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Why the Rockies Need the Midwest

With the Olympics in Sochi underway, Americans are in the midst of their two-week obsession with sports they generally forget about for the other 1,446 days of the Olympic cycle. As you’re watching the downhill skiing in particular this time around, you should feel special pride in the Midwest’s role in the sport, at least at the recreational level. Because, although few realize it, those of us here in the region better known for hockey and the occasional curling match play a key part in the American skiing industry.

Yes, talk of the Midwest and downhill skiing brings up memories of previous Winter Olympic anomalies like Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards and the Jamaican bobsled team. But a recent report in The Wall Street Journal shows that big-time American ski resorts are investing millions in Midwest ski hills. (Our all-time favorite among Midwest ski hill names, by the way, is “Nebraski” near Omaha.)

The Journal reported how Vail Resorts, owner of famed slopes like Colorado’s Breckenridge and Utah’s Canyons Resort, has invested in several Midwest ski areas as a kind of minor-league farm system. The average age of skiers is trending older, according to surveys by the National Ski Areas Association. NSAA data shows that 35% of Midwest skiers are 17 or younger, compared to 9% nationally. And that means that the future of skiing is, to a large degree, in the hands of the Heartland. Rob Katz, head of Vail Resorts, told the Journal that more skiers at his company’s Western resorts come from the Midwest than any other area.

That puts all of us cold-hardy folks right in the sweet spot for ski moguls. Vail Resorts purchased Mt. Brighton outside Detroit (vertical drop: 230 feet) and Afton Alps near Minneapolis (vertical drop: 350 feet) about a year ago and immediately started upgrading them. New chairlifts. Better snow-making equipment. New terrain parks. New restaurants and bars. New marketing slogan of “Where Epic Begins.”

The skiing cognoscenti out West have figured out that Midwest ski hills aren’t simply also-rans for customers who don’t know better. They’re often key stepping-stones where people who already love outdoor winter activities learn to ski or snowboard on their way to being the key customers of big-name resorts in the Rockies and Sierras. So as all those Midwesterners fill up chairlifts out West today and in the future, let us be the first to say from the Heartland: You’re welcome, Colorado.

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