Viewers game for niche sports

By Published on .

The big four of televised sports just got complicated.

While you can debate whether Texas Hold `Em poker rises to the level of a sport on cable these days, dodgeball and a seemingly endless variety of other feats of skill are gaining momentum as viewers show interest in a less grueling side of athletics.

Major brands, ranging from Coca-Cola to Beefeater gin, are backing these niche sports, many of which evoke the nostalgic memories of a playground more than of a sports arena.

Paintball, arm wrestling and pingpong are getting airtime this year, and TV executives have kicked around the idea of airing kickball. Earlier this year, ESPN-the gold standard of sports coverage on cable-even considered airing a tournament of the playground game "Rock, Paper, Scissors."

"This has been a big year for niche sports," says David Berson, ESPN's VP-program planning and promotion, who wields power over which programs make it onto the schedule of the Walt Disney Co.-owned cable network.

"In addition to mainstream sports, viewers love new and different competitions, so we're throwing more unexpected things into the mix," Mr. Berson says.

Such games, including dodgeball, have particular appeal to younger adults, says Rich Cronin, president of cable's GSN, which launched "Extreme Dodgeball" last June, simultaneously with the release of 20th Century Fox's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" starring Ben Stiller. GSN, jointly owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media Corp., last month began the second season of "Extreme Dodgeball."

"Dodgeball fascinates people, reminding them of when they were younger and life was simpler," says Mr. Cronin. He got the idea for the series while with his daughter visiting college campuses, where he spied signs about dodgeball leagues forming.

In its first season, "Extreme Dodgeball" improved its time slot's performance by 57% and increased the slot's number of 18-to-49-year-old viewers by 90%, Mr. Cronin says. The goal of reaching younger viewers is crucial for GSN, which was repositioned from Game Show Network earlier this year.

GSN consulted with dodgeball leagues to create TV-specific rules. One team was called "The CPAs," thanks to having a few accountants as members; another was "The Stallion Battalion," with a few jockeys aboard. Several team members hail from a past in professional football or tennis, and all were required to attend a special "boot camp" to prepare for the show.

"We keep an element of humor in the show [while] making it realistic," Mr. Cronin says. "We want it to be something the average viewer could relate to."

`who hasn't played dodgeball?'

Coca-Cola Co. and Burger King Corp. were among the mainstream advertisers that came aboard for the first season of "Extreme Dodgeball" and have continued into the sophomore season.

"This was a unique opportunity for Coca-Cola to reach active youth and young adults through television in a real and also non-traditional way," says David Raines, VP-integrated marketing at Coca-Cola North America. " `Extreme Dodgeball' offers a game that's very familiar to us all-I mean, who hasn't played dodgeball? ... It's very appealing to the target" market.

Buoyed by its success in dodgeball, GSN is shopping around for other "light-style" sports to add to its lineup of hosted TV game shows, plus blackjack and poker, Mr. Cronin says. It has ordered a pilot for an extreme billiards-type show called "No Limit 9 Ball."

Although kickball has not yet found a home on TV, participation in the sport has tripled over the last year, says the Washington-based World Adult Kickball Association, which claims 20,000 players in 25 states. Regional sponsors include Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light, car rental operator Zipcar and Mikasa Sports USA, maker of the traditional red rubber kickballs used in play.

Allied Domecq's Beefeater sponsored its first kickball competition last month at the Seattle Seahawks' Qwest Field, where several hundred local players competed in the charity event.

"We hit on kickball as a great marketing platform because it takes adults back to their roots, to a time when things were more fun and carefree," says Michelle Murray, brand manager for the gin. "Beefeater hasn't changed since 1820, and kickball is a way to connect to good things that never changed."

ESPN is exploring similar low-tech sports but hasn't given "extensive consideration" to dodgeball or kickball, says Mr. Berson. Instead, he's green-lighted the first-ever Paintball World Cup, set to air Dec. 9, followed by resurrected coverage of arm wrestling. Coming Nov. 11 is the first-ever Spinvitational Table Tennis Championships. And how could sports fans endure without the World Juggling Federation Competition, slated for next January on ESPN2?

Earlier this year, ESPN covered the U.S. Amateur Jump Rope Federation's championships. Later this year, the leading sports network will offer its first-ever coverage of Scrabble championships, and the the National Spelling Bee will return.

competition is key ingredient

"People may ask why we're covering things that aren't sports, but the common theme here is competition, which is what ESPN is about," Mr. Berson says.

The more ESPN airs niche sports, the more inquiries and proposals it receives, he says. ESPN sees niche sports programming as appropriate for a wide variety of ad categories, including package-goods, fast-food, beverages and automobiles.

The growing interest in non-mainstream competitions is a boon to promoters of niche sports. But while local bars and restaurants are often eager to lend support, national sponsorship deals are difficult to secure, says Kelly Maloney, a spokesman for kickball's WAKA.

Michael Costanza, a founder of the Los Angeles Dodgeball Society, is also a member of a team on this season's "Extreme Dodgeball," and spends much of his free time helping expand dodgeball clubs to other cities.

"We started with eight dorks in L.A., and now we have about 1,000 players involved here," says Mr. Costanza.

The U.S. Amateur Jump Rope Federation, Huntsville, Texas, has also struggled to find sponsors outside of jump rope equipment. Its 1-hour championship airs several times throughout the year on ESPN and ESPN2, garnering "respectable" ratings for its time slots, says an ESPN spokesman.

In arm wrestling, interest is on the rise as ESPN prepares to air five 30-minute programs showcasing the Unified National Arm Wrestling Championship, beginning Dec. 21. In addition, News Corp.'s Fox Sports Net has agreed to expand its regional coverage to national coverage of arm wrestling events, says Dave Devoto, co-founder and president of the Petaluma, Calif.-based World Wrist Wrestling Championship.

Mr. Devoto, now 72, has helped nurture the sport through its ups and downs since 1962, and says participation is on the upswing again.

"Like a lot of these low-tech sports," Mr. Devoto says, "people like watching them because they think `I could do that,' although the competition level today is pretty extreme."

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