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Thursday, July 19, 2012
Updated: July 21, 3:11 PM ET
FWT merger complete

By Keith Carlsen
ESPN.com

After months of speculation and discussions, the organizers of the North American-based Freeskiing World Tour and The North Face Masters of Snowboarding and the European-based Freeride World Tour have officially joined forces. Following meetings in Europe a few weeks ago, a decision was finally made to merge the three tours into one unified global championship series called the Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face.

The six-stop tour will include freeskiing and snowboarding at each stop. Women will compete at five of the six major stops.

"Big mountain freeriding has a long and rich history with incredibly talented athletes around the world," said Adam Comey, the president of Mountain Sports International, which puts on the Freeskiing World Tour. "Now, with two great brands in Swatch and The North Face, and two dedicated organizations in Europe and North America coming together for one mission and one tour, the next chapter of big mountain skiing and snowboarding is very bright."

Imagine this: One unified global freeride tour.

Confirmed tour locations include Revelstoke, Canada, Chamonix, France, Kirkwood, Calif., Fieberbrunn, Austria, one additional stop still to be confirmed, and the World Tour finals in Verbier, Switzerland. According to tour organizers, 2013 start lists will feature qualified athletes from each of the 2012 Tours along with a limited number of wild cards.

"The merger is good for the sport," said 2011 Freeskiing World Tour champion Drew Tabke, who has competed since 2004 and joined the Freeride World Tour in 2008. "To combine into one tour, each side will have to make some compromises. I know from experience that each tour has a distinct vision of what the sport should look like. But from what I've seen, there is enough communication and willingness to work together, that the final outcome should make everyone happy."

Tabke added that there will be a Pro Rider's Board of athletes to make sure the athletes have a voice in the organization.

Snowboarder Ralph Backstrom, who has competed on both The North Face Masters and the Freeride World Tour for the past five years, sees the merger as a major turning point for snowboarding. "What I hope to see come out of this merger is something similar to the ASP surf tour, where the FWT turns into something bigger with more following and super prestigious events," says Backstrom. "I'd also like to see riders at the top of their game still competing in the same way that Kelly Slater does. I think this merger could finally create that dynamic in skiing and snowboarding."

About 40 additional Freeride World Qualifier competitions will take place to give up-and-coming athletes a chance to earn a spot on next year's FWT. The first two stops of the qualifier series will be in New Zealand and in Chile in August 2012. The Chile event will take place at Ski Arpa Cat Skiing, August 22-27 and the New Zealand dates haven't been finalized yet.

"The union of the three tours is a major step in the sport's growth," said Freeride World Tour director Nicolas Hale-Woods. "Not only at the World Tour level, but also at the qualifying level."