About 18 years ago, the editor of our then-sister publication Snowmobile Magazine challenged readers in a column to help grow snowmobiling. Personally introduce friends to the sport, he encouraged. Take relatives on a snowmobile trail ride, he implored. Share the love of snowmobiling with neighbors and co-workers. Introduce more people to the sport for the good of the sport, and we’ll all benefit.
We’re talking about the mid-1990s here, so Internet message boards were still in their infancy, but there was one called rec.sport.snowmobiles that lit up after the column was published. And the loudest reaction to this plea to grow the sport was this:
Why, when the trails were already busy with XLTs, Mach Zs and ZRTs, among others, would we want even MORE people out there on weekends? Why, when there are times there’s a limited pocket of snow near Finland, Minnesota, Traverse City, Michigan, or Old Forge, New York, would we want even more people to compete for hotel rooms? Plus those people will inevitably make the trails bumpier from their use.
“There are already too many people on the trails — I wish we could make half the current snowmobilers quit!” one snowmobiler spouted. “I’m not trying to sell sleds for the manufacturers, I’m trying to enjoy the ones I paid for.”
It’s an argument that, on some levels, is easy to understand, and it’s been said in other activities as well. When golf exploded in popularity with the rise of Tiger Woods, many traditional golfers became angry because a decent tee time became difficult to book. Plenty of longtime Harley owners voiced similar complaints about new-to-sport V-twin owners. More snowmobilers? Won’t that just mean more traffic and problems?
But what has happened in the last 15 years? The snowmobile market has taken a major hit. Largely due to lackluster snow conditions but also partially due the ups and downs of the economy, changing lifestyles, urban sprawl and, some would argue, even due to the rise in popularity of ATVs and UTVs, sales of new snowmobiles in the U.S. are less than half of what they were 15 years ago.
The trickle-down effect of that is larger than you might think. First, the political clout of snowmobiling isn’t what it was. When powerful state or provincial snowmobiling organizations would lobby the government or hold their annual Governor’s rides back then, the politicians had to listen and show up because there were so many active, enthusiastic snowmobilers. Positive, snowmobile-related stories made the news more often in many markets, and there was more buzz about our sport overall.
Also, many people decry how much the cost of snowmobiling has risen, and also blame that for the sport’s decline. But it can become a chicken-and-egg argument quickly when you realize that sled prices were previously kept low by the volumes that were built. Suddenly costs — from tooling to manpower, insurance to taxes, marketing to race budgets, etc. — that used to be spread over the more than 260,000 sleds sold worldwide now must be spread over the 129,000 sleds (2012 figures). That affects the price of sleds.
It has also affected the places we go. As an example, Associate Editor Tom Kaiser was planning a trip in Ontario last year north of Lake Superior — until he called a local contact who told him not to come. The gas stations, restaurants and hotels that used to serve snowmobilers are now all boarded up in the winter.
If you want more snowmobile trails, if you want more options, if you want a stronger sport, introduce some people to snowmobiling this winter, and help grow the sport. They are bound to love it — it’s a very intoxicating activity. You’ll make friends for life, and more new snowmobilers can make the entire sport better for all of us and help ensure its longevity.