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SBJ/20110103/This Week's Issue
Action athletes gaining mainstream appeal
Published January 3, 2011
When Converse recently asked pro skater Kenny Anderson if he would film a commercial with Dr. J, all Anderson could think was, "No way?"
No way was he getting a chance to share the spotlight with an NBA legend. No way was he going to meet a hoops star he loved to watch as a kid. There was just no way.
A decade ago, Anderson would have been right. The odds of him meeting his childhood hero, much less being showcased in a commercial alongside an NBA star were slim. But things have changed.
Today, brands not only want to feature action sports stars in their commercials, they increasingly want to feature them alongside some of the biggest names in sports.
Recent examples include Converse spotlighting Anderson alongside Dr. J in its "Join the Procession" commercial and Gatorade showing snowboarder Ellery Hollingsworth and skater Sean Malto in a spot with Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade and Serena Williams. Cisco also featured skater Ryan Sheckler in a Flip campaign that includes Drew Brees and Steve Nash, and Nike integrated skater Eric Koston into its "Boom" commercial with athletes such as LeBron James and Robinson Cano.
After years of being pigeonholed as the "stoked" snowboarder in the "extreme" Mountain Dew commercial, action sports stars have developed mainstream commercial appeal. Brands now feature skaters and snowboarders in multisport commercials and place commercials featuring action sports figures in popular, prime-time programming windows.
For action sports observers and enthusiasts, the shift has been a long time coming.
"I always thought of our sports, especially skateboarding, as just as athletic and difficult as other mainstream sports, so I never understood why there wasn't appreciation in a bigger picture," said skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. "Now I see guys at the top of our fields alongside mainstream ball athletes. That's what kids want to see."
Brands and marketers increasingly feature action sports stars because the number of brands committed to those sports is rising, longtime action sports fans are aging and, perhaps most importantly, action sports participation and cultural acceptance is surging.
Where parents once discouraged kids from dressing in the oversized baggy jeans that skateboarders wore in the 1990s, they now buy their kids the skinny jeans, plaid shirts and clunky shoes that skateboarders wear today.
Skaters, snowboarders and surfers increasingly ignite music and fashion trends that have converted action sports and its endemic brands from an activity into lifestyle.
"These sports have permeated our culture," said Erica Pergament, Pepsi sports marketing manager. The commercials featuring action sports stars reflect that, Pergament said, in part because, "More people in this country are skateboarding than participating in more traditional mainstream sports."
Over the last decade, skateboarding led all sports in participation increases, with total participants jumping from 5.8 million to 10.1 million between 1998 and 2007, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Gatorade research shows that today 2 million more kids ride skateboards than play baseball.
As a result, skateboarding and its cultural siblings, snowboarding, BMX and surfing, have hit a cultural tipping point. Sports marketers now consider those sports to be regular youth activities alongside baseball, football or soccer.
"Kids are interested in so many different things now, and it's totally cool to be interested in a lot of different things," said Geoff Cottrill, Converse's chief marketer. "If a brand can recognize and celebrate that, that's a good thing."
Cottrill said that was a major reason Converse worked Anderson, a Converse-supported skater, into its "Join the Procession" campaign. The goal was to develop a spot that showed all the sports and cultural activities that Converse supports, and the skateboarding community was an integral part of that and the brand's DNA.
Gatorade made a similar decision three years ago when it signed its first action sports athletes to its roster of stars. The move expanded the brand's portfolio of stars beyond the traditional mix of football, basketball and baseball players. It subsequently has put athletes like Hollingsworth and Malto alongside those stick-and-ball stars in commercials that validate them and underscore the brand's commitment to those sports.
"One thing we strive to do is allow consumers to see themselves in our brand," said Kenny Mitchell, Gatorade's action sports team manager. "The sports landscape has changed a lot. Kids today are growing up with skating and surfing and snowboarding as a primary option."
Morgan Flatley, director of consumer engagement at Gatorade, added, "[Hollingsworth and Malto] give us a way to talk to that audience credibly."
The same rationale compelled Cisco and Mountain Dew to feature Sheckler and Paul Rodriguez, respectively, in recent campaigns. But both brands took a different approach from Gatorade and Converse.
Rather than feature the skaters alongside other major sports stars, they put them in commercials of their own. Historically, action-sports-specific spots like that ran only during the X Games or Dew Tour, but Cisco and Mountain Dew placed the spots in non-endemic, prime-time-programming windows on Fox and ABC.
"These days professional action sports athletes are celebrity role models just like professional football and basketball players are, and they're very relevant for our core target," Pergament said.
Fuse marketing executive Issa Sawabini said part of the reason those athletes are relevant is not just because of rising youth interest in action sports but also because of the aging of longtime action sports fans.
The X Games have been around for more than 15 years now, and, as a result, a generation of young people who grew up with them are now adults. Those people see them less as fringe sports, he said, and are more likely to accept and recognize stars like Sheckler and Rodriguez.
"Nobody's ever asked, 'Why are football athletes playing football in a commercial?'" Sawabini said. "Football is part of culture. With the action sports being featured now, it's a reflection of their continued growth and broader appeal."
The rise in brand acceptance is encouraging for action sports athletes and properties. As marketers increasingly see action sports as an important communication tool, the number of commercial deals offered to skaters and snowboarders will rise, and as the number of commercials increase, the visibility of those sports will continue to expand, Sawabini said.
"We've opened a door, but we've come nowhere near the top," he said. "In the future, action sports athletes will no longer appear because they're sponsored but will stand on their own as celebrity endorsers. That's coming next."