By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Alpine skiers kick off their own Super Bowl on Monday when the world championships return to the United States, providing a rare opportunity to put the White Circus in the American sporting spotlight.
A day after the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots clash in the Arizona desert to decide the National Football League championship, the world's best alpine skiers descend on the posh resorts of Vail/Beaver Creek for two weeks of high speed thrills and, most likely, a few spills.
While over 100 million Americans are expected to watch the Super Bowl, only a small fraction would normally be aware of the world championships but from Feb. 2-15 the U.S. could be captivated by the exploits of Snow Queen Lindsey Vonn, the most successful women's ski racer of all-time after notching her 64th career World Cup victory.
Vonn will be the undisputed headliner in Vail but a sparkling supporting cast that includes rising star 19-year-old Olympic slalom gold medallist Mikaela Shiffrin, world and Olympic champion Ted Ligety and evergreen Bode Miller will make sure the home crowd will have plenty to cheer for as the host nation makes an all out assault on the podium.
"America is definitely 'record centric'. Hopefully, it will bring more attention to the sport," explained Vonn after eclipsing Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell's 35-year-old record of 62 wins earlier this month. "It would be good, going into the world championships, that it creates more TV interest and more interest with the general public. Anyway I try to promote the sport.
"I think it's an amazing sport."
Alpine skiing rarely grabs American interest outside of the Winter Olympics.
But with a U.S. team packed from top to bottom with potential champions, the worlds, back on U.S. snow for the first time since 1999, could provide a badly needed boost for the sport and the North American ski industry, which has seen the younger generations gravitate to snowboarding and extreme skiing.
Over the two weeks the spotlight will seldom stray from Vonn, who has the sport back on the front pages with her record smashing performances on the snow and her romantic relationship with golfer Tiger Woods away from the piste.
One of only six skiers to have won a World Cup race in all five alpine skiing disciplines, Vonn has a record 17 World Cup crystal globes including four "big globes" for the overall title.
But the Europeans are not waving the white flag.
"It’s good for skiing that Lindsey is back, but she’s not unbeatable. There’s four or five of us who can beat her. As for me, I like American snow,” warned Austria's Olympic Super G champion Anna Fenninger.
The European challenge is likely to be spearheaded by Slovenia's Tina Maze, the 2013 Super G world champion who tops the overall World Cup standings coming into Vail, while reigning overall World Cup holder Fenninger sits second.
The championships could be last call for 37-year-old showman Miller, who was named to the U.S. team despite having not raced this season due to lingering back problems.
One of the most popular and successful skiers of all time, the outspoken former Olympic and world champion is aiming to make a competitive comeback after skiing as a forerunner at World Cup events in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.
Miller, who has spent an extraordinary career performing the unexpected, should not be counted out in Vail, while team mate Ligety will be out to defend his three gold medals from the 2013 worlds in Schladming.
The championship's blue riband event is the men's downhill and Norwegian speedster Kjetil Jansrud will be the man to beat after blitzing to victories earlier this season in Beaver Creek on the Birds of Prey layout and more recently at Kitzbuehel.
No skier will face higher expectations than Austria's Marcel Hirscher, winner of the overall World Cup title for the past three years.
Whether it is the Olympics or world championships, Austrians always expect their team to return home with a chest full of gold.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Phoenix, Editing by Gene Cherry)