By November 24th, the best cross-country skiers in the world will make their annual pilgrimage to northern Finland to kick off the opening races of the World Cup season. This year, however, their schedule looks a bit different. The 2017-2018 World Cup Calendar decreases the variation in race distances and formats, a change that aims to build interest in the sport but has created frustration among some of its athletes. The current World Cup schedule features primarily 10kms (15km for men) and sprint races, includes a single skiathlon, a single team sprint and a single 30/50km. It also eliminates all 5/10kms and team relay events. The World Cup schedule has historically boasted a wide range of race formats from the 2.5km prologue to 20km mass starts. The more uniform schedule simplifies the sport, but at what cost?
Cross Country Skier Magazine sat down with U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover to dig deeper into the reasons behind the new, more uniform race schedule. FIS sets the preliminary World Cup Calendar based on the Cross Country Committee’s recommendation during their spring congress meetings, which took place this year in Portoroz, Slovenia. Although FIS does not finalize the calendar until early October, they typically make few major changes to the initial draft. According to Grover, the decision to eliminate some of the variation in the schedule is a complicated one. Creating a World Cup calendar involves the coordination of over a dozen different host countries working together to meet the needs of athletes, television networks, sponsors and host venues with limited resources.
Cross Country Skier (XCS): What spurred the changes to this year’s World Cup race calendar?
Chris Grover (CG): Well, it’s a strange combination of things that all kind of came together at the same time. First of all, we fully intended to have a relay on the schedule this year, and that was slated for Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. However Nove Mesto had to pull their bid this spring, which forced the cancellation of a lot of international events in the country, including the cross country World Cup races. Planica (Slovenia) stepped in to pick it up but with the caveat that they couldn’t do a relay.
XCS: Why didn’t they want to host the relay?
CG: The challenge with the relay, and also the skiathlon in particular, is that those two formats take a lot of trail width, stadium size, and, if necessary, snow making capacity. In order to have a few classic tracks and the space for people to skate side by side and pass each other on the same trail, it’s a really expensive proposition for organizers, especially in the Alps where we are seeing less and less natural snow. This may not have been an issue 10 years ago, but now the difference for them to double the trail width or double the size of the stadium is a massive amount of dollars. Race organizers simply aren’t interested in hosting some of these more snow-intensive formats.
XCS: What about a country like Norway, which has the venue and resources for a relay event?
CG: Nobody wanted it. One of the challenges for say, Lillehammer, if they wanted to pick it up, is that under our new rules, if they run a relay, they only get to start two teams for men and two teams for women, which limits them to eight athletes on that given day, whereas their normal Nations spot quota might be 15. They would have to cut in half the amount of athletes they get to start. In a country where it is really important to give out all the Nations Cup starts, because there are so many good athletes, it is very hard for them to say we are going to limit it to a team sprint or a relay. In a team sprint, only four athletes of each gender can start. Organizers are spending hundred of thousands of dollars to run a World Cup weekend, but running a relay means the host nation can’t showcase many of their athletes.
XCS: So from an organizer’s perspective, hosting a relay has high resource cost and simultaneously reduces the potential number of start spots for the host nation. What about the shift to primarily 10/15km distance races and sprints? Why eliminate 5/10kms?
CG: That is a very complicated answer. The first is that cross country skiing has been losing TV viewership the last few years, so our market share is down. We obviously want to see growth in the number of fans who are tuning in to watch cross country skiing, and the sponsors also want to see that. One of the challenges that we have as a sport is that we have more race formats than any other out there. When you add in all the different distances and formats (hill climb, prologue, sprint, skiathlon, relay, 5km 10km) between skate and classic and the fact that we can run a distance race as a mass start, individual start or a pursuit, it becomes rather confusing for the TV audience. It’s not confusing for people who know the sport or who follow cross-country. We lose the people who don’t know cross country skiing super well and every time they turn on the TV it’s a different format, and its not what they saw the first time.
Another thing at play here is that some of the formats that the athletes like, and that the coaches like, don’t come out great on television. The 5km skate, which is something that, of course, those of us in the United States would love to see more of, is really hard to produce on TV.
XCS: Why is that?
CG: It’s really hard with four or five camera placements on a 5km loop to tell the story of what is happening in a race. If you run a 10km for example instead, then you double your coverage with the same number of camera placements. And every camera placement is 10,000 or more dollars. The same really goes for the prologue. Often you see an interval start, you see one athlete start at a time, an athlete takes the lead, they stay in the lead, and nothing changes. With a 10km or a 15km you can have more lead changes and more of a story can develop.
XCS: How does Olympic selection factor in?
CG: The nations that are sitting around the table on the Cross Country Committee, this year are really concerned in the early season with picking Olympic teams. The primary avenue that they want to use to select their teams is based on the individual 10/15km at the Games. That is another reason that there are so many 10/15km races and especially skate races on the schedule.
XCS: What about the 30km or 50km?
CG: Early in the season, athletes and teams don’t want to race them. They are too long, could potentially get somebody sick, etc. We also struggle to get that much TV time. On a winter sport weekend you have the alpine, snowboard, freestyle, biathlon, ski jumping, and then you’re trying to produce a men’s and a women’s race. With a 30km and a 50km, it takes a lot more time to cover…With reduced interest in cross country already, the broadcaster might just tune in for the last 15 minutes of the race which we don’t feel helps us promote the sport or helps us increase our market share. If we can tell the story of the whole race, the whole 10km or the whole 15km, if we can get all that coverage time we feel like we have a much better platform on which to tell the story, talk about the athletes, promote the athletes, promote the sport.
XCS: And the 10/15km hits that sweet spot? It’s long enough that you can tell the story but not so long that you can’t get coverage for it.
What does this mean for the U.S. Ski Team? Check back next week when Jessie Diggins shares her thoughts on the schedule change and how the season ahead is looking for her and her teammates.