Games grow with their young fans

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Action" is the name of the game when it comes to young people and sports, but for marketers looking to get the most from their sports sponsorship spending, it's not just a matter of catching the wave, but how long before it peters out.

For marketers the goal is to develop long-term relationships-whether the sponsorship venue is action, or extreme, sports or the traditional heavy-hitters like baseball and football. So it's important for the sport to have "legs," to hold consumers' interest after they exit their teen years.

Bill Carter, president of Fuse Integrated Sports Marketing, Burlington, Vt., says that client Ford Motor Co. "is participating in reaching the youth market through action sports for a couple of purposes. One purpose is to reach the current teen, but they're also seeding that market today in hopes that as the current teen-ager becomes a young adult-the 20-to-34-year-old market-that they have created a connection with that consumer."

For some sports, such as skateboarding and BMX, Mr. Carter says, "it doesn't make a ton of sense to marry yourself to the sport because you in fact are going to lose your audience when they become a young adult, whereas other sports, and I'll focus on two big ones where this is clearly the case-snowboarding and surfing-[these] are what you would consider like a lifetime action sport."

relationship changes

"You may enter the [lifetime] sport at the same time you entered skateboarding, as an 11- or 12-year-old," he says, "but the way in which you participate may change over the time you're a teen-ager to a young adult to the middle years of your life, but the sports still have a place in it. ... Snowboarding is like skiing in that there's not an end date where it becomes less relevant. Surfing is the same."

Last winter's Olympics gave mainstream legitimacy to snowboarding. "There's a huge opportunity in winter sports and extreme sports," says Brandon Steiner, chairman of Steiner Sports Marketing, New Rochelle, N.Y. He adds: "I think people are skiing more and snowboarding, too. I think that with participation usually comes a bit more attention that it gets on TV."

Many of these extreme sports are winning the mantle of "mainstream."

"I don't think there's any shame in saying that these events are no longer alternative-they are mainstream sports," Mr. Carter says. "That definitely is to the benefit of a Fortune 500 advertiser."

Mainstream, however, doesn't necessarily mean the sport will hold the young person's attention into adulthood. Ford is involved in what Mr. Carter calls the "six key action sports"-surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX biking, freestyle motocross and wakeboarding. He acknowledges that some of these sports, including the popular skateboarding, are unlikely to keep their young fans as they move further into adulthood.

Surfing is hot, though Primedia's Surfing Girl this month relaunched with the more expansive title of sg: Surf Snow Skate Girl, targeting 15-to-22-year-old females. Universal Studios' "Blue Crush," a hit movie about female surfers, has shown that "hanging 10" appeals to more than just beach boys, and attracts fans well inland of the wave-battered coasts.

"The growth of action sports has been fueled not by teens on the coasts who can generally participate in surfing and snowboarding, but ... by middle America [youth] who by and large cannot participate in a lot of these action sports, and specifically surfing and snowboarding," Mr. Carter says. "Probably for every one surfboard that's sold, there's literally hundreds if not thousands of articles of clothing that are surf-inspired. They're being sold on the coasts and in middle America. Those sort of factors are what drive interest levels of the sports, which in turn brings in corporate sponsors and advertisers that have an interest in linking themselves to that."

kids of gen x'ers

"I think what you're seeing here is this kind of action sports mentality began as a product of the late '80s and '90s from Generation X, and now those people are having children," says Peter Townend, publisher of sg and VP-marketing/events at Primedia's Action Sports Group. "What you're seeing with this Generation Y is their parents are actually action sports junkies. There's this fan base being built."

Despite the individualistic nature of some popular youth-oriented sports, "you are seeing individual sports come out of favor a little bit, things like swimming and even skateboarding. I think you are seeing some erosion there," says Tim Jarrell, VP-publishing director of Time Inc.'s Sports Illustrated for Kids. "I think that the organized sports are going to endure, and I think they are going to find think think they are going to find themselves in an increasingly more competitive situation."

Sports sponsorship consultant Dean Bonham believes major professional team sports as well as action sports have staying power among teens. "I think the simple answer is teens today have pretty diversified tastes," he says. "One of my sons is an avid baseball fan and an extreme sports fan in that he loves watching and participating in snowboarding and skateboarding. He loves going to baseball games and football games."

"The sports that are most likely to see an increase in youth participation, viewership and attendance are soccer, the NHL and extreme or action sports," says the CEO of Bonham Group, Denver.

"I'd guess that hockey is the best positioned to hold the interest of the younger audience as it matures," he says. "We just see from an attendance perspective that hockey continues to be an extraordinarily popular sport to attend. ... The rub there is they don't see that same level of popularity from a viewership perspective."

"Hockey tried it for a long time [to reach the youth market at the grassroots level]," Mr. Steiner says. "And the participation level is nicely improving in this country with more and more kids playing hockey, and there are more ice and roller rinks now."


In addition, Mr. Bonham says, "the NBA is very well-positioned [to keep its young fans as they become adults]. I think soccer has enormous upside potential with the youth market because of the expanding base and growing popularity-by that I mean [U.S.] participation and success in the World Cup."

He adds: "Major League Baseball and the NFL are the most likely to decline just because their demographic is the oldest. They don't appear to have a next generation plan in place that really embraces youth."

Many executives at the sports leagues themselves recognize the need to attract fans from an early age and then continue to nurture the relationship as they grow up. The goal is to "create the relevant touch points at a young age but then make sure that as they mature into adults that we are still relevant to them and that they continue their interest," says Ed Horne, president of NHL Enterprises.

The NHL's strategy, as Mr. Horne explains it, could apply to any consumer-product marketer seeking to build long-term relationships with consumers: "We want to make sure that we carry through with them during their tween and teen ages."

"It's such a fragmented marketplace, and there are so many options for people of all ages to participate in or spend their time or their dollars," says Mr. Horne, who notes that the National Hockey League believes it competes in the entertainment world as well as the sports world. "We know we can't expect people to just find it without us making sure ... we're in a place that's relevant."

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