MARKET FOCUS SPORTS PR: Pushing PR to extremes - No longer just a hobby for idle students, extreme sports have evolved into a huge industry. Dan Bennett talks to the pros who've been competing behind the scenes

Five years ago when Amy Cacciola and her colleagues at sports channel ESPN called reporters and pitched stories on the mostly unknown world of extreme sports, they were often met not only with derision but a comeback that became eerily repetitive: 'Do you have any story ideas for real sports?'

Five years ago when Amy Cacciola and her colleagues at sports channel ESPN called reporters and pitched stories on the mostly unknown world of extreme sports, they were often met not only with derision but a comeback that became eerily repetitive: 'Do you have any story ideas for real sports?'

Five years ago when Amy Cacciola and her colleagues at sports channel ESPN called reporters and pitched stories on the mostly unknown world of extreme sports, they were often met not only with derision but a comeback that became eerily repetitive: 'Do you have any story ideas for real sports?'

Today, extreme sports are as real as the goosebump thrill of a drop into the half-pipe during an in-line vert competition. Extreme sports are also real in numbers, from the television ratings earned by events such as the X Games and Gravity Games to the increasing circulation and user hits of related publications and Web sites, not to mention the massive dollars spent by the primary demographic attracted to extreme sports.

At this year's summer X Games, held in August in San Francisco, attendance again topped 200,000. This is a world away from the early days, when athletes participating in the Extreme Games were regarded as little more than freaks on wheels, one step above the skateboard rats who terrorize loading ramps at shopping malls.

'It was funny back then,' says Cacciola, the manager of marketing and communications at ESPN. 'When we would make the pitch, people would respond that they were more interested in the nitty-gritty sports. But if you become a fan of extreme sports, you realize there are few things more nitty-gritty than this.'

The skate rat is a star

Interest in extreme sports is tremendous, and each sport is evolving, able to spawn merchandise using star-power personalities. The neighborhood skate rats have become legitimate superstars.

What's so extreme about extreme sports? These are the sports of the so-called Y Generation, the adrenaline-rushed group following the allegedly more sedate and self-absorbed Gen X. On the extreme sports roster are skateboarding and snowboarding, bicycling and motocross. It gets wilder.

Also included are skysurfing, high-speed luge and wakeboarding.

Extreme sports are suburban stunts gone pro, morphed into something more sophisticated. Sidewalk ramps have been replaced by complicated raceways, neighborhood peers by professional judges and monetary accolades, the spying eyes of suspicious adults by an awe-filled global audience.

But to get there, extreme sports needed a push from the public relations industry. The ESPN in-house crew provided the first big shove, promoting the original 1995 Extreme Games with insistent optimism.

'At the beginning, we pitched it as more of a spectacle,' Cacciola says.

'Watch these athletes perform these dangerous stunts, where anything can happen. It worked. People became more interested in the Extreme Games and extreme sports in general, based on their fascination with the bizarre.

We had never before seen anything like this.'

Extreme sports became more of a business, without losing cutting-edge credibility and mystique, enjoying wild success and comfortable corporate marriages. The PR push has evolved into something more traditional.

'It became apparent to all of us that this was the beginning of an endless culture,' Cacciola says. 'New games could be added and promoted all the time. There is a constant new-ness to extreme sports, and we've been able to ride on that with our campaigns.'

In 1999, the winter and summer Gravity Games made their debut, another festive gathering of athletes and adoring fans. The brainchild of NBC and Petersen Publications, the company behind such extreme sports fan-fave pubs as Powder and Skateboarder, the summer Gravity Games are held in July in Providence, RI. The 2000 Gravity Games were videotaped and will be televised in October on NBC, following the current Summer Olympics, when interest in alternative sports is presumed to be at fever pitch.

'When we began publicizing the Gravity Games, we made a commitment to seek out the non-traditional media, going beyond the usual sports outlets,' says Kevin Sullivan, vice president of communications for NBC Sports.

'The concept of extreme sports has exploded, and we have been more able to access other departments, such as major daily newspaper lifestyles sections.'

Octagon Marketing in Stamford, CT partnered with NBC for on-site publicity at the Gravity Games and created a press day where journalists could get a better feel for extreme sports by participating themselves. Ramps and raceways were set up especially for press, who were handed helmets and wished godspeed.

'We had more than 500 credentialed media representing 150 outlets,' says Andy Erbelding, Octagon's public relations coordinator for the Gravity Games. 'We had every publication from Teen People to The Rhode Island Jewish Herald.'

Extreme adolescence

With more than 300,000 people attending the Gravity Games, Erbelding says it's obvious extreme sports have grown up, and PR helped push it through adolescence.

'I think PR deserves credit for awareness of extreme sports in general,' Erbelding says. 'PR helped hook people on the concept of luge and wakeboarding, and helped show the world that people in the United States aren't only playing football.'

NBC is pushing the Gravity Games in numerous on-air promos.

'The biggest public relations challenge we face is taking an event that took place in July and selling it in October,' Sullivan says. 'The Olympics will be watched by 215 million unique users over 441 hours, so the opportunity for Gravity Games promotion is massive. The visuals in our PR campaign are going to be eye-opening.'

Many of the top-name athletes have their own reps. The Familie, based in Carlsbad, CA, represents such core extreme sports talent as Dave Mirra, one of the leading athletes in BMX bike racing. The Familie handles corporate sponsors and commercial deals, and is also in the throes of a vigorous public relations expansion.

'We're making tremendous progress in increasing the commercial exposure and marketability of the athletes,' says director of public relations Zaynab Behzadnia. 'We're not only pressing for exposure in endemic media, but mainstream as well. When I send a press release to Racer X, or BMX Driver, I also send it to USA Today and Sports Illustrated. I'm receiving calls from publications that were never interested before.'

These days, The Familie's clients are as likely to win a spot on The Rosie O'Donnell Show as Late Night With David Letterman. The push is worldwide, with increasing international exposure of extreme sports leading to inquiries from outlets ranging from Japanese cable television to the BBC.

'Extreme sports is going to hit big time in other countries, because not every kid can put together a football team, but every kid can get his or her hands on a bike,' Behzadnia says.

ESPN has announced the organization of the X Games Global Challenge.

The event will take place in a different international location every other year beginning in 2002, following an extensive series of qualifying rounds.

'This is exciting if you are involved in extreme sports PR,' says ESPN's Cacciola. 'We'll develop new strategies for audiences that may be aware of extreme sports but now have the opportunity to see them up close.'

Sheryl Lynch is a Los Angeles-based publicist who represents skateboarder Andy MacDonald, super-cross rider Jeremy McGrath and BMX superstar T.J. Lavin.

'When they asked what I could do for them, I said, 'My job is to help make you household names,'' Lynch says. 'And I told them I wanted to do that by placing them in media situations not always associated with extreme sports, or even traditional sports. When I booked Jeremy on Jay Leno in May, I wanted him to be a personality, not just an athlete in costume, because some of these guys have amazing stories to tell.'

The exposure is just beginning, Lynch says, because Hollywood is taking notice.

'Major directors are looking at extreme sports as the opportunity to make movies on athletes,' Lynch says. 'Several of these athletes, both male and female, can end up as actors if they want, they have that kind of charisma. There are so many ways to go with this thing, it's incredible.

It offers a challenge to practice PR in its purest form, all over the map.'



Where to watch extreme sports

When searching for the best news, footage, graphics and calendars concerning extreme sports, experts in the industry's public relations field all offer the same advice: head for the Web, dude.

The Web is a primary source of info for extreme sports fans who need a fix between televised events such as the X Games and Gravity Games.

There are dozens of Web sites devoted to extreme sports and the athletes involved. Among those are:

www.extremesports.com

A comprehensive, all-purpose guide to several extreme sports, with personality profiles and constantly updated information.



www.planetextreme.com

Features a complete calendar and is loaded with online shopping opportunities for gear and such, with links to each site and cool 'extreme crash' link that offers smash-'em-up-footage of recent stunts gone wrong.



www.expn.com

Offers complete news and updates regarding the X Games and related events.



www.gravitygames.com

The official Web site of the Gravity Games, with schedules and other information.



www.quokka.com

Another all-purpose sports site that treats extreme sports with dignity, offering news and profiles.



www.wcsk8.com

Newsy site serving fans of World Cup skateboarding For print publications, the PR pros recommend Snap BMX, offering in-depth coverage of dirt jumping, as well as ESPN Magazine and any of the sports-based magazines offered by emap usa (www.emapusa.com), including Powder, Snowboarder and Skateboarder.

On television, besides the X Games and Gravity Games, viewers can find a twice-daily dose of extreme sports coverage on Bluetorch TV, airing at 4 pm and 1 am (all time zones) Monday through Friday on Fox Sports Net, featuring footage of skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing, accompanied by popular music and videos.

THE TEAMS: TOP SPORTS PR PRACTICES

Ranking  Agency Name          Sports income (dlrs)  Growth  Total income

99  98                             1999       1998     (%)   (dlrs) 1999

1   1    Ketchum              6,750,000  6,500,000       4   123,630,000

2   3    Shandwick            4,567,880  2,715,000      68   240,203,000

3   2    Alan Taylor          4,245,257  3,610,996      18     4,994,420

4   N/A  Dan Klores Assocs    1,500,000        N/A     N/A    10,800,000

5   N/A  Edelman              1,088,981        N/A     N/A   128,174,735

6   4    Brotman Winter Fried   840,000    840,000       0     4,200,000

7   6    Donnellon Public

         Relations              819,234    485,486      69     1,773,232

8   7    Jamison Golf Group     562,000    470,000      20       562,000

9   9    Tunheim Group          450,000    200,000     125     5,034,475

10  5    The Rasky/

         Baerlein Group         354,000    500,000     -29     4,211,666

11  N/A  The Kamber Group       325,000        N/A     N/A     9,225,600

12  10   Public Communications  290,096    196,000      48     5,062,674

13  N/A  Carl Thompson

         Associates             288,597        N/A     N/A     1,923,980

14  N/A  McNeely Pigott & Fox   227,844        N/A     N/A     4,010,702

15  N/A  HMS Success            214,327        N/A     N/A     3,648,532

16  N/A  Ogilvy                 203,100        N/A     N/A    92,220,200

17  11   Dublin & Associates    198,927    175,706      13     1,333,313

18  N/A  Rodheim Marketing Grp  150,000        N/A     N/A       700,000

19  8    DuDell & Associates    145,010    325,250     -55       889,924

20  18   The Headline Group     134,000     41,000     227     2,326,231

21  N/A  Richard French

         & Associates           117,812        N/A     N/A     3,299,541

22  14   Freeman/McCue          109,500     88,600      24     2,190,000

23  15   Dome Communications    100,000     75,000      33     2,100,000

24  N/A  Stoorza, Ziegaus

         & Metzger               86,610        N/A     N/A     8,660,866

25  12   Ackermann

         Public Relations        80,351    160,381     -50     4,017,529

26  13   Hope Beckham            66,741    113,533     -41     1,625,277

27  17   Charleston/Orwig        56,462     41,821      35     2,474,158

28  16   Mullen Public Relations 53,097     71,536     -26       762,173

29  19   Eric Mower and Assocs   40,746     40,600     0.4     2,037,318

30  N/A  Kupper Parker

         Communication           27,585        N/A     N/A     4,620,606

31  N/A  Nuffer Smith Tucker     25,269        N/A     N/A     1,286,852

32  N/A  Richmond

         Public Relations        25,200        N/A     N/A     1,292,700

33  23   Conkling,

         Fiskum & McCormick      19,980        948    2009     1,866,553

34  20   Praco                   13,000     13,000       0       867,000

35  21   The Pantin Partnership  12,000     12,000       0       857,000

36  24   Ballard Communications  11,525        675    1607       694,643

37  N/A  Seigenthaler





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