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Extreme sports diving into mainstream

Web posted on:
Monday, November 30, 1998 4:39:50 PM EST

A NewsStand: CNN & Entertainment Weekly report
From Correspondent James Hattori

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It isn't your father's Wide World of Sports anymore. Kids in the '90s are riding a new wave of recreation -- athletics at the extreme.

Skateboarding on half pipes, aggressive inline skating, dirt-jumping on bikes and, yes, skysurfing at 13,000 feet -- these are sports with attitude that make football look downright tame.

"These sports are just -- you go do it, and you're doing it on your own," says Tony Hawk, a professional skateboarder. "You don't have to answer to anyone."

"A kid might have been riding his bike since he was little, but he had no idea that he could do this," says Tina Basich, a professional snowboarder.

Extreme sports, like a lot of popular urban culture, come from the streets.

"Skateboarding's always been more of a sort of an underground, sort of a subculture-type thing, you know, kids skating city streets, like the downtowns of major cities, like San Francisco, New York, Philly," says Jaya Bonderov, a professional skateboarder.

And now extreme sports have a wide following. First, MTV brought extreme sports from the streets to the airwaves. Now, ESPN has fashioned an alternative Olympics with the "X Games," a twice-yearly competition featuring 15 sports that attract hundreds of athletes and their fans.


Of the following, which is the most exciting sports moment:

Watching two guys skysurf a perfect score to win
Watching a golfer drain a 75-foot putt to win a tournament
Watching a quarterback throw a last-second TD pass to win a game
Watching a basketball player nail a 3-point buzzer-beater to win

View Results
Should extreme sports contestants be paid as much as, say, golfers or football players? Go to the boards!

X-tra money

"X," whether for extreme sports or Generation X, has come to symbolize a romantic image of youth in America today -- edgy individualism, a hint of danger, a cool and casual style. The image has struck a chord not just in the neighborhoods of America, but on Madison Avenue.

Major corporations are tapping into extreme sports because they attract a very coveted audience: youths 12 to 19 with a disposable spending allowance estimated at $103 billion a year.

Becky Ebencamp covers advertising for "Brandweek" magazine.

"Companies, when they do research, they find the research comes back to say, 'Well, kids are into this and that,' and extreme sports really rates high up on that list," says Ebencamp.

For instance, Mountain Dew began using extreme sports images in its TV campaign and saw sales soar. Mountain Dew says it's now among the fastest-growing soft drinks in the country.

The Gap is making an extreme fashion statement with its commercials combining skaters and khakis.

"The commercials that tend to work are ones that really tap into the spirit of the games and the players," says Ebencamp.

Demographic-X: Extreme sports appeal to young males

That same spirit is what caught ESPN's attention. It's why the "X Games" is one of the network's biggest events of the year.

Even the Marines are attracted to the demographics. They've been "X Games" sponsors two years in a row -- the athletes' piercings, tattoos, and bleached hairdos notwithstanding.

"We're not trying to recruit the athletes," says Jack W. Klimp, a major general in the Marines. "We want to recruit those kids amongst the audience who the Marine Corps appeals to."

Alternative mainstream

The truth is extreme sports are not as extreme as they used to be. Alternative has gone mainstream.

"It's all progressing right now, and it's awesome to see all this stuff, all the people come here and watch it and be so interested in it," says Dave Mirra, a professional stunt biker.

To some, this extreme wave sounds a bit familiar.

"Thirty years ago, it was surfing," says Ernest Lupinacci, a writer for Weiden & Kennedy. "You know, that sort of went out of fashion, and now it's come back into fashion, and the difference is there's not just surfing anymore. Again, there's, you know, 'Well, I identify myself as a snowboarder,' or 'I identify myself as an inline skater, and then that says a lot about the music I listen to and the clothes I wear and the kind of movies I like to go and see.'"

MTV quickly recognized the untapped extreme sports market, creating a weekly show, "MTV Sports," devoted to an on-the-edge lifestyle.

"And we married sort of interesting visual sports with great music, and I think the combination worked really well," says Patrick Byrnes, vice president and creative director of MTV Productions.

Each year, the show comes to a venue near you. MTV stages an Annual Sports and Music Festival. This year it was in Memphis, Tennessee.

And there's the Vans Warp Tour, a traveling music and extreme sports fest sponsored by the sneaker company. It was one of this summer's hottest tickets.

"Alternative sports, alternative music -- I don't think it's a surprise that the two go together that well," says Byrnes.


But being on ESPN has given extreme sports a new audience and exposure beyond the MTV generation. In 1993, ESPN's Ron Semiao came up with the "X Games."

"I believed that there clearly was an appeal that was untapped and that was not being maximized," says Semiao, who shortened the name of the games from "Extreme Games" to "X Games" "for branding purposes, for one, and the word 'extreme' has become somewhat of a cliché, and we don't want it to be, you know, going out of vogue. I think it already is out of vogue now. I think we changed it just in time."

For now, extreme sports are hot, with million-dollar sponsors and big-budget TV shots lagging behind what the athletes themselves earn. Most rely on modest product endorsements and contest winnings.

Some athletes think they're being taking advantage of.

"They definitely take more abuse than any golfer ever will," says Andy MacDonald, a professional skateboarder. "Golfers are making a lot more money than skateboarders."

Rob Wells represents some of the top athletes in extreme sports. He says only a few have six-figure deals. Most, he says, get far less.

"I would say anywhere from $20,000, in the top end $150,000, $200,000," he says.

Andy MacDonald, 25, is among the most successful. He says many of his fellow athletes are undemanding.

"I think because skateboarding's so young and because the athletes are so uneducated as far as how much of a favor they're doing these corporate sponsors that they're stoked to get what they get," MacDonald says.

BMX biker Dennis McCoy, 31, has mixed feelings about the growth of extreme sports.

"Basically, you take the good with the bad, and for what little bit of control we've lost, we've also gained a lot more opportunity for the other riders out there," says McCoy. "I mean, there's always been a handful of us that have made a living off this, but now the handful has gotten a lot bigger."

Ironically, sports that began largely in the counterculture have arrived, thanks to mainstream merchandising, and athletes basking in growing fame and fortune find that anything but extreme.

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