Imagine taking a kayak over a 186 foot waterfall; cruising down the Chilean Alps on the world's fastest bike going a mere 130.7 mph; bike base-jumping off 3,500-foot Norwegian cliffs; or rolling down a steep hill inside a giant Zorb.
Blame it on Evel Knievel - the superstar daredevil who wowed us with his motorcycle stunts in the 70s. Families would gather around the TV anxiously awaiting his next aerial trick. For many boys and girls, Knievel may have very well started an itch. Over the next 15 years, athletes worldwide began gravitating toward thrill-seeking sports.
In the early 1990s a new and exciting non-conventional world of action sports emerged. Quickly gaining popularity, ‘Extreme Sports' began to change the landscape of the sports world forever, slowly but surely edging their way to the forefront of our time honored sports.
Back then, they included skydiving, snowboarding, mountain biking, skateboarding and bungee jumping, and they eventually edged their way to the forefront of our time-honored sports.
In 2009, those non-traditional sports have morphed once again into an even more challenging realm of sports on steroids - attracting a huge following from the Y Generation.
But What Exactly are Extreme Sports?
Some would say, any sport that pushes the envelope…to take normal activity and give it an increased risk. According to Wikipedia, "Extreme sports (also called action sport and adventure sport) is a media term for certain activities perceived as having a high level of inherent danger. These activities often involve speed, height, high level of physical exertion, highly specialized gear or spectacular stunts."
Has it really been 15 years since ESPN first featured competitive Extreme Sports on our televisions?
Originally dubbed Extreme Games by media giant ESPN and later changed to X Games, the annual televised event has gained popularity over the last 15 years and has grown exponentially.
In 1995, the games were held in Rhode Island and Vermont. There were 27 events in nine categories that included bungy jumping, in-line skating, skysurfing, skateboarding, street luge, biking, water sports, sport climbing and eco-challenge.
An estimated 198,000 spectators watched the 1995 games. Showing a massive gain in popularity, 268,390 attended the games in San Francisco just five years later.
The X Games celebrated its 10 year anniversary in 2004 and set an event record for the highest television viewership in its history - a 47 percent increase from the previous year. Not only did viewership increase, but a new one-day attendance record was set with 79,380 fans present.
This August marked X Games 15th year. The event was held in Los Angeles, California with 200 athletes from around the globe competing in skateboarding, motocross, BMX and rally car racing. The Winter X Games 14 will be held in Aspen, Colorado, January 31, 2010 with competition in skiing, snowboard and snowmobiling.
ESPN's role in the popularity and growth in Extreme Sports would be impossible to minimize. The XGames have catapulted a number of sports into mainstream media which might have otherwise failed to attract the dollars or attention that it does today.
However, they didn't do it alone.
Matt Hoffman was a pioneer in BMX competition and is still considered one of the best vert ramp riders in the history of the sport. He was the youngest pro rider in the sport at the age of 16 and later developed the Bicycle Stunt Series to give BMX riders a place to compete.
Keith King, founder of King BMX Stunt Shows and two-time X Games competitor as a professional Flatlander explains Hoffman's role in the success of action sports.
"Matt had a contest at his park in Oklahoma City," explains King. "ESPN showed up with one guy and a camera. They were laying ground to see what would work."
Hoffman Promotions eventually joined forces with ESPN in 1995 to produce and televise the Bicycle Stunt Series.
"We started hearing that ESPN was going to do this (Extreme Games) and it was going to be an Olympic type of format," said King of the first ever Extreme Games.
"They brought the sport to the masses and helped make them mainstream. Companies began to understand its popularity and market it," continued King. "It spread like wild fire and NBC jumped on and did the first Gravity Games."
And the rest they say is history.
On the Horizon
Sandboarding, Skurfing and Longboarding. Might sound a little foreign to some of you, but to today's young athletes, they are some of the most popular up-and-coming Extreme Sports out there.
Almost all Extreme sports have derived from their more common counterparts. The difference, however, is the landscape, level of competition and risk factor involved.
Sandboarding has been around for thousands of years, but only recently been recognized as an Extreme Sport according to LonBeale, director of Sandmaster Park in Eugene, Oregon. The reason for its sudden growth in the U.S. can be credited to Beale and his facility.
"It's growing so quickly because we opened this place," said Beale. "There were pockets of people boarding but there was no place to do it where you can rent boards and watch videos of people boarding all over the world."
Beale grew up sandboarding and was introduced to the sport in 1972. He opened Sandmaster Park in 2000 after stumbling on 40 acres of dunes for sale. "We were doing competitions all around the country and came up the Oregon coast to do a demo for a TV show. The sand was excellent. We fell in love with it and just stayed."
But What Exactly is sandboarding?
"You are taking the best of snowboarding and mixing it with a day at the beach," explains Beale. "You have the adrenalin rush, the downhill speed and the tricks, but it's sunny and warm."
The definition of sandboarding according to Wikipedia is: "A recreational activity similar to snowboarding that takes place on sand dunes rather than snow-covered hills. For some, it involves riding across or down a dune while standing with both feet strapped to a board, while others use a board with no bindings. The latter method is considered much more dangerous than the former."
"What we find, if they are doing any board sports at all, they already have this (skill set) so the crossover is immediate," continued Beale. "We provide lessons (at Sandmaster Park) and all instructors are either current or past champions. People come in and learn from the best of the best."
Those skills also translate to Skurfing or Wakesurfing as well, but boarders are taking it to the lakes and rivers. Skurfing is where a surfer trails an inboard ski boat and surfs the boat's wake which replicates the look and feel of an actual ocean wave.
So why chose extreme sports when such a high risk factor is involved? If you were to poll these athletes, it's likely that nine out of 10 would answer, 'for the thrill.' And just as most of us are attracted to roller coasters, the adrenaline rush is their trigger.
But What Really Happens Biologically?
Medical evidence suggests that dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin are released during these activities, producing positive feelings. Coupled with the fear-factor of the adventure sport, an athlete's adrenaline also comes into play - creating the ‘rush' so many speak of.
"Adrenaline is a big part of it, putting your body on the line and doing those tricks and knowing you could get hurt was definitely part of it," said John Leach, director of Events and Entertainment for the Oklahoma City Thunder. "Going fast and high was always appealing."
Leach was on the cusp of the Extreme Sports phenomenon in the early 1990s with hopes of competing on a professional level in skateboarding and was sponsored from 1989 until 1991. The appeal is a no-brainer for Leach, "It's to be on top; invent their own trick and do something that's never been done before," he said. "That's one of the beauties of extreme sports - to do something that's never been done before."
"They're going a lot higher now and doing more lip tricks, more variables," said Leach of how the sport is changing. "They are flipping the board a lot and that is fun stuff."
But that's not all, according to Leach. "Skating was an individual sport, but it was also a brotherhood," he explains. "You were close to your competitors, even when they beat you, you were really happy for them."
King couldn't agree more, "The thrill you can get from it is why we do it," he explains. "The best thing I can compare it to is to remember when you first rode your bike and removed your training wheels. Then you got pushed away and that exhilarating feeling you got because you were on your own. It's like that feeling every time you do a new trick. It applies to every action sport. It's that same feeling, a feeling of accomplishment, but on a different level."
Love and Money
Sure, these athletes love to compete and the buzz they get when they win, but don't discount the all mighty dollar as a motivator.
According to Forbes magazine in February 2009, Tony Hawk led the list of the top 10 highest-paid athletes of the world in action sports at $12 million. Although retired since 1999, Hawk's retail empire sold $200 million dollars in branded products.
Shawn White checks in at number two with $9 million in skateboard/snowboarding success and the launch of his own video game followed by Ryan Sheckler at $5 million and Travis Pastrana and Kelly Slater each with $3 million annually. Top female athletes Gretchen Bleiler, Hannah Teter and Torah Bright all reported $750,000 annually.
"If you take a rider that ranks in the top five, where he makes his money is from is his sponsors," said King. "At one time, everything was bike related and now different companies realize that they hit so many different demographics with BMX."
ESPN and NBC aren't the only ones to capitalize on the success of action sports, MTV launched the show Jackass - amateurs testing the limits with outrageous stunts. Not necessarily brilliant performances but a ratings hit for MTV. Reality TV has also come into play with a reality show on Ryan Sheckler with ‘The Life of Ryan' and follows the skateboarder's daily life.
"A handful of riders have made a lot of their money with video games," said King. "With everything reaching the level of popularity it is, action sports have become more recognizable."
The original X-Games garnered seven sponsorships in 1995, Advil,Mountain Dew, Taco Bell, Chevy Trucks, AT&T, Nike and Miller Lite Ice.
The nation's top companies are still clamoring for a piece of the action with Summer Games support in 2009 with New Balance, Taco Bell, U.S. Navy and Warner Brothers' 'The Final Destination' as well as Associate Sponsors Axe, Dell, Microsoft, Wrigley's, Ford and Playstation.
The rewards have gotten bigger too. In 2008, athletes participating in the Summer Games in Los Angeles were competing for over $1.65 million in prize money but those figures pale in comparison to their mainstream counterparts.
"What I think a lot of people don't realize is that the networks have so much control over the competition," said King. "I don't think the money they pay the riders is at the level it should be yet. They only win like $15,000 for winning a major competition and the danger level is far more extensive (than playing in the NBA)."
Talent and sponsorships are the deciding factors in a financially successful athlete and extreme sports tour. Companies jumped on the bandwagon when Extreme Sports exploded. Mountain Dew became a leading advertiser launching their campaign solely around Extreme Sports.
In 1993 Mountain Dew debuted "Do the Dew" advertising campaign. The entire campaign consisted of athletes taking it to the next level in fast paced television commercials. The ads cemented Mountain Dew as the drink of choice for Extreme Sports, before the sports became mainstream. Although the "Do the Dew" campaign has come and gone, Mountain Dew continues to support Extreme Sports.
The evolution of action or extreme sports has been rapid and the future and development of these sports can only be imagined. Chances are, the stunts will get bigger, the tricks will become harder, and the risk will increase.