Water, Wheels, Air or Animals. You have probably never thought of any of these as extreme, but they can be and when it comes to competing in extreme sports, any of these will do.
Over the last thirty years, there has been a steady influx of extreme or action sports introduced to the mainstream marketplace, but there has been a true explosion over the last 15 years, due in large part to televised exposure through ESPN with the X Games.
But extreme sports have been around for much longer, it just depends on how the sport is defined.
Extreme sports are usually defined extreme due to the high level of danger and risk-taking and variables during performances.
According to Wikipedia, the term extreme sports can be traced back to 1950 with the phrase, 'There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.'
Is Extreme Becoming Mainstream?
ESPN is the patriarch of catapulting extreme or action sports into the public eye with its development of the X Games. The 16th Annual X Games were held in Los Angeles this August for the eighth time. In 2009, approximately 111,200 fans attended X Games 15.
There might be some that would say action sports are becoming mainstream due to the increased popularity of some sports, most notably, skateboarding and BMX competitions. But truth be told, there's nothing common about these sports.
Chris Stiepock has been involved with extreme sports or action sports for most of his career. As the General Manager for ESPN Original Entertainment, Stiepock began his career with ESPN in 1994 with the original Extreme Games and has not only been witness to the growth of these sports, but partially responsible for their popularity.
"We exposed a bunch of really cool sports that kids viewed and subsequently tried," explained Stiepock. "This all happened at a time when more and more kids were growing up in dual-income households and these 'Latchkey Kids' really responded to individual sports that have an individual learning curve. Also, at that time various technologies like the worldwide web and video cameras emerged and these sports were perfect for kids to capture moments and share them - so there was mainstream growth with ESPN and grassroots growth over the web."
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are only four sports that would be categorized extreme or action sports: surfing, alpine skiing, snowboarding and rodeo. Skiing leads the group with 570 participating schools in Alpine while snowboarding and surfing come in with a total of 52 and 50 schools respectively and only 28 participating schools in the rodeo.
"I don't think action sports are main stream," said Stiepock. "What we call Action Sports is more of a niche and will be for a while. Sports like football, basketball and baseball are American institutions with massive infrastructures."
"Part of the attractiveness for some Action Sports participants is the fact that those sports are not main stream. There's still a bit of that anti-establishment vibe to it," he continued.
But that's not to say that action or extreme sports aren't attracting a broader audience.
Chris Prybylo, general manager of the Dew Tour has been involved since its inception in 2004 as one of the first employees and has seen the evolution.
"Action sports have definitely been embraced," said Prybylo. "The New York Times regularly writes about action sports. It has become that the mainstream media has been interested in action sports; they are writing more about the competitions and results rather than the crazy event that is coming to town. The positioning is changing that they are interested in the results and who won as opposed to just a lifestyle story."
The Dew Tour features the best athletes in both summer and winter sports. The summer tour is comprised of five cities throughout the United States over five months and culminates in 2010 in Las Vegas with $2.5 million in available prize money. The Dew Tour is broadcast on NBC, MTV and USA Network as well as international media in over 100 countries.
"Progression is at the heart of all action sports," agrees Stiepock. "Doing a trick nobody has ever done before is the hallmark of the X Games. Athletes are constantly working on new things to bring to the X Games to debut before a worldwide audience. This year we are adding a sport called RallyCross - which will feature four cars racing inside and outside the LA Coliseum at the same time."
"Many times we tweak a competition or add a variation of an existing sport or discipline," explained Stiepock. "RallyCross is an example of that, we already had Rally Car in the event, and we just added another dimension."
Although, extreme sports usually include those that take place in land, air or water, you can't discount a large variable that comes with animals.
Bullfighting and rodeo competitions are often categorized together and according to some are the original extreme sports.
"No doubt," said Josh Baker, vice president of sales and marketing for the Mesquite Rodeo in Mesquite, TX. "It is 150 years old and the cowboys have been doing it for years; you had to know the events in order to do them at your trade."
"There are so many variables," he continued. "You're getting on animals that sure as hell don't want you on them or you are wrestling animals that don't want you to catch them. It's the true extreme sport but it's also the first."
Why is it extreme? "Something that makes it extreme is the bulls weigh about 2,000 pounds and have very sharp horns and you tie yourself to that bull," explains Baker. "That makes me consider it extreme. It's man against beast making it very extreme."
But that's not to say unpredictable variables don't apply in all other extreme sports as well. With all outdoor sports, weather becomes an unpredictable factor as does terrain conditions. Extreme sports events require athletes to compete not only against one another but against the unpredictable variables as well which can make for some very surprising outcomes.
Stay the Course
The mainstays of competitive extreme sports continue to be BMX, skateboarding, snowboarding and skiing, but like all sports, hosting these events means often meeting their very different requirements.
"Some of these sports require creative courses," said Stiepock. "Like BMX Street, while other sports require flat tracks for racing. We learned a long time ago that the courses are hugely important to any action sports event. Athletes want to know right away who's building the course - what features will be on it - what it's made of."
BMX is also a key element of the Dew Tour and although finding or developing unique venues for their events and broadcast is a key element when choosing a destination, it certainly isn't a stand alone decision.
"First and foremost we want to ensure the community really becomes something that's embraced and the event is important to the community," said Prybylo. "We don't want to be just a concert coming to town; we want to engage the entire business community and the entire government community."
"We want a marquee event for the mayor's office and something that works to promote the message for that respective city," Prybylo continued. "When we go in we look at all the prices and the entire package, the venue and facility is pretty basic, the tourism board and government offices on board and how do we make it a win-win. We also want to integrate the fabric of the community."
The City of Lake Elsinore in southern California prides itself on its availability to host extreme sports with its most natural resource and venue. Located in the middle of the city is a 3,300 acre natural lake, the largest in the state of California and is a playground for a variety of action sports ranging from skiing and wakeboarding to motocross racing and skateboarding to skydiving and hang gliding.
"I think it sets us apart," said Kim Cousins of the Lake Elsinore Convention &Visitors Bureau. "A 3,300 acre lake puts us apart from all of our competitors on the corridor, so that's our first thing. Adding those active sports, they then set us apart as a destination."
This area utilizes its history as well as the lake to host events. The Lake Elsinore Grand Prix was made famous in a 1971 documentary film 'On Any Sunday' which featured Steve McQueen competing under a pseudonym Harvey Mushman. In 2009, the area tried to recapture the magic of dirt biking.
"We took the course both streets and off road with great success," said Cousins. "We are always looking to improve the venue so we've added more vending and things as well as some more staging for fans to cheer the athletes on."
For years, retired NBA player Dominique Wilkins has been known as the "Human Highlight Film" for his athletic ability on the basketball court but it might be time for him to share that title.
Names like Tony Hawk and Shawn White are commonplace due to their success in their respective sports, but also due to the marketing of their image. Hawk and White continue to top Forbes' list as the top paid action sports athletes, which only continues to reflect the popularity and growth of action sports.
"I think the growth curve is starting to level off a bit - but these sports will continue to grow in terms of participants and popularity," said Stiepock. "There is a growing nation of youth out there who aren't programmed to watch or play baseball, basketball and football all the time. For the past few years in the U.S. more skateboards have been sold than baseball gloves. I think that trend will continue as more and more media outlets look to distribute action sports content."
Prybylo agrees. "They continue to grow on the sports side," he said. "The progression has been incredible, what these guys do, and how they improve over the years, they've accelerated. They push the competition levels and have had more progression in the past 5 years and it's been fun to watch."
White, coming off the 2010 Winter Olympics with spectacular performances garnering two gold medals remains the first and only athlete to win both summer and winter Dew Cups.
"Over the last several years, action sports have continued to grow," said Prybylo. "We have the largest media platform available and we continue to grow. The size of the tour now from a media perspective is ten-fold in our fifth year. "
The American Bicycling Association BMX has been at the root of today's popular extreme sports and has seen its fair share of success. There are currently over 60,000 members competing on over 270 tracks across the United States and Canada, double what it was in 1996.
Although, technically the X Games and Dew Tour are competitors, their goals remain the same.
"We think it's great that the X games are out there every summer," said Prybylo. "They are definitely with us to grow the sport as a whole and develop the appeal to new audiences. They just make them bigger stars and create more awareness. It's great to have these athletes on this huge pedestal that they have created."