The "Sport" in Action Sports

Snowboarding is not a sport. Surfing is not a sport. Skateboarding is not a sport. As an avid action sports participant and fan, these opinions gnaw at me. Fans and sports radio hosts alike make these statements out of a lack of understanding for the true nature of action sports. Their reasons are many. “There’s no ball.” “There’s no goal.” “These are pass-times and hobbies, they are too subjective.” Even action sports athletes themselves love to deny their pastime’s status as a “sport.” Take a look at this article written by former Brazilian pro surfer Junior Faria , arguing that surfing and the like are forms of expression and not intended to be competitive. These people are wrong, no matter what their motivation. The dictionary defines the word “sport” as: “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” Using this definition, the trait of a sport in question is the “competition.” In order to understand the clash between action sports and competition in more depth, one needs to understand the history and evolution of action sports. The definition of action sports or “extreme sports” varies, but they are almost exclusively individual sports. They all pose a danger to their athletes, and many grew out of a counterculture. For the purposes of this blog, when I mention action sports, I mean the traditional board, ski and bike sports that are somewhat interrelated. Although some styles of auto, motorcycle and bicycle racing are now lumped in with action or “extreme” sports, they existed before sports like skateboarding and surfing exploded in popularity, and actually have a definite way to judge a winner that can easily determined by anyone with eyes and brain. Most action sports are related to each other because they evolved from one another. Surfing, perhaps the oldest, begat skateboarding. Surfing, skateboarding and skiing, bore snowboarding. Simultaneously, skiing helped create water skiing. Water skiing, snowboarding and surfing helped birth Wakeboarding. A similar evolution transpired within bicycle sports which eventually resulted in freestyle BMX and freestyle motocross. All of these sports involve aerial tricks, which are progressively harder to master. Once tricks are mastered, athletes put their own personal style on them, for which they can gain just as much respect as they can for mastering technically difficult tricks. Within all of these sports, a dichotomy exists between “competition” and “free riding.” There are even competition riders, athletes within the sport that excel when competing against others, as well as free riders, athletes who use the sport as a form of expression and self-competition. At these sports’ highest levels, competition riders can earn a good living for themselves and even international fame, just ask Shaun White, Tony Hawk, Ryan Sheckler, Travis Pastrana, Parks Bonifay, Kelly Slater and Matt Hoffman. Meanwhile, free riders, live in relative obscurity outside of their respective sports. They have equipment sponsors and make money by participating in their sport, through magazine photos and video parts, but often times, they must supplement their income with other employment. Sometimes, accomplished competition riders also have strong reputations as free riders. Once again, the major sticking point between the two opinions is “competition.” Many free riders view the competition format as limiting, benefitting athletes able to complete technically difficult tricks, while sacrificing style and individuality. Many are also labelled as “sell outs” because successful competition riders “sell out” their expression and style in order to chase the prize money and sponsorship opportunity that come with competitions. They view competition, as not in line with the spirit of their sports. It is true, competition and money do often incite anger. An example of this occurs in the 2014 documentary, “The Crash Reel.” The documentary, which focuses on former professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce and his recovery from a traumatic brain injury, concentrates its focus on the dangers of snowboarding and the devastation caused by TBIs. However, early in the film, it tells a story about Kevin Pearce and Shaun White. After Pearce climbed the ranks of professional snowboarding, he and White become housemates. After Pearce beat White in an event, he returned home to find his belongings left outside and was told to move out. This behavior is disrespectful in to anyone, but in a culture where many eschew the competitive nature of team sports, ruining a friendship out of perceived jealously over a competition loss, is even more disrespectful. Even though the sports are individual, they are seen as a way to come together in a group setting. In fact, Pearce’s friends created a group called the “Frends,” who emphasized fun and camaraderie in the face of individual acclaim. However, the Frends crew are all successful competitive snowboarders, each having won major events within their sport. You can read more about how many view Shaun white in this article. What many fail to recognize about “competition” is that it helps grow the sport. High-level competition riders like Shaun White and Kelly Slater, attract outsiders to the sport, who spend money. That money goes to board companies, apparel companies and broadcasters, who bring more attention to the sport. Revenue earned by equipment companies within each sport drive innovation and motivates them to improve their product. Snowboarders have competition to thank when they buy that shiny new Burton snowboard rather than an old piece of wood with some boots nailed to it. More abstractly, self competition is an intrinsic motivator. Since these sports rely on the mastering of tricks, which increase in difficulty, it enables the action sport athlete, no matter what the experience level, to compete against and challenge themselves. Self-improvement is one of the most rewarding aspects of athletics, and the individuality of these sports makes it more impactful. It’s possible to measure individual statistics in team sports, but those rely heavily on the performance of the team as a whole, in order to facilitate an individuals performance. In action sports, it’s easy to measure achievements directly because they rely solely on individual performance. Fans and media members who follow traditional team sports also argue that action sports are not sports. They wonder how something qualifies as a sport if there is no objective way to determine a winner. Action sports are judged subjectively. Amplitude (air time), trick difficulty and style (how aesthetically pleasing the athlete makes the trick look) often make up the criteria for judges to decide who is the best. In surfing, air time is sacrificed in favor of wave selection, although surfing “aerials” are currently exploding in popularity. The athletes are given a number for their result, but that number is at the discretion of the judges and not whether a ball or puck passes a goal line. Many forget that although the scoring is definitive in team sports, there is a human element, the referees. These referees have an impact on the final score of team sports as well. A baseball umpire can call an obvious strike a ball, resulting in a walk when the bases are loaded. In this example, the human element directly influences the score of a competition. A football referee may make a “phantom” pass interference call and deny a touchdown. In action sports, these referees are the judges and the human element is just pushed to another aspect of the competition. Yet in spite of both groups who deny that action sports are actually sports, these athletic events are gaining in popularity. One only needs to look at the Olympics and even everyday US programming to see the increase in notoriety that action sports have achieved. Starting in 1998, the Winter Olympics added snowboarding. They first included men’s and women’s giant slalom and half-pipe. Over the next four winter Olympics, the IOC added six more snowboarding events. In 1996, the IOC added mountain biking to the summer Olympics and in 2008, they added BMX racing. While these events technically qualify as racing, they include large jumps, and sometimes tricks, separating them from the standard road and indoor racing formats held at the Olympics. However, the most telling and classic action sports additions to the Olympics will occur in 2020. Skateboarding and SURFING will be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Both sports are some of the oldest and traditionally anti-competitive, anti-establishment action sports according to their history. The Olympics are adding surfing and skateboarding because they pull in viewers and increase ratings. ESPN’s X Games have long been popular and the IOC hopes to capitalize on the existing audience for skateboarding and surfing as it has for snowboarding. According to the Denver Post, NBC Sports Network paid $775 million dollars for broadcasting rights to the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014 and broadcast “nearly every final run in slope style and half-pipe on prime time.” The article also featured a quote from NBC’s veteran Olympics producer Billy Matthews. “That’s what the viewers want to see,” he said of snowboarding and skiing. “There is a whole undercurrent of people 40 and under who are doing this, who aren’t doing racing. There are more people snowboarding than do downhill or slalom. A lot more people are doing these sports.” Surfing will be the most interesting sport to gauge the success of. The X Games featured surfing starting in 2003 but was removed by 2008. According to the “Encyclopedia of Surfing,” small summer waves failed to generate interest and viewership. Even though the venue was moved to Mexico and found better waves, the event did not last. Surfing re-entered the X Games as a video submission contest in 2013 but did not air live. In the 13 years since Surfing debuted at the X Games, things have changed. Most notably, the use of Go Pro and over POV cameras have become synonymous with action sports. Surfing broadcasts have greatly improved since POV cameras have become a viable option. While some might point to the X Games declining ratings as a counterpoint, I would argue that ESPN no longer possesses a monopoly on action sports. Since the advent of ESPN 2 in the early 90s, which first broadcast the X Games, channels have been increasing their action sports programming. Aside from the Olympics, NBC Sports Network and occasionally even NBC broadcast the Red Bull “Signature Series” a presentation of a number of different top-level action sports contests from Surfing, Wakeboarding, Snowboarding and Skateboarding. CBS Sports Network features the World Surf League, and Fox Sports shows Street League skateboarding. ESPN no longer owns the monopoly on action sports. Another aspect to the growing popularity is the Go Pro camera. The isolated nature of action sports venues, including back-country snowboarding on remote mountains, and big wave surfing have made it challenging to broadcast such events on TV. By utilizing the Go Pro in their broadcast, networks can help their viewers feel like they are surfing the waves, or gliding down the mountains with, vastly improving the viewing experience. Other pro leagues in the established big four sports, while they do feature high-tech cameras and super slow motion, hi-definition replay, do not utilize the Go Pro. The NHL has experimented with their referees wearing POV cameras, to rave reviews, but are yet to adopt this angle for every game. In addition, with the help of Red Bull and other companies who recognize the revenue potential in action sports, broadcasts of surfing, snowboarding and countless other action sports, regularly feature camera angles shot from helicopters and drones. Their production value now meets or exceeds the standard “big four” broadcast. So unfortunately for sports media personalities, judgmental team sports fans, and even arrogant grass roots action sports athletes, these sports are growing and that is a good thing. As the article I first mentioned states, the mainstream value of these competitions does do good things for the activities themselves. Money brought in by sponsors, networks and fans of competitive surfing, snowboarding, skiing, etc, drives innovation in the sport and it generates new participants. As much as any baseball or hockey fan or former player thinks that they brought their kids into the sport, they also have Derek Jeter and Sidney Crosby to thank. Major sports icons motivate young children to participate. So before you chastise Kelly Slater, Kolohe Andino, Shaun White or Ryan Sheckler, remember they have a lot to do with the equipment you are using, and your access to the sport. If you don’t agree, then go ahead and take your skateboard behind the middle school and ollie down some stairs.

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