Action sports form fabric of generation

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Extreme sports have become so popular they no longer seem extreme.

Indeed, ESPN, the cable network that spawned the outpouring of athletic extremity with its highly popular X Games, now refers to the category as "action sports."

" `Extreme' is the old term," explains Ron Semiao, ESPN VP-programming and managing director of its Global X division. "These types of action sports have gone from being an activity of fringe groups to an ingrained part of a generation that influences its fashion, music, entertainment. ... This category is far from extreme."

In its original realm of cable, where subscribership is increasing due to the digital boom, extreme and action sports have carved what seems to be a permanent niche. But the spread of extreme sports has gone beyond an ever-expanding roster of competitions, to inspiring awards and lifestyle magazine shows, and even cartoons.

BLUE-CHIP BRANDS

Blue-chip brands are swarming to back extreme sports, in pursuit of sought-after teen-age and young adult viewers, who tend to skew heavily toward males. They include the milk mustache campaign of Dairy Management Inc. and the National Fluid Milk Processor Education Program, Nabisco Biscuit Co. for brands including Oreo and Chips Ahoy!, Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Mennen Speed Stick, WorldCom's 1-800-Collect and H.J. Heinz Co.'s Bagel Bites, which are not only sponsoring programs but the extreme athletes themselves.

Traditionally considered cable fare, extreme sports scored big when NBC picked up the Gravity Games in 1999. "It's the broadcast networks that have the promotional power to build big events," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP-broadcast research at True North Communications' TN Media, New York.

The explosion in the category can also be attributed to a broadening of the sports' demographic. No. 1 kids network Nickelodeon last year jumped on an opportunity to hook an even younger audience on the extreme concept by launching "Rocket Power," a cartoon aimed at 6-to-11-year-olds and produced by "Rugrats" creator Klasky Csupo Productions (see story at right).

Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN is readying the seventh year of its X Games competition, and the network now airs about 900 hours of action sports annually, between ESPN and ESPN2.

"These are sports that are clearly appealing to contemporary youth," says ESPN's Mr. Semiao. "It's more than an activity for these viewers; it's a culture and a lifestyle."

Operations eager to reach young eyes, from the U.S. Marines to Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Mountain Dew, have become major participants in extreme sports programming.

MEDIA PLAN REDONE

Heinz's Bagel Bites, which was originally marketed only to moms, boldly revamped its strategy to target tweens. The brand signed on as a sponsor for ESPN's 2000 Winter X Games and the product grew 26% in consumption in the eight weeks following those games. "Action sports is a sport that embodies the lifestyle and personality of the Bagel Bites consumer," says Richard Yoder, senior product manager at Heinz Frozen Food Co. "Marketing directly to them allows us to connect with our core tween consumer."

ESPN is currently focused on international expansion of its X Games. Already in the works is an Asian X Games in Thailand and European X Games in Barcelona. Latin America, Australia and Japan are on deck. The network also plans an X Games Global Challenge in 2002 where athletes compete individually and for their region of origin.

`UNBELIEVABLE APPETITE'

"The appetite for action sports is unbelievable," Mr. Semiao says.

ESPN earlier this month created a new event called the "ESPN Action Sports & Music Awards" fueled by Mountain Dew, honoring athletes in nine categories and recognizing the connection between action sports, music and cultural interests. In addition to awards, the show scored performances by groups popular among this audience including Black Sabbath, De La Soul and Ben Harper.

"Mountain Dew, which has really wrapped its marketing platform around this audience, presented the idea to ESPN," says Tom McGovern, director of sports marketing at Omnicom's OMD USA, New York. "It was an opportunity to take all things throughout the year and have a culminating celebration of these athletes and lifestyles. And attaching your brand to this imagery is quite appealing to certain marketers."

Best Buy Co., General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac and Guitar Center also sponsored the event.

"This is something that's born out of a generation's creativity, it's not their dads' sport," says Ms. Koerner. "Teens and tweens gravitate toward that. Heck, we all like to watch TV that reflects ourselves back to us."

FOX GETS INTO ACT

Fox Sports Net this month rolled the dice on a weekly half-hour program on that very type of audience reflection. Created by Zoom Culture, the extreme sports show "Playground Earth" is a sampling of work produced by more than 400 college-age "Zoom directors" capturing extreme sports footage from around the country. From cave spelunking to bungee jumping, the show features vignettes with the tagline "Go out and get dirty."

"Our audience defines themselves more through outdoor participatory sports than through traditional team sports," explains Marty Lafferty, president-CEO of Zoom Culture. "Kids today grew up with hundreds of cable channels, Web sites and videogames. Because of these choices, kids can find their own community of interest, which wasn't available in the past. And that's part of the reason extreme programming is so popular."

DEALS ARE DUE

Each half-hour program will air 8 minutes of ads. While at press time Zoom said it couldn't disclose sponsors, it claims to have deals in the works with apparel, footwear, soft-drink and fast-food marketers.

Fox Sports Net is no stranger to extreme programming-it currently reserves 2 hours per weekday afternoon (3 p.m.-5 p.m.) for such fare. "We're focused less on event programming and more on the lifestyle and background of extreme sports," says Frank Sinton, VP-programming. "We want our audience to know that every day when they get home from school that we will have something cool for them to watch."

The network, however, signed on only for four episodes of "Playground Earth," taking a wait-and-see approach to its future.

Emerging as one of the most popular extreme sports is freestyle motocross, which recently joined the group of X Games events. Clear Channel Communications' SFX Motorsports, which owns the Supercross, Freestyle Motocross and Arena Cross Series, is enjoying success as its events air on Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN and ABC. Sponsors include Mennen Speed Stick and videogame marketer EA Sports.

"These sports are gaining popularity because the audience can actually go out and participate in the sport that weekend-be it on motorcycles or BMX bicycles ... They're actually becoming mainstream," says Mike Weber, exec VP-TV and licensing at SFX Motorsports.

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