Today was the Annual General Meeting for ATBA-UK, the national governing body for mountainboarding in the UK.
After 8 years on the management team, I, along with everyone else on the team resigned. I’ve had an amazing time, and learned so much about running an organisation staffed entirely by remote volunteers. We put on lots of mountainboard competitions, trained lots of new instructors, and tried all kinds of things to get people into mountainboarding and riding more. I’ll miss all of those things, miss the amazing places I visited, but most of all I’ll miss all the awesome people I met.
What does the future hold for ATBA-UK? We want to do everything we can to ensure that ATBA-UK can continue to work on its mission of supporting the growth of mountainboarding in the UK so we’re looking to appoint new directors who will take control of ATBA-UK, and to set up a licensing business model whereby licences can be granted use the intellectual property of the ATBA-UK. This means that other organisations and individuals can apply to the ATBA-UK to run competitions, deliver instructor training, or anything that the directors deem to be achieving the aim of the ATBA-UK. This new business model means that the ATBA-UK can continue without the need for management team and decentralises the ATBA-UK’s resources to the community. It puts the future of mountainboarding in the hands of the community.
I’ve always believed that the mountainboarding community follows the laws of networks and so benefits and suffers from network effects. Networks are made up of nodes (people in the mountainboarding community) and edges (the social connections and relationships between those people). Understanding this helps us understand how the connections between people in the community work and what effect changes have on the entire network.
Understanding the problem
There aren’t enough people mountainboarding often enough. That is the problem. Looking at the problem from the perspective of the social graph of the mountainboard community, we have people (nodes) who are either active (riding regularly) in the community (network) which means that they have existing connections which are continually renewed and reinforced, or inactive (not riding regularly) which means that those preexisting relationships have lapsed. There are also dormant nodes but for the purposes of this we would say that they have dropped off the graph.
If a node becomes inactive it weakens the edges and has a knock on effect on the other nodes. If a node is active it can affect the activity of nearby nodes but may not be sufficient on its own to keep them active.
If node A in the diagram above becomes inactive, nodes C and D become disconnected from the rest of the graph, and the connection between node B and the rest of the graph is weakened and so weakens the connection of nodes E, F and J to the rest of the graph.
That’s why understanding the mountainboarding community as a network is important, because it shows us what happens when a single rider stops and how it takes more than a single rider to build up the community. We can use this understanding in order to help keep the active mountainboarders riding and reactivate the inactive riders. This will follow the same network effect rules as the weakening of the network and exponentially strengthen the community. So, how do we do it?
Towards a solution
We need a plan. If we want to solve this problem we need a plan, people, resources, etc. It’s not an easy problem to solve, but I think with the right things in place, and the right understanding, it is possible.
Identify active and inactive (and dormant) riders. Knowing this will be essential for targeting the right riders. Luckily the ATBA-UK has a database of mountainboarders across the UK. They could all be assigned an activity score (5 for most active, 1 for least active) and then their postcodes mapped onto Google Maps using TableFusion.
Focus on active nodes for retention. We want to keep the active riders riding as if they become inactive the network effects will multiply. So we look for areas on the map that have the highest concentration of active riders.
Then we establish regular scheduled meets in the areas where the active riders are, doing the type of riding they like to do. If there is a cluster around a centre (as we could expect) then we organise a meet at that centre. The meets need to be at least monthly and planned in advance so riders can know about them and plan to attend.
The meet-ups then need to be promoted across the community. This could be done using the ATBA-UK email newsletter, group chats on messenger (segmented by area), various websites and Facebook groups.
Doing this would require quite a commitment from someone, and probably some funding from the ATBA-UK, but it would help turnaround the decline of mountainboarding in the UK.
It was a gamble. Holding just one mountainboard competition this year rather than the four we’ve done for the past few years. What if it got rained off? What if there was a major injury or system failure meant we ran out of time? What if key staff couldn’t get there? If any of those things happened it would have meant no national level competitive mountainboard event this year, which would have had a knock-on effect on the ATBA-UK, it’s reputation, the decision to only hold one event, and the future of mountainboarding in the UK.
But after three days of flag-planting, gate-dropping, roller-pumping, wheel-spinning, berm-swooping, collarbone-popping, sumo-wrestling, cable-laying, track-grooming, laser-beam-breaking, fire-breathing, mini-ramp-riding, chilli-eating, cow-onesie-wearing, double-backflipping, 1080-ing, medal-winning mountainboarding, it was over. It was a gamble, but it worked.
We had our first team meeting of the season to discuss things like insurance, the competition and instructor training. It was a really good meeting with lots of energy, ideas, discussion, and some good decisions being made.
The first few months of the year passed uneventfully. I went to a couple of small freeride meets but didn’t ride very much. In fact, in 2015 I went mountainboarding fewer times than in any of the ten years I’ve been mountainboarding. I wanted to ride. I still loved the feeling of riding a board through leafy woodland, but more and more life just got in the way.
Summer is competition season. This year’s comps followed the same format as the past few years; four boarderx, four freestyle and four downhill, so that’s twelve comps over six weekends, four of them at centres and two at other locations.
We did one of the downhill comps at the Fruit Farm in Gloucestershire. We chose it because it was a good track, it had camping, uplift track, etc., but also because it was near to where lots of mountainboarders live. We thought that would encourage more riders to attend. Turns out we were wrong. The comp had low attendance, and even though most of the riders who did go enjoyed it, it showed us yet again what we’ve known for a while, that there isn’t very much the ATBA-UK can do about people having other things got on in their lives.
The continual decline in the number of riders competing (because existing competitors drop out and because we don’t get very many new riders) meant we had some difficult decisions to make about the future of the competitions and the ATBA-UK. We had three options; carry on regardless and run twelve comps in 2016 knowing the entry figures would be low, pull the plug and accept that not enough people want mountainboard competitions to do any for 2016, or find some middle way and downsize the ATBA-UK and the competitions so that we can still continue in some limited capacity.
We went with option three: the UK Mountainboard Championship 2016, a single event featuring all three disciplines over a long weekend in August. It may look like an easy and obvious choice but it was actually a very difficult decision to make because it has such a huge impact on everything else the ATBA-UK does. With so few riders there was no way we could pursue our plans for recognition of mountainboarding as a sport (which has a real impact on the future of mountainboarding), there was no longer any reason to continue to offer paid membership as the only reason most people bought it was for discounted comp entry fees. No membership fees, along with drastically reduced income from only one event, means we’re at risk of not making enough money in 2016 to buy insurance in 2017, which means the ATBA-UK would have to close. I don’t want it to happen but I think it’s the most likely outcome.
With the competitive season out the way, and decisions about what next year’s season made, I had some time to better analyse the problem of not enough mountainboarders and come up with a solution.
It became clear that the reason there aren’t enough mountainboarders to maintain a community, warrant a governing body, justify competitions or make mountainboarding a sport is that there there isn’t sufficient infrastructure. Mountainboard Clubs, of which there were eight or so when I started, are almost non-existent now, and the number of Mountainboard Centres across the UK has halved in the last five or so years. With no one to ride with and no where to learn, no one gets into mountainboarding and so we see the decline of the past few year’s and get to where we are today.
Knowing the problem is half of the solution. The solution was to build new infrastructure. The solution was grass roots clubs that had a focus on providing instruction and accelerating the learning of new riders. These new kinds of clubs wouldn’t need to be big, they would only need three or four experienced riders and maybe three or four new riders. The new riders would be carefully selected to give the club the best chance of success. They would be in their twenties, have a job and a car, and would probably already be into snowboarding. These new ‘Top Gun’ clubs would offer free lessons and kit to be borrowed, and would be all about getting the new riders to sufficient standard for them to enter next year’s competitions. A few small clubs in as few different areas could surely produce five new competitors, and that is all we need, just five or so new riders each year. They would represent a ten percent increase in competitors and be enough to keep the entry figures steady.
So I created Thames Valley Mountainboard Club, built a website, and started to advertise. I bought boards, helmets and pads. I identified three likely new mountainboarders. And I organised fortnightly freeride meets across the Thames Valley. We had three meets and things were going well when the other pressure’s on my time became too much and I couldn’t go any further with TVMC. I’m still confident that it’s the right approach to getting more people into mountainboarding and onto competitions, and I wish I could have proved the theory and then roll out the model to create other clubs in other areas, but things don’t always work out the way you want them to.
As winter came around the amount of time I spent mountainboarding decreased even more. So when Mark from Team Dad needed a Secret Birthday Ride somewhere he’d never ridden I suggested Wendover Woods. This “secret” (actually it was only secret from Mark, more of a surprise) ride turned into the most well attended freeride meet of the past few years. Fourteen riders rode Truffler, Ripper’s Gash, Backbone, Painkiller and Tarantula (mountainboarders come up with some interesting names for tracks).
Tarantula is one of my favourite tracks. It starts with a drop, goes onto tarmac, through a narrow gap, along a leafy track, down some steps, and then into a steep narrow footpath, so has a lot variety. And on this day I rode it best I ever have.
A couple of weeks later and another Team Dad secret birthday ride, this time for Clayton. After lots of texting post codes, messaging directions, and picking up people from the train station, we all met at a new spot I had recce’d the week before. It had plenty of long fast tracks that could keep brake and non-brake riders entertained all day. We rode each of the tracks in turn, and went back to ‘Toy Box’, a steep leafy hillside for a second go. It’s a fun area to play in and we spent about half an hour finding new lines. Having talked about which tracks to ride next we all headed for the bottom. Mark, Clayton, Matt and me, and then Smilie. He came flying off the first drop, didn’t line up for the second drop and hit a tree. With that much speed, and with his feet in snowboard boots and firmly strapped into his board the force of the impact went through the next weakest part, his leg just above the boot. I ran over to Smilie, carefully got his feet out of his board, and stabilised his broken leg while I called an ambulance. A hour or so later, and with plenty of morphine, Smilie was in the back of a 4×4 ambulance on his way to A & E.
Smilie’s injury bothered me. It bothered me for two reasons. One, I very nearly hit that same tree minutes before Smilie did, and two, it made me realise how much responsibility I take on with organising freeride meets, being a first aider, working with the ATBA-UK, and not having the time to give to growing mountainboard clubs when I know that’s the solution to the situation mountainboarding is in at the moment.
I need to focus what little time I have on the project that is going to have the biggest impact on achieving the objective of getting more people into mountainboarding. I’m very clear that the problem is caused by not enough infrastructure in the mountainboarding industry/community, so the question then becomes what should I do to contribute to building sustainable and effective infrastructure. My options range from top-level projects that to get more people to the existing Mountainboard Centres to bottom-level projects that create local infrastructure.
The options are:
I have offered to help mountainboard centres with marketing before but they don’t seem to want the help. I could try this again. Or I could focus on marketing the UK Championship. I’ve tried that before too. It’s lots of work for very little return. This is more of a top-level project and I don’t think it can achieve the objective.
I could focus on improving and growing Membership as a way to get more people into mountainboarding. This would include getting more people to sign up, delivering value through emails. It could involve special deals from mountainboard centres and shops. It would mean changing what the ATBA-UK email newsletter is about but it isn’t really working as it is anyway.
I’m part way through rewriting the Instructor Manual and building the Instructor Training programme. The issue is that as there aren’t many mountainboard centres, there isn’t much need for instructors or training. But of course without a robust instructor training programme we’ll never get the instructors that we do have teaching well enough to give those that do go to centres a lessons a good experience.
The beginners guide to mountainboarding website is a resource for people looking for information about how to get into mountainboarding. It’s a little out of date, needs a new look and some more articles, but improving it could be done at a slow pace whenever I have the time as it doesn’t have any dependencies. The question is, if no one is looking for information on how to get into mountainboarding then working on the website in isolation could be a waste of time. I can look at Google Analytics to get some idea of traffic and search intentions, and I could do some SEO/marketing work so that the site is easier to find for people that are looking for info.
Thames Valley Mountainboard Club
TVMC has the best prospects for getting people into mountainboarding by providing equipment to borrow, free lessons and regular meets. The issue I have is whether I have enough time to make it a success. This project fits my assertion that the problem of not enough mountainboarders requires a bottom-level/on-the-ground/grass-roots solution, not a top level national promotion campaign as getting more people to want to have a go at mountainboarding is pointless if there is no where for them to do it.
I wish I had time to do all of these as they would all compliment each other and help all of the projects to be successful. Unfortunately I don’t have time so I need to decide which I think will have the greatest impact and fit with the time I have available.