Why is there a ski jump in Fenway Park right now?
The action will start 140 feet above Fenway Park’s center field, roughly four times the height of the Green Monster. From that breathtaking height (think of the light stanchions that encircle the park), some of the world’s best freeskiers and snowboarders will step onto a snow-covered ramp.
Accelerating to 35-40 m.p.h., they will descend to 52 feet, and it’s there, at roughly the elevation of the upper-deck seats, that Big Air gets its name. Competitors will take flight — flipping, spinning, and twisting multiple times — before coming to rest near what two months from now will be home plate.
While elite athletes soaring high above Fenway Thursday and Friday might seem more reminiscent of an Evel Knievel stunt, Big Air organizers are counting on the ballpark-turned-snow jump to attract new fans to a sport that typically can be viewed only at remote mountain resorts.
“When people see it in person in Boston, they’re going to be like, ‘This is crazy,’ ” said snowboarder Eric Beauchemin. “It’s going to grow from there.
“Having it in big cities makes more people aware of the sport, gets people interested in following the sport. For myself, having it in the Red Sox stadium is definitely something to check off the bucket list.”
Translation: Big Air at Fenway is not just another stop on the World Cup tour. It is an invaluable marketing opportunity for snowboarding and freeskiing.
Outside of the Olympics and the X Games, the sports don’t generate interest among a diverse audience. Events in the mountains draw fans who already are passionate about skiing and snowboarding. But Big Air at Fenway, from the cityscape to the public-transit accessibility to the concert stage along the third base line, will be dramatically different from most ski and snowboard competitions.
Big Air organizer Eric Webster describes the Fenway setup — the 430-foot-long scaffold jump crammed into the ballpark — as “worth the price of admission.” He expects a combined 25,000 fans to attend Thursday and Friday nights, roughly 10 times the average crowd for freeskiing and snowboarding events at mountain resorts. And he figures most of them will be watching Big Air live for the first time.
“Any chance we have to expose these sports to a larger audience, and an audience that wouldn’t normally see these sports, is very appealing,” said Webster, who is senior director of events for the US Ski and Snowboard Association.
Since Snowboarding Big Air will make its Olympic debut at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, said Webster, “Fenway is a great platform to promote the inclusion of Snowboarding Big Air into the Olympics and lobby the International Olympic Committee and FIS [the international ski federation] to allow Freeskiing Big Air into the Olympics.”
Geography also played a major role in bringing Big Air to Boston. While New England boasts a large concentration of skiers and snowboarders, the USSA has not hosted a major televised event in New England since the 2007-08 season, when a US Grand Prix snowboarding event took place at Killington in Vermont. So the national governing body was extremely motivated to return to the area.
Plus, new audiences can easily understand what the competition involves and what earns a place on the podium. Judges base their scores on how high competitors jump, how well they execute tricks, and how cleanly they land. Fans don’t necessarily need to know the difference between a Backside Triple Cork 1440 Mute and a Cab 1260 Roastbeef Shifty (yes, that is actually the name of a trick) to be amazed.
“They can bring Big Air anywhere and expose the sport to new people who might be interested in watching but don’t have the chance to go all the time or ever,” said Ty Walker, who competed for the US in the 2014 Sochi Olympics in slopestyle snowboarding and won the women’s Big Air World Cup event in Istanbul in December 2014.
The requirements for hosting a competition are simple: build a suitable jump and make snow. Each year, five to eight Big Airs are staged in urban venues around the world. There have been events in Pasadena, Calif., Beijing, Istanbul, London, and Innsbruck, Austria.
Istanbul hosted the first Big Air World Cup event for women in December 2014.
“It was 60 degrees,” said Walker. “We were sitting out in T-shirts, then we’d suit up and go off this jump. It was a huge crowd, something like 20,000 people came to watch the event. It was amazing.
“I never thought of having an event not at a mountain, not anywhere close to a mountain, actually in one of the most urban places in the world.”
The Fenway organizers want to promote an overall vibe that reflects freeskiing and snowboarding culture. That’s why Brooklyn-based alt-rock band American Authors will perform after the skiing finals Friday night. The crowd also will see the film, “The Sammy C Project,” which looks at freeskiing and snowboarding away from the competitive circuit.
Big Air is the latest endeavor to showcase Fenway as a venue for events beyond baseball, a list that in recent years has included ice hockey, big-name concerts, international soccer, college and high school football, and hurling.
“This is one of the biggest things we’ve done, and it’s completely new,” said Fred Olsen, Red Sox director of special projects. “That’s part of what we’re shooting for — a new atmosphere for us to present to, hopefully, a new demographic.
“It’s no secret that we’re trying to reach out to a younger audience on the baseball side, and we’re definitely hopeful that this event showcases Fenway Park to some of those new people who may not otherwise come down here.”
If Big Air at Fenway goes as planned, and the sport generates buzz in Boston, there’s a good chance the event will become a regular part of the local winter sports calendar.
“We’re putting everything we possibly can into this in terms of logistic planning and resources to make sure it is successful one time,” Olsen said. “Then, if that works, we’ll consider bringing it back again.”