NEWRY — Ed Rogers looked around a deserted hill Friday after the first round of racing at the relaunched World Pro Ski Tour at Sunday River. And all the Tour’s president could do was worry.
“I get up at 7 and spend until midnight thinking about what needs to be done,” said Rogers, of Bath. “There are 50 to 60 sponsors, and where are the five cameras shooting?”
On Friday and Saturday, the made-for-TV format that Rogers ran through the 1980s and ’90s – then known as the U.S. Pro Ski Tour – was reborn at Sunday River. This time Rogers has four other investors, a lineup of top U.S. skiers at his first event, a former ESPN television producer and a whole lot of hope. But many questions remain.
“We won’t have any money when we go down the street on Monday,” said Rogers, 78, a restauranteur. “But we’ll have something tangible to show sponsors. We’ll have a half-hour TV show recorded. Sponsors wanted to see how this went before they got involved.”
Right out of the gate, the Tour has $30,000 in prize money, two Olympians, seven members of the U.S. ski team, a major sponsor and amateur skiers willing to race against the pros. That was one of the elements that made the former Tour a hit. That and a format where skiers race side-by-side over jumps and around tight gates.
“These are phenomenal skiers,” said Will Tole, 35, a ski tuner for Gould Academy who jumped into the race. “Then you have regular Joes like me trying to mix it up with the best. It would take a lot of luck for me to win. But the cool thing about it, it’s an open event, and in ski racing anything can happen when you’re pushing hard.”
For Friday’s two qualifying rounds, about 50 spectators gathered on the Barker Mountain Lodge deck, and only about a dozen skiers stopped to watch.
“Our family is back in Maine on vacation,” said Krysty Condon, 26, of Clearwater, Florida. “We moved four years ago. And of course we had to get in some skiing. This event is the high point, to see a pro ski race.”
Last week’s event was intended to serve as a pilot episode, said Kevin Clarke of Fryeburg, one of the investors and an announcer who worked on the last tour. “I think when you’re showcasing these athletes, in this format, its a great sell.We’re already in talks with some top car companies.”
The racers all said the head-to-head format is thrilling, especially given the short, tight course was located right above the Barker Mountain Lodge.
Robby Kelley of Burlington, Vermont, the third-ranked slalom skier in the U.S., said the format is slightly different from giant slalom and slalom, so it’s unfamiliar even to the pros.
“It’s a short sprint and the gates are closer together than in GS,” Kelley said. “It’s definitely different so we don’t really know who will be good at this.”
Olympian David Chodounsky, the top American slalom skier who’s just back from the World Cup in Europe, came to help launch the Tour because he recalls watching it as a kid.
“It has a lot of history,” said Chodounsky, a five-time national champion. “It would be cool if it took off. It’s more fun. It’s exciting. I think this is the future of the sport.”
Chodounsky beat A.J. Ginnis in the final to win the event. Michael Ankeny beat Phil Brown to finish third.
Since the Tour was staged in the 1980s and ’90s, the Internet exploded with multiple venues for videos, such as YouTube, and many more cable TV stations are available. Rogers said that’s to their advantage.
“First of all, when we started we weren’t on TV,” said Rogers. “Then we made a deal with the New England Sports Channel and then ESPN started to pick us up. We kind of worked our way around.”
Rogers said as snowboarding increased in popularity in the 1990s, interest in skiing waned. But that’s changed in recent years with technology creating faster skis. The time is right to bring the World Pro Ski Tour back, he said.
And the sponsorship the Tour landed proves it, Rogers said.
“We got lucky. Someone knew the folks at Tito’s Vodka,” he said of their major sponsor.
The Tour also received a lot of in-kind donations. Last week’s event – the only race scheduled for 2017 – has a budget of $200,000. Rogers said as much as $100,000 was from in-kind donations, including the venue at Sunday River. Even the crew that will produce the show to air on CBS Sports Network is made up of volunteers.
Gina Keller of Portland is one. Keller worked on the former U.S. Pro Ski Tour and wanted to help.
“When I got the call to help, I didn’t hesitate,” said Keller, who works for Outside Television. “I worked for the Tour from 1992 to ’98. There were 15 of us. We were like a family. We’d start in November and wrap up in April. We’d be in a different town every weekend. It was exciting.”
But many questions remain.
The Tour’s producer, Marty Ehrlich, who worked for ESPN for 10 years, said the head-to-head race format makes for thrilling television and the courses are easy to set up, which he said is a real plus because it keeps costs down. But the Tour’s success is not a slam dunk.
Even Rogers is tempered in his excitement. There’s too much work ahead.
“It’s not guaranteed it’s going to happen,” he said of next year’s lineup.
Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or: