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Andrew Royal isn't your typical couch potato. The 26-year-old from Cleveland, who works two jobs to finance his new mortgage payments, rarely sits glued to the tube — even when his hometown team, the Cleveland Browns, is playing on Monday Night Football. But when the X Games or the Gravity Games are on, Royal not only makes time to watch, he actually schedules his day around what's on TV. “These athletes are so on the edge that it actually makes watching TV enjoyable,� says Royal, who hung up his skis more than 10 years ago in favor of a snowboard. “Extreme sports are my Monday Night Football.�

For those who still think a half pipe is something you light up, wake up and smell the Mountain Dew. Extreme sports, once considered the sole province of the multi-pierced, tattooed slacker, have entered the mainstream. These high-intensity, individualistic sports, which involve everything from the ultra-hip snowboarding to Moto-X (a strange, scary contest that has motorcyclists attempt ski jumps) have encroached upon traditional sports — especially group sports — in popularity. While Monday Night Football, for example, has recently struggled for an audience, viewership has steadily increased each year for such sports events as the X Games on ESPN and the Gravity Games on NBC. “These new sports are an authentic slice of the wider youth culture and not just a fad,� says Harvey Lauer, president of American Sports Data, Inc. (ASD), a sports marketing research company in Hartsdale, N.Y.

This youth culture consists of some 58 million Americans between the ages of 10 and 24. Horizon Media Research in New York City estimates this group's annual buying power at more than $250 billion. That's one reason why giants such as PepsiCo, AT&T Broadband, Motorola, Ford and Morningstar Foods — and even the U.S. Marines — have focused a chunk of their marketing budgets on capturing the elusive Gen X and Gen Y male consumers, who make up the bulk of extreme sports aficionados. PepsiCo's Mountain Dew, for example, has been a sponsor of the X Games, widely considered the Olympics of the extreme sports world, and the Gravity Games. (American Demographics' corporate parent, PRIMEDIA, is part owner of the Gravity Games.)

Introduced in the 1960s, Mountain Dew was perceived as a hillbilly drink, says Dave DeCecco, spokesman for PepsiCo. That changed in 1992, when “Do the Dew� was born. The edgy ads, showing people engaged in various extreme activities, made Mountain Dew the fastest-growing soft drink of the 1990s. “The involvement was a natural extension of our advertising,� DeCecco says. PepsiCo reports that the number of teens who said “Mountain Dew is a brand for someone like me� increased 10 percentage points between 1998 and 2001.

In an otherwise anemic sports-viewing market, extreme sports have a hardy following. Although they can't match the numbers of Monday Night Football, ratings for the X Games and Gravity Games are rising — albeit from a much smaller base. Monday Night Football is one of the strongest sports broadcasting franchises, often ranking among the top 10 prime-time programs. But the show's standing has been declining for several years: Ratings for the ABC staple fell to an average of 12.7 percent of the nation's 100-million plus homes with televisions in 2000, and then fell to 11.5 percent in 2001, according to Nielsen Media Research. By contrast, the 2001 Gravity Games, held in Providence, R.I., averaged a 1.7 household rating — which corresponds to about 2 million households — up from 1.6 in 2000. The Winter X Games VI held in Aspen, Colo., earlier this year, resulted in record viewership for ESPN and ESPN2: The telecast on February 3, 2 p.m. Eastern time, on ESPN, scored a 1.04 rating (894,640 households), making it the highest-rated and most-watched Winter X Games telecast ever on the network. (The sports network has been televising the X Games for seven years.) Last year, the Summer X Games VII, in Philadelphia, also posted increases. In an X Games record, the 2001 event attracted an average audience of 465,905, an increase of 48 percent over the prior year.

Moreover, the demos are young and male — an elusive target group for most marketers. The 2001 Gravity Games, for instance, attracted more male viewers, 18 to 34, than any other action sports program. Among males ages 12 to 17, the Gravity Games drew a 1.7 household rating, corresponding to more than 200,000 male teens, up from 1.2 in 2000. Among males ages 12 to 24, the games drew a 1.3 rating, nearly 320,000 males, up from 1.1 in 2000. Last year's Summer X Games had some big air too: Within the 12- to 17-year-old demographic, ratings were up 86 percent (to 0.93 from 0.50), about 219,000 boys and girls, while numbers for males ages 12 to 17 were up 72 percent (to 1.48 from 0.86), about 178,000 boys. Within the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, ratings were up 40 percent, nearly 330,000 young men (to 1.05 from 0.75). Compare those demos with baseball's median age of 46.4 or even ESPN's total-day median age of 40.7.

“This is a demographic sweet spot,� says Brad Adgate, senior vice president and corporate research director at Horizon Media. “The games are an incredible success story in combining sports with entertainment, while targeting a specific market. If you look at the continually increasing participation numbers in these sports, viewership is going to continue to grow. I'm an entrenched Baby Boomer, and even I know who Tony Hawk is.�

For those who don't, Tony Hawk is the undisputed god of skateboarding, the most famous alternative athlete of all time. He's the guy who took the skateboard out of the closet, placing it into the hands of an estimated 8 million boys and girls, ages 7 to 17. Indeed, skateboarding, snowboarding and wakeboarding are among the fastest-growing alternative sports in the U.S, according to the 14th annual Super-study of Sports Participation, conducted by ASD, which surveyed 14,772 Americans nationwide.

Snowboarding — once the stepchild of the ski slopes — now claims 7.2 million participants, up 51 percent from 1999. The kindred activities of skateboarding and wakeboarding surged 49 percent and 32 percent, respectively (to 11.6 million and 3.5 million participants). The subgenre of “board� sports thus gets a clean sweep of the top three growth positions among all alternative sports. This has occurred as membership in team sports is declining. Participation in baseball is down 28 percent since 1987, to 10.9 million players. Basketball declined by 5 percent in 2000 and 17 percent from its 1997 peak. Since 1987, involvement in softball and volleyball has plunged by 37 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

ASD's Lauer says that part of the growth spurt in extreme sports stems from a rejection of the traditional values reflected in team sports, like working together, character-building and group competition. Alternative sports, he points out, are “rooted in a diametrically opposite set of values,� including fierce individualism, alienation and defiance. But as Maria Elles, ESPN X Games marketing manager says: “You don't have to have a tattoo to like an action sport. The athletes are really setting the trends.�

Wherever bleeding-edge athletes go, marketers are sure to follow. As a first-time X Games sponsor last year, Hershey's was looking for a spot to sample its new single-serve Hershey's Milk. According to Patty Herbeck, marketing director for Dallas-based Morningstar Foods, which markets the Hershey's product, the X Games sponsorship fit into the company's overall sports marketing initiative targeting 16- to 19-year-olds. Hershey's ran spots on ESPN during the X Games — the first national advertising campaign for the product. It then followed up with print ads in ESPN The Magazine and an on-site sampling campaign that “was bang for the buck,� says Herbeck, citing that demand for samples was so high that Hershey's couldn't keep enough milk on site during the games.

With all the emphasis on all things extreme, isn't there a chance that the buck-convention status the sports enjoy will soon be as appealing to the young male demographic as cricket? In any sport, there are the mainstream and then the core enthusiasts, who set the standard and push the envelope. If extreme sports start to lose the “how did they do that?� factor, the hard-core fan will simply “set another standard, which will then trickle down to the mainstream,� says Bill Carter, the 33-year-old president of Fuse Integrated Marketing, a Burlington, Vt.-based company which designs sponsorship programs for marketers.

But Carter is confident that it will be a while before the mainstream demands more than big backside air, with frontside air, along with a McTwist and an Indy grab. “A lot of viewers of snowboarding don't have a clue about the names of the tricks,� says Carter. “What they see on television are elite athletes who are doing something that nobody's ever done before. And when it comes to these kinds of athletes, that's not going to change.�


Three out of five U.S. kids and teens (61 percent), watch extreme sports on TV, more than the number who watch most other sports. Those living in the West are the most likely of all to tune in to extreme TV.

Olympics 84% 90% 89% 80% 81%
NFL football 80% 78% 83% 81% 75%
NBA basketball 71% 62% 76% 72% 72%
Baseball — major/minor 63% 68% 64% 64% 57%
Extreme sports/X Games 61% 64% 61% 58% 66%
College football 60% 54% 61% 67% 51%
Basketball — men's college 57% 48% 57% 64% 48%
Professional wrestling 50% 47% 47% 60% 38%
Gymnastics 48% 45% 48% 50% 47%
Soccer 47% 40% 50% 46% 52%
Auto/motorcycle racing 46% 40% 49% 47% 45%
Ice skating 46% 53% 48% 42% 41%
Boxing 44% 28% 39% 55% 43%
Swimming/diving 43% 47% 42% 44% 39%
NHL hockey 41% 51% 41% 37% 38%
Tennis 34% 32% 31% 40% 26%
Skiing 31% 29% 33% 30% 31%
Basketball — women's college 30% 31% 27% 35% 22%
Basketball — WNBA 29% 28% 25% 33% 29%
Golf 27% 31% 27% 24% 28%
Source: The Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, ESPN, Inc., and Statistical Research, Inc.
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