The Thrill Factor: the big business behind extreme sports

Extreme sports events are big business but for the event profs hosting and working on them, are they worth the risk? Emma Hudson finds out.

ON a bright summer day in 2010, Robbie ‘Maddo’ Maddison strapped on his Red Bull-branded helmet, mounted his Honda CR500 motorbike, revved his engine to 125mph and jumped 278 feet across Greece’s Corinth Canal.

The video, uploaded on Red Bull’s official YouTube page, has been viewed 1,136,737 times since – and it doesn’t even come close to his highest viewed stunt: a New Year’s Eve jump over Las Vegas’ Arc de Triomphe that has clocked more than 7,972,000 views. Maddo is just one in an astronomically growing community of gnarly extreme sports professionals that forms an industry that has created one of the most profitable and popular types of live events in recent history.

Nitro Circus Live, Red Bull X-Fighters, The X Games – these events and more have exploded onto the mainstream stage. They tour the globe through summer and winter, often selling out stadiums and making internationally famous, and exponentially wealthy stars out of their athletes.

It’s not just the daredevil bikers who benefit from these events. In 2014, as The X Games celebrated its 20th birthday, Forbes calculated that the extreme sports industry was worth more than US$6bn (approx. £4.2bn). With the likes of Nitro Circus Live and its merry band of motocross-flying maniacs touring the UK and Europe to sell-out crowds, the economic impact of such events must now be even more staggering – and event profs are reaping the rewards.

“Social media channels like YouTube have given the public access to a huge range of these sorts of sports and unusual events from the comfort of their own home,” says Mark Laidlaw, operations director, SECC and SSE Hydro, which has hosted extreme sporting events including Nitro Circus Live (more on that later). “Seeing and experiencing the real live thing is what makes the difference and makes these events so popular.”

Mike Porra, CEO of Nitro Circus and the man behind the enormous success of the brand’s live shows, doesn’t mince his words when talking about why his events are so successful.

“It all goes back to the gladiator days,” he told Worcester’s Bucks Free Press ahead of Nitro’s show there this coming June. “There’s nothing any different between what we’re doing now and what they were doing then. These days there are people

30 feet away from the action and there’s some guy who’s 50 feet up in the air on a motorbike, and if he makes one mistake he’ll land on cold metal and he’ll probably die.

“People know they are 30 feet away from danger and that creates an incredible excitement.”

Perfect damage

The mainstreaming of what is known as FMX (freestyle motocross) and other extreme sports has not happened without consequences for its stars.

A growing divide within the community points to an implicit contradiction within the industry: on the one hand, such events have grown in popularity because of the athletes’ willingness to put themselves at high risk performing spontaneous and death-defying stunts. On the other hand, many stars, confronted with their own mortality after catastrophic accidents, have a newfound desire to perfect their stunts before events, thus minimising the risk of broken limbs, internal bleeding, concussions and fatalities.

How do these sporting events, which have gained their highest ratings and the most money by putting its most popular stars in sometimes-grave danger, professionalise? More importantly for the cities and venues that host them, how do you continue to drive consumers into these events should that crucial spontaneity disappear?

Predrag Vuckovic/Red Bull Content Pool

Predrag Vuckovic/Red Bull Content Pool

FMX rider Kyle Loza is one athlete who knows the contradiction well. Loza has won The X Games’ prestigious Moto X Best Trick award – which showcases the most progressive and perilous stunt riding – three times. Injury, however, has often stopped him from competing, putting him at risk of losing sponsors, which is how most riders make their money. Loza must continue putting himself in physical danger testing innovative tricks, but should he sustain an injury that puts him out for any significant length of time – poof, there goes the sponsors and his funding.

The issue of sponsorship is not a new one to the sporting world, but in this particular industry it does present unique challenges.

The most visible extreme sports sponsors are two energy drink brands: Red Bull and Monster. While Red Bull has diversified its events portfolio to cover a wide range of extreme sports, Monster still very much remains focused on the motocross and FMX industries.

Speaking to marketing industry magazine IEG SR, Monster’s then-director of action sports, events and partnerships marketing, Vipe Desai, said: “We want athletes that represent the Monster DNA: going big, not letting anyone get the best of you and charging ahead all out.”

Sponsorship is key to making these types of events work – not only for the riders, but for the organisers and venues as well. And with organisers bringing their own individual sponsors into venues that may have competing partnerships, the potential for problems is rife.

“With event organisers increasingly looking to secure brand sponsorship to monetise and enhance event profiles, sensitivity with regard to venue partners is crucial,” says the SECC’s Laidlow. “Management of expectations is key. Communication between the venue sales team is paramount in order to consider solutions at the earliest possible stage in contractual discussions.

“Our partnership team always applies complete transparency so that we strike a balance that works for everyone.”

Steve Gotkine, operations director at The O2 in London, agrees that it’s about managing every party involved to make sure no one walks away feeling shortchanged. “We’re used to juggling sponsors and brands on-site,” he tells Access. “Many tours have specific partners and we work to accommodate the specific needs of the show in question. Our partners are with us for the long term and are venue partners as opposed to one show or tour.”

When various sponsorships align, the economic value of these events is impossible to ignore. Forbes reports that when cities host The X Games, there is approximately

£8m associated with increased tourism, £8m from direct spending and £14m in value from broadcasting – totalling approximately £30m in identifiable benefits.

“Hotels, restaurants, bars and practically every other business benefit from having

Nitro Circus Live in town,” boasts Nitro’s Porra. “Through audience research we’ve seen that fans are blown away, saying it’s the most exciting show they’ve ever seen. We’re thrilled to bring an event that has sold out huge stadiums across the globe to new cities.”

“Remember, you signed a death waiver”

On Thursday 4 February 2016, Nitro Circus was performing its sold out show at the SSE Hydro. As the packed stadium watched, three stuntmen and a rider piled onto one motorbike, drove toward a steep ramp and subsequently failed to clear it. All four tumbled off the bike as it fell on top of them, and within minutes emergency services had transported two of them to a nearby hospital.

Stunts-gone-wrong like these understandably make organisers and suppliers shudder. “It’s certainly not something we’d be overly comfortable with,” says one extreme sports events insurance provider, who spoke to Access on the condition of anonymity.

“Any extreme sports event, any form of audience participation or anything that involves the crowd (stuntmen or otherwise), is more concerning. We would need to know when those stunts are taking place, and then it’s a case of underwriting around them or excluding it, or building in a higher excess for those particular activities.”

Nitro’s Porra, beneath his bravado, is acutely aware of the nightmare that is insuring his events.

“Nitro Circus is a colossal show and it costs me US$1m to put on a show,” he says. “You roll into towns and cities with 16 trucks of gear, 125 staff and an insurance bill that is terrifying.

“The things that we do are unique. You know, we had a guy do a triple back flip through the air – it was literally a do-or-die stunt.”

This kind of swagger is typical of the extreme sports industry, which proudly wears the banner of pushing their events’ participants to their physical and mental limits. Tough Mudder, an extreme obstacle course that challenges participants to run through live electric wires, jump 12 feet down into muddy water and leap over open flames – and also makes everyone sign thorough liability waivers – brashly displays signs throughout the course reading: “Remember, you signed a death waiver”.

Ironically, Access’ anonymous insurance provider says waivers are all but ineffective in providing adequate cover for venues and organisers.

“I would always encourage not to necessarily rely on a waiver or a disclaimer,” he says. “Often they don’t tend to hold up in court when it comes to a claim. Venues and organisers could use it to bring participants’ attention that they take part at their own risk, but actually more important is checking that these people have their own insurance in place – their own personal accident insurance and their own liability insurance to take part in events like that.”

For anyone hosting an extreme sports event, insuring it is wading into muddy waters. For normal events, risk of injury or fatality is an unfortunate byproduct; for extreme sports like Nitro Circus, Red Bull X-Fighters and The X Games, the idea of a rider crashing catastrophically is arguably all part of the attraction – a draw rather than a drawback.

Not to say that venues should not hold these types of events; rather, they should ramp up their insurance, health and safety and security measures. For both The O2 and the SSE Hydro, the way to make sure these events take place without incident is all down to meticulous planning.

Joerg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool

Joerg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool

“Everything is planned in partnership with the promoters and nothing is left to chance,” says The O2’s Gotkine. “That way we get to sleep before the events. That’s not to say that there aren’t last minute issues, or things that don’t go to plan. But we’re always prepared and the team is used to dealing with issues to insure that the show goes on without a hitch.”

The SSE Hydro’s Laidlow agrees. “Depending on the scale of the show, the event’s production team will arrive anywhere up to a week before for buildup, and during this time they will liaise with our own operations teams, health and safety and security right up until event kick-off, through to completion and de-rig.

“The adrenaline from all those involved is normally through the roof – it’s a great environment to work in.”

These events are not going away anytime soon. The BBC reports that six per cent (3.85m) of the UK population has expressed an interest in extreme sports; Red Bull’s X-Fighters 2016 world tour will start up again in June in Madrid; Nitro Circus is crossing the pond for the second time in six months for another UK stadium tour; and The X Games – well, they’ve survived 22 years and been the catalyst for the mainstreaming of these sports.

For a city like London, the appeal of attracting these events is in the cultural cache they hold. “If it’s a cool event that’s televised or is a big deal on social media, then it can be a great showcase for the backdrop of London,” says Iain Edmondson, head of major events at London & Partners. “Quite often some of the new, urban extreme sports events are in great destinations that show the city as a backdrop more than just a field of play.”

For Joe Aitken, head of major events at Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, the benefits are manifold for all parties involved, including the host city, venues, organisers and audiences. “Extreme sports have become increasingly appealing to cities, which recognise that they can complete their major events portfolio and position the destination to a distinct audience through the projection of iconic city imagery – often connecting with a younger, more digitally-savvy consumer,” he tells Access.

“There has been a growing trend for traditional sports to invest in sport presentation and this in many ways is drawn from the immersive, experiential, fan-first approach of extreme sports. At the same time, extreme sports are looking to their traditional counterparts around how they professionalise their offer to cities – it’s a virtuous cycle that destinations are benefitting from as the quality and awareness of the product is driving greater visitor appeal, both at home and from overseas, which in turn can have a significant impact on the local tourism economy.”

For cities and venues, events of this kind are a proven moneymaker and provide the all-important cool factor. If there’s one thing extreme sports events have shown, it’s that they are worth the risk.

This feature originally appeared in the May issue of Access All Areas, out now.

Featured image credit: Joerg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool