Action sports participants are amazing athletes who thrive on challenges, which is a good thing since mainstream media acceptance has proven to be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
Once considered almost synonymous with disaffected young males, skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX, surfing, and other "extreme sports have come a long way in the past 20 years. The category, which now goes under the banner of action sports, has some legitimate superstars in skateboarder Tony Hawk and Olympic gold medalist snowboarders Ross Powers and Kelly Clark, along with top flight sponsors such as Ford Ranger, Hyundai, Yoohoo, Visa, Mountain Dew, and Nabisco.
With its eye-catching visuals that showcase the speed, power and grace of its participants as well as its role in influencing everything from youth fashion to music, action sports have proven to be an ideal subject for lifestyle press, especially outlets targeting young men.
But despite this growth, action sports still haven't made much headway in the traditional sporting press. "It's extremely difficult to get coverage from traditional sports editors outside of major events such as the X Games and Gravity Games, notes John Liporace, SVP with Alan Taylor Communications. "Even snowboarding, which has been elevated to Olympic status, still only finds a home on sports pages every four years."
To be fair, some action sports, such as surfing, do get regular coverage, although it tends to focus more on personalities and trends rather than contests and titles. But other sports are treated by sports editors as almost novelties, worth a look every now and then, but not worth covering regularly.
Part of the problem is likely generational. Most of the sports editors at general news outlets - as well as their audience - are in their 30s,40s, and 50s, and may be cognizant of the rise of action sports, but simply don't understand them as well as baseball, football, or basketball. One only needs to look at some of the disparaging comments US sports columnists/broadcasters such as Jim Rome made about soccer during the recent World Cup - and that's a sport with a ball, a long rich history, and billions of fans globally - and you can imagine their resistance to sports featuring the vert ramp or half-pipe.
"These are complicated sports, and few traditional journalists have really wanted to get into them in depth, says Crys Spelman, PR director for the skateboard group, Aggressive Skaters Association (ASA). "There are many different events that go on year-round, and the ASA is just one of the companies that produces events. I don't think the journalists have been willing to get into it because they don't realize how big this is going to be."
Not playing the numbers game
While unfamiliar terminology - such as words like "ollie and "fakie - accounts for some of the barrier, there's also the fact that most action sports don't have the statistics, and indeed don't seem to pay attention to things like standings and playoffs.
Even the hard-core action sports magazines don't follow the results of various events that closely. "We consider ourselves more of a lifestyle publications, so we don't even cover contests or thing like that, says Nolan Woodrell, associate editor of Stance magazine, one of a host of publications from Oceanside CA-based Transworld, which dominates the category.
"Especially in skateboarding, the contests are like a glorified demo."
The result is that pitching action sports to traditional print editors requires a lot of patience. "It definitely takes a different approach," notes Tara GaNun, PR director with Fuse Sports Marketing. "Those traditional sports are such cultural institutions that sometimes when you're pitching the editor with an action sports story, it's not always consistent with how that person wants to present information."
"You have to educate them, and you must be creative, because you will face reluctance, adds Spelman, saying she also tosses in statistics, noting that while sales of traditional sporting goods are down, actions sports equipment sales are up 600% within the past decade.
There's also the issue of demographics, but while most newspapers and mainstream magazines at least privately covet a younger audience, that doesn't necessarily mean a PR pitch stressing a sport's youth appeal is going resonate with traditional outlets. "I don't think a sports editor at a daily newspaper takes that into account, says Liporace. "You still have to sell the story on its merits, whether that be the athleticism of the sports, or the unique personalities that participate in them."
Making inroads into mainstream media
Though most papers remain a tough sell, the PR pros we spoke to note the growing acceptance of action sports by outlets such a Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, and even USA Today. Among key journalists covering action sports are ESPN The Magazine's Steven Malley, USA Today's Sal Ruibal, the LA Times' Peter Thomas, and Stance editors Woodrell and Ted Newsome.
But most PR pros stress the best way to get regular coverage in the mainstream press may not be through the sports section. "We'll target the lifestyle editor, the outdoor editor, and also the music editor, because there's a big link between these sports and music, says GaNun, who represents the US Open Snowboarding Championships, as well as the Association of Surf Professionals World Championship Tour.
TV has also begun to embrace action sports. Not only are events such as the X Games and Gravity Games now annual televised events, but they are a host of syndicated programming such as Bluetorch TV and Core Culture, airing regularly on channels ranging from Fox Sports Net to OLN (Outdoor Life Network). In addition, Extreme Sports Channel, which is set to launch in the US later this year, has a program called EX TV that also airs on Fox.
Scott Floyd, director of sports marketing at Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, represents Mervyn's Beach Bash, an annual event that combines the somewhat traditional sport of Pro Beach Volleyball with a host of action sports such as inline skating, freestyle biking, and skateboarding. He says that the volleyball often serves as an initial hook to get camera crews to the event, who then find themselves drawn by the sheer athleticism of the athletes.
Indeed the common mantra is that many of these events have to be seen live by the journalists to truly experience their appeal. "You can't match the intensity either with a magazine cover or watching on TV," says Spelman.
"When they come and check it out, the cameraman literally go nuts over it."
But Stance's Woodrell Newsome seems to suggest that no matter how hard they try, the traditional media may never quite capture either the essence of action sports, or the reason they appeal to so many young Americans.
"Mainstream outlets are trying to cover it more, but either come off without the right intentions, or without an angle kids can relate to," he says.
"In order to understand the sports, you must either do it, or have done it at some point. Many people don't realize how hard it is. If you give the average American a skateboard, most of them couldn't go a block without breaking their arm."
Still, Spelman is encouraged that the media interest will be there for the long haul, even if it isn't in the sports pages. She says a recent tour stop of the Mobile Skatepark Series in Cincinnati generated 4.5 million impressions in 10 days, including a front-page story in the Cincinnati Enquirer. "This is a sign of the times, she says. "Granted a lot of these editors are older, but if they want to build their long-term brand loyalty, you're going to have to appeal to the next generation."
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers USA Today; Los Angeles Times; alternative weeklies
(especially those on the West Coast)
Magazines Surfing Girl; Surfer; Surfing; Skate Boarding; Thrasher;
Transworld's Stance; Transworld's Surfing; Transworld's Skateboarding;
Transworld's Snowboarding; Skate Boarder; Daily Bread; Dirt Rag;
Adrenalin; Two Wheel Only; Maxim; FHM; Blender; Stuff; Rolling Stone
TV & Radio The X Games (ESPN); The Gravity Games; Action Sports TV; ESPN
X2day; Bluetorch TV; Core Culture (airs on FOX and OLN); Nickelodeon
Websites Transworld Matrix; thessn.com (the snow/skate network);
snowboardermag.com; surfermag.com; skateboardermag.com; bluetorch.com;