Business

Extreme sports surfing to success

Once upon a time, extreme sports were the domain of a brave few and the requirements were fairly simple.

If you had the transport (ideally a beaten up VW van), the right kit (anything allowing you to go considerably faster than God intended) and the courage (or perhaps a screw loose), you were ready to go.

Image caption BMX exploits have now been included in the Olympic Games as a sport

These days, extreme sport is a multi-billion dollar industry.

The United States surf industry posted retail sales of $7.22bn (£5bn) in 2008, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA).

It seems the Beach Boys were right; everyone is indeed Surfin' USA.

But that is just the tip of the extreme iceberg.

The total number of participants in the five most popular sports is more than 40 million in the USA alone, according to a report by Global Industry Analysts.

It notes that this is the result of "jaw-dropping industry growth rates" and that the recession, although sending some firms reeling, is a "transitory dip".

Wave goodbye

Two times European surf champion Spencer Hargraves has been a professional for more than 20 years and has watched his industry change beyond all recognition.

"Back then for us it was more about the lifestyle," he says, "We would work day to day to try to save some money so we could go away in the summer and compete in a few events."

Now there are training camps, management companies, and working with the media.

"In Europe, there's an event pretty much every weekend, ranging from kids from the age of 10 up to adult level."

While the carefree lifestyle of days gone by is of little use to those wanting to reach the top of their sport, the notion of endless summers (or winters dependent on your sport of choice) remains a strong draw for consumers.

This has benefitted extreme sports brands during the recession as many who buy into them do so as a lifestyle, rather than a passing fashion trend.

Research by Leisure Trends Group for SIMA found this means increased customer loyalty.

"While they might not be spending as much, they keep frequenting their surf and skate shops," the report says.

Extreme-ly safe

The industry has moved so far from its origins as a counter-culture that you can even study a degree in it.

Southampton Solent University offers a three-year Extreme Sports Management degree.

"We are seeing a lot more extreme sports through the media - for example ski cross at the Winter Olympics, or BMX at the Summer Olympics," says lecturer Rob Burton.

Another explanation for extreme sports' popularity is bursting with irony: our growing preoccupation with health and safety.

"Society is becoming a lot more risk averse and because of that people are looking for alternative ways to find those risky situations," Mr Burton maintains.

"People want their thrills but they want to walk away with their limbs intact."

Getting on board

"Making sure your brand has the right faces attached to it is key to staying ahead of the game," says Herman Semmelmann, National Manager of Quiksilver UK.

Image caption In the UK 6% of people have shown an interest in extreme sports

"What we've always been good at is finding young talent," he says.

"That is extremely important for us, supporting young riders to develop them to become successful."

One factor very much in the industry's favour is that it has been founded on taking risks - whether they be hurtling down a snowy slope or jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.

This means it is inherently entrepreneurial and less likely to rest on its laurels.

Kyle Dent, managing director of Extreme Sports Zone, is one example.

He has created Brush Boarding, which is basically a portable wave where spinning brushes replace churning water.

"Most people who are serious about our industry want to get out there and do something different, something that hasn't been done before," he says.

Research by Mintel shows that about 6% of the UK population express an interest in extreme sports, but only 1% actually participate.

There is also potential in new markets, with Global Industry Analysts predicting there is "a bright future ahead" in China.

The government set up the Chinese Extreme Sports Association and last year completed an extreme sports park in Beijing, in which it invested $22m.

In an industry that is growing so fast and evidently quick to accept change, it is surely time someone rewrote the Beach Boys classic song in preparation:

"Everybody's going surfing, C-H-I-N-A".