Extreme Business

Tony Hawk’s mother says he was a “challenging” kid. He was scrawny, a nerd, and a social outcast. He wasn’t particularly good at team sports, he didn’t like being told what to do by the coach, didn’t mix with the jocks. He preferred to play on his own. Tony spent hours and hours, days, alone with his skateboard. It wasn’t even a cool thing to do then, twenty-four years ago. The initial wave of youth euphoria had broken, space invaders had landed and eventually the skateboard wheels stopped spinning. But not Tony’s. He lived near one of the last remaining original skate parks in the US and it became his home. Rolling round the undulating concrete, the outsider looking for an outlet found a family. Other kids, disillusioned with team talks and joining in had also used their four wheels to escape.

“We were a community of outcasts. We didn’t have a lot of friends outside of skateboarding and we didn’t really care. We didn’t feel like we fit in anywhere else. As long as we had our crew and we were skateboarding we were happy.”

Many people are attracted to extreme sports because they see themselves as outsiders. They do not fit in or do not want to fit into the mainstream, into teams and traditions. They are rebellious souls. The common factor linking all is individual skill. Competition is against the limits of your own ability. That’s what attracted the ten times World Champion BMX rider, Matt Hoffman, to his sport. It’s what keeps him involved after seventeen years and fourteen operations to repair his battered body.

“I like individual sports.  They’re easier to understand for me.  If a mistake is made, I can look in the mirror to find out how to fix it.”

Even in most organised events, the subjective nature of scoring means that self-expression is your goal and the rules of engagement are few. For Hoffman this takes riding a bike to a new level of individual experience.

“You could mould the rules to your personality instead of having to mould your personality to the rules.  Hell, you made up the rules, so it was more like sport as art instead of sport as competition.”

It is natural for young people to be attracted to this at a time in their lives when they are striving to make sense of the world and their place in it. Natural that in a time and place where society heralds individual freedom young individuals want freedom from society’s constraints. But everyone grows up, don’t they?

Tony Hawk is now a husband and father of three sons. He’s in Aspen, Colorado to watch the Winter X Games, the annual ‘made for television’ extreme sports championships. He still skateboards. Tony Hawk is reputed to earn up to ten million dollars a year from riding a deck. He’s an X Games multi-gold medalist, a hero, a guru, father of his sport. He has a skateboard company, clothing lines, there are Hawk skate shoes and his name appears on one of the most successful series of playstation games ever. Tony Hawk 2, was the best selling game in the US during 2000. Not a bad result for a skinny, nerdy kid who wouldn’t do what society told him.

However it hasn’t been a simple transition, making money from skating wasn’t always so lucrative. Skateboarders have featured in advertisements for a while but it’s only recently that the corporate marketing departments have woken up to the real power of skateboarding and other so called extreme sports.

“A while ago they were like, ‘OK we’re going to have you skateboard, we’re going to make you do handstands, we’re gonna dress you in these clothes, we’re going to make you do this and that’s how it is.’ And we really weren’t in a position to say no. It’s so much easier now, they really listen. There are soft drink companies, phone companies, automobile manufacturers and they’re signing three, five, ten year deals. They know that people have really embraced what we do and so they’re in it for the longhaul.”

Extreme Sports or action sports have experienced incredible growth over the past decade. Aspen, the Rocky Mountain resort famed as a playground for the ultra rich, banned snowboarders from one of its mountains until recently. Now it has courted them and every other non-conformist extreme sport disciple. Aspen hosted the X Games in 2002 (and will stage them again next year) because it is looking to its future client base and the x-generation is the next generation of big spenders. The event has been consistently attracting larger international viewing figures year on year. More than 50 million people are estimated to participate in so called extreme or action sports. Millions more buy into the lifestyle through clothing, videos, games and magazines. A recent trade fair in California dedicated to action sports and youth lifestyle was attended by more than twenty thousand industry representatives from 60 countries. But it’s not simply a case of putting the word “extreme” and a picture of a skateboard on a packet of crisps and expecting kids to gorge themselves. They know their sport, see it as their life-style and are very alert. Like Tony Hawk says, try something ham-fisted and it will definitely backfire. “If they use some superimposed shot of a guy jumping a canyon the kids know it’s fake, they know it’s just a bad marketing attempt and they’re not interested.”

Get it right and the profits can soar. Media savvy six year olds who pour cynical scorn on unsophisticated attempts to win their brand loyalty trip over their laces rushing to be part of the extreme sport anti-society. Manufacturers subtle enough to win street credibility through careful association can creep beneath the belly of this anti-social beast and feed at will. Executives are donning the camouflage of baggy pants and logo adorned esoteric sweatshirts to try and move freely amongst the kids.

“What they really see is a generation that they find difficult to reach. People talk about the “tween” group, ten to fourteen or really six to sixteen year olds and they can’t figure out what can reach that whole group, and these sports are it.”

Snowboarding, downhill mountain biking, skateboarding, motor-cross BMX and all the other adrenaline-fuelled sports may be relatively new, but they’ve always bred heroes. Soaring participation levels and huge investment means faces and names that were once obscure are now becoming populist. “Tony Hawk” is the answer to the question of “Who’s your hero?” asked of many young urban males, and he’s not alone in commanding recognition. BMX star Mat Hoffman and the bad boy of snowboarding, Shaun Palmer are also grade A action sport celebrities. They too have been immortalised as icons in their own playstation video games. Activision, the game makers have sold 10 million of these titles world-wide. Activision have chosen these three because they are the fathers of their respective sports, the names that have stood head and shoulders above the competition, but the particular personality traits of the stars they have picked are integral to the games. The profound respect Hawk has earned for his passion to pioneer and push the limits, the arrogance and will to win of Palmer, and Matt Hoffman’s seeming contempt for living that pushes him higher than few would dare to even try; all these enhance the gaming experience and make them ideal as the basis for video titles.

Palmer plays the anti-hero role to the full, just like everything else he does. His body is covered with tattoos, mostly logos from his favourite car manufacturer, Cadillac. His hair has been dyed colours not found in a rainbow and his bones have been broken so many times that his movement as an old man is bound to be very limited. If he ever gets to be old. A professional snowboarder since the age of thirteen, he was dominating the half pipe over competitors twice his age way before the masses moved away from skis. But there are plenty of adrenaline addicted speed freaks with little regard for self-preservation and ability by the bucket load that excel at extreme sports. Palmer is different, he excels at many. He’s a Renaissance man for the modern age. No painting or poetry for Palmer, snowboards, mountain bikes, snowmobiles, motor bikes and racing cars are his tools of expression. His adaptability is so chameleon like he’s raced on skis then been shuttled straight back up the slope to strap on a board and minutes later, race that too. Long summer layoffs proved too tame for him and in 1996 he took up mountain biking. In his first season he finished seventh in the World Cup downhill race in Nevegal, Italy, then two months later capped that by winning the American National Championship race at Big Bear, California. By the end of the season he finished fifth in the World and a feeding frenzy ensued between sponsors desperate to sign up this natural athlete with attitude. When the contracts were signed, Palmer had propelled himself into the top-earning bracket of yet another sport. Mountain bike manufacturer Specialised is reputed to have paid $300,000 for the services of this rookie, an unheard of amount before Shaun decided to sit on a saddle.

He’s won X Games gold medals on skis, snowboards and mountain bikes. It doesn’t matter what propels him forward; gravity or gasoline is all good for Palmer. In 2000 he climbed into a specially adapted Cadillac STS car for the Pike’s Peak Hill climb, a 100 mile an hour plus, twelve mile ascent of a snaking dirt road in the Colorado Rockies. He won his category, beating not a group of petrol head amateurs, but a litany of invited professional drivers.

Irrespective of the event Palmer will always try to win, and he often does. The other constant is his attitude. More than anyone else Shaun Palmer has nurtured the aggressive anti-social “Fuck you, I you I won’t do what you tell me” culture ubiquitous amongst many young extreme sport exponents.  He’s a punk, in both the British and American meanings; he’s anti-establishment trailer trash and he revels in it. He’s been rude, crude, substance abusing, violent and attention seeking ever since he joined the professional snowboard circus. His early life provides pocket psychologists with a rich seam of material from which to construct an explanation for this behaviour. His father left home soon after Shaun was born and it was twenty-one years before they met again. His relationship with his mother was often strained and school wasn’t exactly his forte.  One competitor at this year’s X Games, an old and long suffering friend, described him as “having a few issues he needs to work out”. He doesn’t so much as work them out as live them out in public and the fans love him for it. People who practice or watch extreme sports aren’t all raging nihilists. Tony Hawk is a good example. He had his wild days but they are behind him. Palmer hasn’t made that transition yet. He’s mellowed a little with age (he’s now 33), but not much. His image appeals to those who see extreme sports as a crude anti-politics, even if they don’t couch it in those terms. Ironically he’s the ideal commercial vehicle to sell to this group. The only problem is his uncompromising, self-destructive approach doesn’t go down well during business meetings. Some sponsors avoid him others have had bad experiences with his scathing attitude towards corporate realities.

Other bad boys have had similar run ins. Brian Deegan won gold at this year’s Winter X Games in the Motor-cross Freestyle event. It’s arguably the most spectacular of all the extreme sports disciplines in the competition. Riders launch motorbikes flat out at twenty foot ice ramps, jumping a further thirty feet up in the air across a yawning seventy foot gap to land on ice. Impressive enough, but mid flight they throw themselves off the bike to perform aerial acrobatics. The “superman” is one such stupefying trick. The rider releases the handlebars and pushes the bike out in front of him. Grabbing a grip behind the seat and inches above the rear wheel he kicks his legs straight out behind and lies horizontal the air.  As the front wheel begins to dip towards the ground he pulls the machine back underneath himself and lands. Even thinking about executing such a manoeuvre surely calls into question the mental health of the person involved. But even by the standards of his peers, Brian Deegan is a little wild. Like Palmer, he has a reputation for what could be understated as “rabble rousing” and although he’s had fun on his own terms, that attitude has cost him money.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever said no to a big deal but I guarantee I’ve lost a lot of deals with my image. That’s a given. I know for fact that a lot of people won’t sponsor me. I’ve lost deals ‘cause people go “we just can’t take his image”. But the old suits that are running companies, you can’t change their minds, you can’t tell them what’s cool, they have their ways set in stone”.

Even if many mainstream companies won’t take the risk there are still some that will. Companies at the heart of extreme sports – equipment manufacturers, clothing lines – rely on these bad boys to sell to a large number of their less talented peers. To these, Deegan sees no responsibility to behave.

“They get what they pay for. They’re paying to get their logo on TV, I risk my neck so they can sell their products and if I want to flip someone off on camera or say shit or fuck on camera, I’m just gonna do it dude, and they know that. They’ve got their logo on me and they sponsor me because the crowd backs me because I’m not scared to say what I want to say and be who I want to be.”

It’s that individuality again. They all do what they love doing most to the best of their own ability. Shaun Palmer has jumped a snowboard over double lined railway cutting while a train passed underneath. Tony Hawk has spun like a top with a skateboard seemingly glued to his feet, upside down, high above the lip of huge ramps. Brian Deegan jumps a motorbike then throws it away in mid air before catching it again and landing side-saddle on ice. Mat Hoffman has been towed on his BMX by a motorbike at fifty-five miles an hour to hit a ramp and jump fifty vertical feet. They all have their own companies because no one else does things the way they think it should be done. Mat Hoffman had built a business empire of bike and clothing manufacturing, television shows and promotional tours before he was twenty. Hawk has his own numerous and highly profitable enterprises, Palmer is the Chief Executive of a snowboarding company bearing his name. All three have playstation games. Brian Deegan has created a brand called the Metal Militia that will be turning out a clothing range. But it’s not the money that’s the drug. They are hooked on a chemical high, the primeval, natural narcotic of pumping adrenaline. It isn’t inhaled. It doesn’t require needles. It is shot straight into the blood stream from within the addict’s own body and the cost of a fix is unquestioning commitment to any preferred brand of extreme sport.

They all do it their way. They don’t conform to the norm. At the very least, the expert practitioners of extreme sports bend laws. All of them hold gravity in abeyance or at least tease it like a caged bear being poked with a stick. To do this requires bravery, balls in the vernacular. With such scant regard for natural laws it’s hardly surprising that when not competing many of them want to challenge social rules as well. This is all very attractive to those stuck within the norm; even if their own rebellion only amounts to buying the products these dare devils endorse.

The Financial Times, Saturday 30 March 2002

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