An Extreme Challenge: Alternative Sports Marketing

An Extreme Challenge: Alternative Sports Marketing

Five years ago, marketing to kids through sports was relatively simple – put an NBA star in a TV spot, and you had a campaign. Today, sports marketing means, “I need a skateboarder.” And that’s where the trouble begins.

Alternative sports aren’t so alternative anymore. Properties like “Max Steel” and “Action Man,” both extreme sports “fanatics,” are turning up in kids TV lineups and action figures, and every kid-targeted ad campaign seems to capitalize on sports like snowboarding, surfing or BMX biking. As participation and viewership numbers for traditional sports have gone down, sports like these have witnessed participation growth rates that are on average around 35%, and in some cases much higher. The problem is, most marketers don’t understand the differences between extreme and traditional sports.

“You can use the same strategies – sponsoring athletes, events, leagues and tours, and you can obviously buy TV advertising,” says Bill Carter, president of Fuse Integrated Sports Marketing. But Carter says companies miss the mark with kids when they apply old techniques to new sports. “You can’t group [extreme] sports together and lay down a strategy that includes every sport.” Skateboarders, for example, have a culture that is very different from the culture at BMX bike events. Pro skateboarders, as a rule, do not accept corporate sponsorship, while BMX biking is like NASCAR. “In NASCAR, it’s a badge of honor that Pepsi is sponsoring your racecar, and BMX is the same mentality,” Carter says.

Eye Candy’s Not Enough

Extreme athletes and their fans speak a different language – literally. For one thing, they don’t all appreciate the term “extreme” – and if they did to start with, they’re getting tired of it fast. They use slang like “sick” (a much cooler version of the extremely passe “cool”) and “eye candy” (anything that’s great to look at). The language barrier and other nuances that separate these sports from the mainstream are what make them so popular – and dangerous – for marketers. Slapping together a campaign with high-adrenaline images of kids doing tricks won’t cut it. Years ago, Gatorade wanted a player to walk off the court and grab Gatorade with the cameras on him. But brands that are successful in extreme sports are not trying to be part of the game, but part of the culture of the event, Carter says.

Teen Web site Bolt has taken that mantra to heart. The company sponsors major extreme sports events like the Gravity Games, which took place last month in Providence, R.I. “We tried to be at the events and provide an experience to enhance the Gravity Games,” says Michael Guth, Bolt VP of marketing.

Bolt offers kids digital photos of themselves which they can share with friends online after the event. The dotcom also offers T-shirts designed by Bolt members. The T-shirts balance the alternative attitude of Gravity Game attendees and Bolt’s branding goals. It’s a piece of corporate paraphernalia, yes, but it was designed by another teen and offers the individuality Gen Y loves. Bolt is anticipating nearly 100,000 new members to register at extreme sports events this year.

Norelco is also taking the value-ad approach to extreme sports event sponsorship. The company is targeting its new Hip Hues electric shavers to teen boys, so extreme sports are a natural marketing vehicle, says Meredith McHale, Norelco account executive at Manning, Selvage & Lee. The company has created “Adrenaland,” an area at extreme sports events where kids can have digital photos taken of themselves catching “big air” on a skateboard or bike, compete with other kids in a rope climb and, naturally, test a Hip Hues shaver. Even the product demo, however, is designed to fit into the extreme culture: stylists on site show kids the latest styles and help them shave their heads or goatees.

Extreme Cynicism

Understanding the extreme sports cultural landscape is a major step in winning mindshare with fans. But the ultimate goal is to win over the athletes, Carter says. Fuse is the agency behind Gillette’s new Right Guard Xtreme Sport deodorant, targeted at the teen male demographic. “If you want to reach the masses with any credibility, reach the core audience, the 2% of kids who participate in the sport and really affect the brand,” he says.

While the athletes may not be willing to plaster themselves in logos, showing them that you respect their sport is important. “We’ve shown kids we’re serious about supporting what they’re doing. They’re not crazy about participation from an outside brand, and they don’t love the name ‘Xtreme,’ but they’re excited that Gillette will give athletes an opportunity to make a living at what they do.”

(Bolt: Michael Guth, 212/620-5900; Fuse: Bill Carter, 802/864-7123; Manning, Selvage & Lee for Norelco: Meredith McHale, 212/213-7459)

Extreme Testosterone?

While males 12 to 24 are the primary target demographic for most extreme sports marketing campaigns, the concept can be effective with girls and younger kids.

“The initial thinking is it’s purely male-targeted,” says Michael Guth, VP marketing for But extreme sports events are a festival experience, he says, which is very appealing to girls. The digital photos taken at the Bolt booth at extreme sports events are compiled in an online flipbook sponsored by the female-focused Clean & Clear brand.

Cartoon Network is taking advantage of girls’ love of the “festival experience,” as well. The “Powerpuff Girls” are sponsoring the Ladies’ Lounge, a “tented oasis” for girls at the Vans Warped Tour, an alternative music and extreme sports festival that will hit 39 cities this year. Visitors will be able to hear new music inspired by the Puffs from the “Heroes & Villains” album, plus they can check out episodes of Cartoon Network shows and watch live demos by female athletes.

Younger kids appreciate extreme sports, as well. “We find kids know more and more of the stars – they know Dave Mirra and Ryan Nyquist,” says Neil Cohen, managing editor of Sports Illustrated for Kids. In a recent poll, SI for Kids found 57% of kids were interested in extreme sports, and of those kids, 33% of kids were interested a lot.

BMX biking is kids’ favorite extreme sport, followed by skateboarding, snowboarding and in-line skating.

Be on the lookout for the results of an upcoming poll in the magazine, asking kids whether extreme sports are cooler than others.

(Bolt: Michael Guth, 212/620-5900; Cartoon Network: Joe Swaney, 404/ 885-0657; SI for Kids: Neil Cohen, 212/522-4876)

Fuse Integrated Sports Marketing

Founded: 1995

Billings: $6.5 million

Clients: Pepsi (Mountain Dew), Gillette (Right Guard Xtreme Sport), Ford (Ford Ranger), Burton Snowboards, Gravis Footwear, Buena Vista Internet Group (, Unionbay

Employees: 15

Sports played by Fuse employees: snowboarding, surfing, mountain biking, skateboarding, wakeboarding … you name it, they do it.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Phillips Publishing International, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group