. They may or may not be excited about the venue, but they are going to have to go anyways. Masters? If a master skier doesn’t want to go somewhere, they don’t go. Period. Thus creating a critical need to only base the National Masters in venues that have the best possible chance at attracting bodies.
Large urban areas with a large base of performance XC skiers has worked well. Hooking up the National Masters with an existing major marathon has also worked OK. What has not worked well, surprising to many, is simply selecting very attractive ski destinations. Ironically, when we’ve had perfect conditions in beautiful locations we’ve had a harder time getting numbers that less optimal situations commanded.
c. Scheduling -- This one is getting to be a killer. Take a look at the 2003/2004 major event calendar and think about trying to find a week-long slot in any area of the country free of major citizen race events between mid-January and mid-March. It can’t be done. So the next best thing is to avoid conflicts with major events in the same region as where we want to host the NM. Time was that we could pull this part off, but even this much is starting to become impossible.
For example, in order for the Subaru NM2003 to happen in Ishpeming/Marquette, Michigan this coming January, AXCS had to ask Minnesota’s Pepsi Challenge to move off their traditional race weekend and be held two weeks later than normal. The good folks up at Giant’s Ridge (Pepsi host site) accommodated this request and we certainly hope they are rewarded with lots of loyal skiers flocking to their event! But moving major events around is hardly something AXCS can manage forever. With new major events appearing every year of late, the scheduling nightmare is only going to get worse over time.
d. Trying To Please Everyone -- It is safe to say that over the past five years the AXCS Board has considered as many NM event proposals, adjustments, and trial balloons as FIS officials handling the World Cup. AXCS has been enormously aggressive in trying to mold the NM event to fit the needs/desires/appetites of the widest range of skiers. That said, no NM design is going to be perfect and any action/inaction has a body of skiers in favor or opposition.
One specific thing that AXCS has done over the past ten months is explore several potential options for radically changing future NM events to see if there was a better way to build the mousetrap. Among these conceptual proposals:
i. Annually combining the U.S. and Canadian National Masters into a “North American Masters” with each nation hosting the event every other year. Feedback from both skiers and the industry was very cool on this idea. The general consensus being that skiers from each nation would simply wait until the event came back to their respective country.
ii. Creating a multi-sport winter festival. Although positively-received by both skiers and industry officials alike, this idea has massive logistical problems.
iii. Creating a stage event out of the NM design (ala the Tour de France). Little to no support.
iv. Moving the NM to the end of the racing season. Mixed reaction, primary worry being that too many skiers would transition into spring sports. Harder for the industry to weigh for event support.
Even with a mixed survey reaction, increasingly the AXCS National Office has been turning to the Spring option “iv” as a very real possible solution. Torbjorn Karlsen’s ideas in his op-ed article simply added more fuel to this particular fire.
The Season-Ender Nationals
The idea is simple, the execution a bit more complex, and the “big picture” questions plentiful.
A season-ender National Masters would have the event placed annually on the 3rd or 4th full week in March. Races would take place over 5-6 days using the current event design as a model for race format and length. More modifications would be possible than the current model simply because this event would annually be held at the end of the race season. In fact, having some VERY interesting and non-traditional event formats could be critical to the viability of a season-ender NM event.
The big organizational benefit of this concept is that it is possible to get outside the window of “the last big event” in virtually every region of the country. At the same time, this type of scheduling wouldn’t put the event outrageously beyond the snow timeframe for most of the nation. In other words, we'd annually be trying to entice several hundred skiers to gear up for one final ski blowout just as they'd normally hang up the boards for spring.
The tricky thing (well, one of the many tricky things) is that very few moderate-elevation sites in the U.S. can guarantee snow for a National Masters at the end of March. Plenty of places have skiing at that time in a good snow year...it’s the guarantee of snow that’s the problem. Several western high altitude sites could guarantee the snow, but the higher we go...the harder it is to convince low altitude skiers to get on the plane. Thus, roughly 6000-6500 feet would be as high as we could go and still expect a representative audience. Even in the west, sites at this elevation that could attract and service a 500 skier NM are few and far between.
Given all this, it would most likely be impractical to think that a season-ender NM could rotate around the U.S. as it does now. Thus, we’d probably need to establish a semi-permanent “home” for the NM in what would be likely a western U.S. location.
As with the current NM model, we’d need a site with all the organizational elements in place plus all the “intangibles” of an attractive vacation destination for a nationwide audience. Most difficult of all, to really be able to market a season-ender NM, all surveys to date indicate that AXCS would have to find a way to expand the event well beyond just the “normal” audience for a Nationals.
Let’s go back to Torbjorn Karlsen’s ideas. Creating a season-ender Nationals as a “Super Bowl” of a season-long points system is a really interesting idea. But it’s also an idea that, right now, would have a limited market. This is hand-in-hand with the idea of a ranking system. Rankings and point systems only make sense if there are enough skiers that value such animals.
Hence, instead of a Super Bowl, what would most likely be more successful is to market a season-ender Nationals as quality races PLUS a catch-all, blow-out, play-until-your-eyes pop annual spring spectacular. The week would need to offer things like non-race groomed tours into scenic areas, opportunities for spring off-snow activities in the afternoon (cycling, paddling, hiking), plenty of social events and even family events to take advantage of a potential “Spring Break” factor with vacation schedules.
The Big Picture
Just how well the ski community would embrace this concept is certainly up to speculation. Should a season-ender National Masters prove viable, there is significant benefit to both AXCS and skiers. Scheduling and event coordination instantly would become infinitely easier (saving AXCS up to 100 manhours each year). Skiers would be able to annually chart out a “big event” season that lasted longer...allowing for better rest/training periods during the season. By necessity, the event would break down walls between markets (otherwise it wouldn't work) combining high performance, casual performance, and recreation sectors into one big, happy party. Eventually Karlsen’s ideas about the entire racing season building up to a crescendo of the "Super Bowl" National Masters could even happen.
On the downside, we potentially could lose out by not moving around the country with the National Masters. A permanent altitude site could permanently scare off low elevation skiers (even when numerous studies indicate results would not be significantly impacted by a site up to 6500 feet). By sticking in the same place we could also end up with a greatly regionalized audience making the event more a “regionals” than a true Nationals. Creating a plan for the industry to get excited about the concept would be a major challenge. Even with guaranteed snow, there’s no guarantee that flatland skiers will change their habits, delay the bike/running shoes for a week, and make the trip when the snow melts and sun comes out back home.
Big picture questions indeed!
What is for certain in all of this is that the AXCS sincerely hopes that interested skiers will voice your thoughts on all the topics surrounding national ranking lists for masters and the National Masters event. Input from citizen skiers nationwide shapes and guides every major decision by the AXCS Board and AXCS national office.
What do you think about all this? Email AXCS