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EXTREME SPORTS -daring performances usually involving such non-traditional athletic aids as bungee cords, skateboards and sheer rock walls-are heating up.

When ESPN today kicks off "X Games," its second annual weeklong series of extreme sports competitions in Newport, R.I., it will announce that the formerly obscure, niche-oriented events are becoming a year-round thing for the No. 1 cable TV sports channel.

Coming next January will be the first Winter X Games, starring wild new sports like snow bicycling, supermodified shovel racing and other "crossover events from the summer games." There also will be winter and spring extreme sports trials.

ESPN's goal is to turn the genre into a long-term programming and sponsorship vehicle primarily targeting its Generation X types between 12 and 34 years old.

"As extreme sports become increasingly popular with younger viewers, we wanted to establish a unique brand around extreme sports, to promote the events and to differentiate ourselves from other extreme sports entities now cropping up," said Michael Chico, ESPN's senior VP-integrated sales and market research.

Indeed, extreme competition from heavyweight broadcasters has just arrived. Rupert Murdoch's powerful News Corp. plans to air the inaugural World Championship Extreme Games from South Africa this fall, featuring summer sports; the program will be broadcast globally and Fox plans to add winter sports in 1997. Fox TV is expected to promote its extreme sports coverage heavily in the U.S.

"Extreme sports have huge appeal around the world, from Japan to Australia-it's an anti-team, individualistic attitude that appeals to younger people and it's just taking off in countries outside the U.S.," said Joe Tomlinson, president of Team GX, a Newport, R.I.-based sports marketing company that's helping coordinate events and sponsorships for the World Championship Extreme Games.

Viacom's MTV: Music Television is also spotlighting extreme water sports on Sandblast, its first sports competition program, and on its weekly MTV Sports program and MTV may expand its extreme sports coverage, a spokeswoman said.

For ESPN, extreme games offer the chance to cultivate a following with younger viewers through non-mainstream sports programming, but as extreme sports grow in popularity it may lose some of its offbeat appeal.

"It's a challenge to keep extreme sports on the edge. We're always looking for ways to get more extreme," said Tom Hagel, ESPN's VP-integrated marketing and sales.

To build sponsor interest, ESPN added the X Games 12-city tour this year with hands-on marketing tie-ins for sponsors, which include AT&T Corp., Coors Brewing Co., PepsiCo's Mountain Dew, Nike, Advil, Sam Goody, and Taco Bell and General Motors Corp.'s Chevy Trucks and Pontiac.

Now, 11 Chevy Trucks dealers in New England are coordinating for a local promotion, offering the special limited edition "Extreme Truck," outfitted with X Games and ESPN logos with additional customizing options. Local TV, radio and print ads support, handled in-house by dealers.

The extreme sports genre has thrived on its underground status, but now that it's getting more exposure it's in danger of becoming mainstream, Mr. Tomlinson said.

"There will be winners and losers in extreme sports-only genuine, authentic types who are really pioneering new sports on the edge will survive."


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