With the phenomenal success of the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo and the introduction of skateboarding, surfing, climbing and BMX freestyle park to the programme for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, action and adventure sports are breaking into the mainstream.
Their rise in popularity and the vast followings commanded by the sports’ athletes has resulted in more big brands, including the likes of BMW, Nike and Huawei, swooping in with sponsorship and endorsement deals.
Their core fanbase is hugely important to them and brands need to respect that.
All of which bodes well for the growth of these sports and their passionate fanbases, who follow the athletes devotedly on social channels like YouTube or Instagram, and consume content through dedicated platforms like Red Bull TV.
Above: Cut Media's Stu Thomson.
The supremely talented and innovative people who perform action and adventure sports are often artists and athletes in equal measure, and should be treated as such. For proof of this you just have to look at one of the world’s most talented and viewed skateboarders on YouTube, Richie Jackson. He has a flamboyant waxed moustache and, as Rolling Stone magazine puts it, dresses like a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Jackson counts Salvador Dali has one of his biggest inspirations and has said if he wasn’t a skateboarder he’d be a painter.
These athletes are also very protective of their sport and their credibility. Their core fanbase is hugely important to them and brands need to respect that. Having sports like street and park BMX or skateboarding in the Olympic programme has been a highly divisive issue within these sports communities. Many see the move as selling out, or have said that the Olympics organisers are cashing in on the growth of these traditionally creative, expressive activities.
Top athletes in these sports often don’t compete and will be a long way from Tokyo come July 2020. Those who are training for the Olympics are undoubtedly exceptional athletes, but for many participants in these niche sports, competing is not what it’s about. Challenging yourself, creating those awe-inspiring moments and taking the skill and the sport to the next level are the things that truly motivate these sportspeople.
Brands need to be smart about how they engage with action and adventure sports followers because these fans can detect inauthenticity a mile off.
Brands that don’t understand action and adventure sports can make the mistake of imposing restrictions on the athletes or expecting them to behave like robots and perform on command.
Here are some ways to get the best out of an action and adventure sports brand partnership:
Hand over control to the athlete
The brand partnerships that work best give the control to the athlete. The athlete should be involved in the project, campaign or film from the beginning. Free Solo worked so brilliantly because the filmmakers and brands involved got out of the way and allowed Alex Honnold the freedom, time and space to just do what he does best.
Our own approach is similar – the biggest successes have been where we’ve started with the athlete’s input and then thought carefully about how we can collaborate to create something truly authentic.
Don’t project your rules onto them
Projecting your views on what is or isn’t achievable doesn’t work either. Athletes know their own limits and they can understand better than anyone what they can safely achieve. Convention doesn’t apply. A great example is a project we were working with trials cyclist Danny MacAskill on a performance for a shoot which, to our minds, looked extremely treacherous.
Remember these are sports that demand more than risk-taking, they require a lifetime of dedication and training.
He had to cycle along a wall of a bridge that spanned a 200-metre deep gorge. The wall was no more than a foot wide. If even the slightest thing had gone wrong, he would have fallen to his death.
Before the stunt, I talked to Danny about ways of limiting the risk, but he just smiled and said with supreme confidence: “I’m not going to fall.” He explained to me that he’d been cycling along walls the same width since he was eight years old and the depth of the drop would make no difference to him or his performance. This wasn’t complacency or arrogance, this was a strong understanding of his abilities in an activity that he has trained his entire life to do. What we deem as an incredible feat can often be second nature to these people.
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Above: Cut Media's work with Danny MacAskill
Drop the stereotypes
Action and adventure sports athletes are often labelled crazy or unhinged. Yet they are among the most disciplined, hard-working people in the world. Remember these are sports that demand more than risk-taking, they require a lifetime of dedication and training.
Be authentic with the fans
Brands need to be smart about how they engage with action and adventure sports followers because these fans can detect inauthenticity a mile off. If you don’t understand the sport, the participants or the rules of engagement, you risk alienating fans and athletes alike. You need to be genuine and understand the audience you are trying to engage.
The common theme is a strong focus on authenticity.
Fanbases are, of course, different for each sport. While some, such as snowboarding, BMX and skateboarding, tend to attract a younger male core audience, other sports like climbing have a really varied following ranging in demographic and age range from teens to septuagenarians. The common theme, however, is a strong focus on authenticity – often accompanied by an uneasiness with how they are portrayed by mainstream media.
Brands which want to engage with action and adventure sports have so many opportunities to be creative and to truly captivate a wide audience. The way to achieve this it to be collaborative and listen to the athletes and those with a credible voice within the sports. If you are lucky enough to be working with these athletes, please give them freedom of expression they need to show the world what humans are capable of.