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Is Rottefella throwing in the towel on NTN? The recent trend in news about the new telemark norm program, not to mention declining sales of telemark gear, should make one wonder if NTN is destined to be the Edsel of telemark.
Consider the trail of events in the past two years:
>> In December 2008, Berndt Otto Hauglin, Rottefella’s designer for the past three decades and the key developer of the patented new telemark norm (NTN) retired.
>> After only two years Rottefella ended its contract in April 2009 for Backcountry Access (BCA) to be the exclusive distributor of its telemark bindings.
>> For the coming year Rottefella reverts to its old strategy of using multiple distributors, this time using the distributors of NTN boot manufacturers Crispi, Garmont, and Scarpa.
>> In June 2009, Torbjorn Ragg, Rottefella’s vice president of sales and marketing for the past 13 years, announced he would leave the company the end of August 2009.
>> Perhaps more telling, however, was the decision by Rottefella to not renew Scott Duer’s contract as North American sales manager. According to Duer, “I knew Torbjorn was leaving but I found out through the grapevine that my Norwegian counterpart was gone, so I saw the writing on the wall.”
The forecast for NTN’s future seems bleak today, but according to Rottefella’s new president and CEO, Christer Johnsen, “We are totally committed to NTN because we are passionate about telemark and making it obtainable for more skiers, so we are absolutely certain we will be successful. Rottefella has the resources and commitment to get through this rough period.”
Both the inaugural (2007/2008) and second season (2008/2009) were plagued with problems resulting in less-than-hoped-for sales of the NTN products. In the first year, the available boots were so stiff users had trouble bending them to make a telemark turn. Rottefella beefed up the springs in its bindings, magnifying the problem. Last season, Scarpa redesigned its boots to yield a softer flex, and Rottefella softened its binding springs too. Unfortunately, because a very small percentage of boots were cracking around the toe, sales came to a standstill as word spread of the problem among the blogosphere and social networking sites. According to Bruce Edgerly, vice president of sales and marketing for BCA, which was distributing the NTN binding this past season, only 700 pairs of bindings were shipped to retailers.
Telemark interest heading downhill?
The hiccups in design and production that can occur when a new boot and binding system are introduced served to exacerbate the core problems faced by NTN, most notably a steady decline of interest in telemark skiing. Whether there are fewer telemark skiers is unknown, but sales of telemark gear are clearly in decline. In the mid-1990s more than 80 percent of backcountry skiers were telemarkers, according to readership surveys by Couloir magazine. By 2005 that percentage had dropped to 50 percent, while AT skiers went from 25 percent to 60 percent. Lock Miller, owner of Marmot Mountain stores in Washington and California, said AT gear makes up 90 percent of his backcountry business. According to Hud Knight, director of hardgoods merchandising for backcountry.com, sales of telemark-specific gear was down more than 15 percent when he compares this year’s numbers to a year ago. And an unofficial phone survey of half a dozen leading brick-and-mortar retailers by SNEWS® added further credence to the assumption that these days telemark makes up the minority component of backcountry gear sales.
Some of the loss in sales can be attributed to the overall economic malaise, but not all. NTN has not delivered a system that is a clear order better than existing 75mm systems. While NTN has more downhill power, it is not dramatically more. It also features better touring ability than cable bindings, but it is only half as good in touring performance as what others with a free pivot offer.
And then there is the issue of cost. To switch to NTN costs more than $1000, a price barrier many consumers are not willing to climb over simply for incrementally better performance.
But company representatives said it’s not all sliding downhill. Gordon Bailey, president of Garmont USA, said, “I think you’re seeing the tail end of a tough year, and from here on out things will improve significantly. This is a system, and we’re committed to promoting it.”
Johnsen told SNEWS the changes in personnel are being misread. “Our contract with Scott Duer was short-term, to make sure the transition from distribution by BCA to Alpina, Garmont, and Scarpa went smoothly. Costs need to be reduced so the contract wasn’t renewed, and with the new distribution we have 60 people instead of one to demo the product,” said Johnsen.
Never one to mince words, BCA’s Edgerly said, “The NTN is a great binding. However its success has been inhibited by two things: boot quality problems and Torbjorn. Now that those two issues seem to be resolved, NTN has a good chance at hitting critical mass.”
Johnsen discounted the negative news on the decline in telemark numbers.
“Global interest in telemark is stable and will continue to be strong. Preseason orders are up 20 percent,” Johnsen said. “NTN will be instrumental in the growth of telemark because it allows more control, especially for those switching over from alpine. As a cross-country and alpine skier myself, who had never telemarked before coming to Rottefella, it was easy to learn with NTN.”