Sports Marketing: Ready for Extreme Action

Looking for new ways to reach males from 12 to 35? Well, maybe the old standards are still performing. Media planners and buyers still have to form relationships with men via sports teams, leagues and personalities.

"We have had major success building events around sports such as the Ironman, golf, etc," says Alan Taylor, CEO of Alan Taylor Communications in New York City. "Despite some of the problems facing all of the sports if you look at the ratings, the attendance and the following for all of the sports out there you can see that the audience is still there and still viable."

Sports marketing may not be as hot as it may have been five or 10 years ago thanks to labor problems, rampant salaries, fan disillusionment and other factors, sports still have quite a hold on the American male—especially action sports.

"Kids today love the action sports lifestyle. And that’s what it is a lifestyle," says Darcy Taylor, president of Masev Communications Inc., a multinational youth-style, sports and music marketing and events company. "If you look at traditional sports kids aren’t wearing their uniform or listening to sports-specific music like the action sports fans are. You don’t change into a skateboard uniform."

Formerly known as extreme sports (can something truly be extreme once corporate giants such as Disney become involved?) these sports continue to attract the 12 to 35 demographic that has money to burn.

"When it comes down to it a media buyer has to question where they are going to put their money. Are they going to go for the big bang of the Super Bowl or go for something like the X Games or Gravity Games where they are going to reach a two or three share?" says Craig Tartaksy chairman of the International Sports Summit. "The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ because instead of reaching millions of viewers whom you don’t know, you know you are reaching that target and lucrative 12- to 35-year-old male."

The numbers support the belief that action sports really attract the demographic both as viewers and participants.

According to executives at the Gravity Games, last year’s events drew close to an estimated 300,000 spectators and averaged a 1.7 Nielsen rating when it aired on NBC. Males 12 to 17 averaged the same 1.7, while males 12 to 35 pulled an average 1.3 rating last year. Meanwhile, ESPN’s Summer X Games drew more than 230,000 estimated attendees and an average Nielsen of 1.4 on ABC, while scoring anticipated lower ratings on cable.

Additionally, unlike most traditional sports, fans of action sports tend to be active in the sports — and the number of participants is still going up. According to the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), snowboarding, which grew 31 percent in 2000, increased by another 23 percent in 2001 to a total of 5.3 million participants. In 2001, NSGA surveyed 65 sports, fitness and recreational activities. In each of the last two years, snowboarding has gained one million participants. "Since 1991, snowboarding has more than tripled. This growth has likely impacted alpine skiing, which has dropped 30 percent in the same 10-year period," said NSGA Vice President of Information & Research Thomas B. Doyle.

During the same period skateboarding — probably the sport most associated with action sports — grew by 7 percent to 6.2 million participants and wakeboarding charted for the first time at 2.3 million participants. When you combine those sports with some of the gaudy participation numbers thrown around by others from the action sports category such as BMX/Freestyle (8 million), surfing (17 million), aggressive in-line skating (26.6 million) post it’s no wonder the list of companies extremely active in these action sports includes the likes of Pepsi-Cola, Vans, Subaru, Motorola and more.

"It is no secret that the action sports category is growing still. That is partly why you are seeing some of the real corporate biggies such as Ford and Gillette getting involved in them," says Bill Carter, president of Fuse Integrated Marketing. "It works well long-term too. For example, 12 to 19 year olds have a huge interest in Mountain Dew. Then in their 20s it’s Pepsi. When they hit their 30s it becomes Diet Pepsi. The Pepsi brands have become part of the life and can continue on after they age up out of the active sports demographic."

Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN/ABC sports customer marketing and sales, agrees that the category will grow with ESPN’s networks and ABC airing of the X Games VIII.

"So far the numbers speak for themselves. The growth is still there be it participation, viewers, or new venues and competitions," says Erhardt. "We have seen it grow and are expanding with it, which is providing new opportunities for sponsors to reach the X Games fan." Among some of those new opportunities are Global X Games and increased coverage from ESPN the Magazine and on ESPN Radio, according to Erhardt.

One sponsor that benefited from these opportunities was the Bagel Bites brand, which saw a 26-percent jump in sales after signing on as a sponsor at the X Games and re-inventing itself as an action snack, Erhardt says.

Additionally the other big show, the Gravity Games aired its events live on In-demand pay-per-view earlier this summer, adding more revenue and another opportunity for sponsors to be seen by the viewers in "real time."

"This is an exciting development for action sports and a great addition to our Gravity Games programming," says Wade Martin, Executive Director of the Gravity Games. "It’s the first time an event of this kind will offer live coverage and it will provide a unique perspective for the viewer at home." The event will also be broadcast by NBC this fall.

And reaching that demographic via action sports is not limited to a particular season, event, or medium according to many, allowing brands to penetrate the market and make multiple impressions. This round-the-clock involvement in the sports allow brands to get to the viewers and participants through multiple media.

"Advertising to this market is a little different in that buyers may need to de-emphasize traditional media and establish one-on-one marketing through sponsorships more so than traditional sports," says Fuse Integrated Marketing’s Carter. "That doesn’t mean they need to abandon traditional media, such as radio and TV or print media, which still has a major impact. It is just that they need to include a heavy dose of event and athlete sponsorship to really reach them."

Building this relationship with the audience is vital because the lifestyle scenario makes it a little tougher for brands to become part of the culture. "You really have to become part of their life — they are very fickle and really know when they are just being marketed to," says Masev’s Taylor. "You can’t do it by just running a print ad or an ad on an action sports program. You need to do real targeted media and let them know you are part of the sports they live."

Tartasky agrees that it takes a little more than a regular ad to get to the kids that make up the core audience of action sports. "Action sports skew a little younger and this segment has exceptionally high discretionary income, but you need to talk to them a little differently," he says. "In the end a media buy is a media buy but how you activate it is what makes all the difference. You really need to be seen as part of the culture or else your message will never come across to them."

While the company has just begun working in the action sports merchandising realm, with a recent deal with skateboard legend Tony Hawk, BD&A, a full-service merchandise agency that works with numerous Fortune 100 clients as well as the big four leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL) has already learned that it is important to know the market well before trying to push a message to it.

"The Action sports crowd is very picky about merchandising and you have to be very in-tune with them and what they really want," says Jay Deutsch, president and CEO. "Then once you know that you have to design your merchandising and marketing pattern to allow you entry and to become part or their world."

While the company hasn’t unleashed its hottest promotional item — bobblehead dolls — onto the action sports crowd, Deutsch believes they will be well received by the audience. "There are a number of things you can do to brand yourself, but things like TV commercials don’t really gain much affinity," he says. "Bobblehead dolls and other merchandising products do gain that affinity and hold that affinity longer-term than a fleeting commercial or ad."

The audience and participants themselves may only slow the success and growth seen in the action sports category down. "Baseball has a problem right now trying to present the sport to the next generation and let it grow again," muses Tartasky. "The problem for action sports is that kids can be like moths and jump from bright light to bright light. What was once cool can turn cliché quickly."

But until action sports turn cliché and lose their audience—if ever—targeting this influential demographic and becoming part of the culture is a cool way to build a brand.

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