4FRNT skis was started around 2002. At the time Matt Sterbenz was a pro skier riding for Fisher, and it was right around then that twin-tipped skis were starting to hit the market and freestyle skiing was really catching on. Based in Squaw Valley, Matt was seeing a lot of progression in a really short space of time, however, the skis were just not advancing at the rate that the sport was. Nowadays it doesn’t seem like that much of a novel concept, they are a household shape, but back then just getting a set of skis that were twin tipped was a big deal. 4FRNT began somewhat out of necessity, as Matt and his contemporaries were relying almost entirely on European ski manufacturers. Unfortunately for them, the bulk of these European brands were rooted firmly in racing and so everything that the new wave of freeskiers were pushing for in terms of ski design fell in many respects on deaf ears. As you can imagine, frustration built and lead to conversations on chairlifts and in resort parking lots. And so 4FRNT was born, out of the natural desire for progression, a handful of riders would band together to create a ski brand that best reflected them and their individual skiing interests.
Everybody in that crew contributed to a ski shape, a shape that best suited their skiing interests whether that was transition, backcountry freestyle, the need to ski bigger lines or competing in the terrain park. Matt recalls: ?Personally, my profession was slopestyle, specifically big air at the time – so I just wanted a nice twin tipped ski that was a little wider and stiffer than most. Something that was capable of taking bigger airs and landing in softer snow? and so the MSP (Matt Sterbenz Pro) came to fruition. A ski that is still in the back of Matt’s van every season even after 15 years.
One thing that many brands don’t talk about is manufacturing – where skis made and by whom, is a mystery. 4FRNT on the contrary, have continuously been transparent with their manufacturing story, cementing it firmly into the brands narrative. For them, the whole ski manufacturing side of the brand happened organically, through people they had met who shared their passion for freeskiing. Coming up with an engineer here, finding a factory there – before they knew it they were up and running and pressing skis. Fast forward fifteen years, Matt’s main focus now is brand management. As the company grew, they were able to solidify some manufacturing relationships in Europe, which meant they could shift their attention company to in-house product development and branding.
?I?m the brand director, so making sure that everything we do has the 4FRNT feel. Whether that’s from the skis to the tees, and to create new skis shapes, working with athletes to try and continuously advance the state of our sport?.
These past few years have been fairly pivotal for the independent brands that came about at the same time as 4FRNT. This year alone has seen the sale of Armada Skis to Amer Sports and the third or fourth acquisition of Line. Which begs the question, is it possible to stay alive as an independent ski brand in today’s climate (global warming aside)?
?There is a lot of value in being part of the independent side of skiing, but just last summer, 4FRNT was also acquired by Jason Leventhal the founder of Line Skis, Full Tilt Boots and J-Skis. With Line, he experienced being initially sold to a Canadian company who he stayed on to work for, but that relationship diluted through a failed attempt to try and recreate the ski binding, and so he sold the brand to K2. Again, he stayed on and worked on Line with K2 but as the brand became more and more corporate, he left and started J-Skis. Now, he’s helping lead the charge with 4FRNT but still from an independent point of view.?
?With the sale of Armada to Amer, now that’s a huge deal. Armada was a publicly traded company in the same way Line was when they sold to K2. It’s going to affect the independent sector, absolutely, but I think it’s going to make the independent brands like us stick out more. It’s the independents that add a lot of the flavour to the industry, you could even say it’s the independent brands that are the ones putting the money back into skiing. Personally, I feel It’s part of the DNA of being an entrepreneur and a passionate skier that you always want more for your brand and your sport, you always think that the next decision you make will put you on top – so you take time to make those investments and make the sacrifices. Whether that’s personally or through other initiatives to keep funding the business and the sport as it evolves. That’s what really makes free skiing so unique and that’s the root of our culture. The big companies that are publicly traded any money that comes into them, goes out to the shareholders. That’s not money that’s going to be reinvested into the ski economy and that’s sad. It’s sad that we have such a small unique sport in the grand scheme of things but the majority of profitable market shareholders are allowing those profits to leave the industry. And so, the independent brands are going to continue to rise and shine because everyone knows their contribution. 4FRNT will continue as an independent brand with our focus being to support skiing with this business that we have created with the support of our customers and fans over the past fifteen years?
It wouldn’t be a conversation about the state of modern freeskiing without reference to FIS or the Olympics. It’s becoming somewhat of a chicken and egg, or more suitably, a marmite type debate within the industry. But on reflecting on Matts point as to how and who puts money back into freeskiing, it really does beg a serious question about where the money from contemporary park skiing goes. Well, the thing is, there isn’t much to put back in anymore, so arguably is there much point in flogging a dead horse. In reference to FIS’s involvement, like any governing body, they make their money through media sponsorship and advertising rights. Now, objectively you can?t really hate FIS for that, they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are. But what is often overlooked is the financial cost and subsequent emotional strain it can have on the riders and, if applicable, their sponsors. For some, it can be a lucrative career, but for others and indeed the majority of the field it can be difficult, to say the least. It costs a lot of money to be a pro, serious money. Combine that with the social media pressures of trying to stay relevant, and it’s really not all it’s cracked up to be. Long since passed are the days of Lambos and camo mansions. Matt gives us his thoughts?
?Today park skiing is as FIS as slalom or downhill. The athletes at the top of the game are struggling for sponsorship. The brands aren’t making money from selling park skis – it’s that simple, especially the big brands. They want the publicity, that’s why they?re seen to support ski jumping and other niche ?freestyle? disciplines because every four years it shows up on ABC and the whole world watches it for two weeks. Deep down they?re making their money off the back of recreational skis. Any money they do make out of freeskiing is in the backcountry, it’s big mountain, it’s all mountain ? it’s not park. Yet park skiers are trying to travel the world year round, you do see government entities starting to help with the like of the US Freeski Team – so there is some funding, but it’s not enough to sacrifice your entire life, you end up spending everything you make along the way. It’s not like tennis where there is a local tournament every weekend with the opportunity to win some cash.?
?Currently, freeskiing is undergoing a major transformation. It’s becoming extremely FIS driven, but at the same time, you have the crews of urban skiers out there. If you really want to look at what’s really ?core? in terms of what’s left from the foundations of freestyle – it’s in the streets. Kids that are out there hitting winch-propelled features – that stuff’s core, that’s the spirit that freeskiing was founded on.?
?These days if you?re a pro skier you?re either chasing FIS points or chasing film segments. The likelihood is if you?re filming then you?re in the streets or the backcountry. Today with social media, you have to be producing something every couple of days just to keep up with demand.
If we were to say that ?twin-tip? or ?new school skiing? as we know it started in 2000, we?re 17 years in. Social media has come such a long way. When I was a pro the opportunity to propel your popularity and career was entirely down to 2 or 3 magazines at 6 issues a year, today you?re measure of influence is right in front of you with social media platforms. And those platforms are only influential if you are feeding them. Therefore, the demand to surface legit content is at an all-time high, it’s very much a full-time job and aside from the very top percentile of skiers who can make a living at it, the rest are working their tail off just to keep up.?
?I always say that being a pro is about 50% skiing and the other 50 is about how you carry yourself. Being a good person, having a good reputation and obviously now social influence and how many people are digging your stuff is really important too. If you compare it back to the hay day of ?extreme skiing? K2 were able to brand themselves entirely off the back of Glen Plake, Salomon of Scott Schmit – these individuals were able to carry the identity of a brand singlehandedly. Nowadays there is a lot more to balance and contributing factors that go into how a brand is identified with or how an athlete is marketed. Every individual rider has to now brand themselves fairly aggressively to stand out. When you meet these people they are extremely humble, but in the public image they?re totally different ? it’s almost like they are an actor. Sean Petit said something recently in an interview where he paraphrased his profession as ?I?m an entertainer?, what he does on his skis he does for the purpose of entertaining others and that’s his livelihood – it’s a very mature position to take and very accurate?
Matt’s frank and objective way of looking at skiing is perhaps reflected in the staunchly independent and grassroots foundations of 4FRNT itself. He wasn’t late to the party, jumping on a trend. He was there at the forefront (pardon the pun), of not only the sport’s conception but also the culture that comes with it. And so he sees a duty for 4FRNT to responsibly preserve that culture and guide freeskiing onto future generations. This proud and obviously considered approach to skiing and in many ways business is a testament, not only to the independent longevity of 4FRNT in comparison to his contemporaries, but also the tight-knit team that represent the brand globally.
?It’s quite interesting that some brands have targeted specific consumer demographics and not really considered the whole picture. I?m honoured when I see kids on our junior skis, it very well could be that the first pair of skis they’ve owned are 4FRNT’s – that’s killer that I’ve even had that opportunity. I grew up skiing Rossignol and Olin skis and there is just no connectivity between then and now with those skis for me so I take a lot of honour in the fact we can provide a broad range of skis for kids that are just starting out, all the way to people at the very top of our sport. The ?Shaping Skiing? philosophy that 4FRNT has is providing a wide verity of shapes that cover a plethora of terrain and a plethora of ability too. We?re a brand for skiers who are really into skiing year round, if someone asks me what do I do I?d tell them I?m a skier, sure I can only ski five, six sometimes eight months a year, but year round I?m a skier – it’s the first thing I?d say to somebody on an aeroplane. I think a lot of our customers feel the same way, that’s what roots us, skiing.?
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Images courtacy of 4FRNT
Words: Lewis McLean