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Ready, Action

The season-long Dew Action Sports Tour hopes to put the faces of extreme sports stars in the mainstream

June 02, 2005|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Jamie Bestwick was 10 when he first rode a BMX bike. Not long afterward, he was soaring over jumps and performing tricks few his age could match.

Like the friends he was growing up with in England, he pedaled purely for fun. He could not have known that his legs and adventurous spirit would carry him to a time and place where he would perform on television and before sizable audiences.

That place is the Dew Action Sports Tour, an NBC creation that debuts with the Panasonic Open June 9-12 in Louisville, Ky. Athletes who until now have had only a small number of events in which to perform will compete over the course of a season -- for championships and big money.

It has been a long time coming, but action sport athletes and organizers have seen this on the horizon. BMX riding, like skateboarding, surged in popularity and experienced a boom that created lucrative opportunities for those with Bestwick's talent. The phenomenon would be bolstered by the inaugural ESPN X Games in 1995, which showcased action sports before an international audience.

Bestwick, who by then had found work in the aerospace industry, quit his job and moved to the U.S. to pursue a career on his bike. Today, at 33 and with two X Games gold medals, the resident of State College, Pa., is wealthy and famous.

It has been quite a ride, he says, but the payoff is now being realized.

The prolonged exposure generated by the Dew Tour is expected to translate into growth for the industry and more opportunities for participants.

"For the first time our sport will be legitimized," Bestwick says. "It's something we've never really had. This year everything is going to change."

The Dew Tour will have rankings and standings. BMX riders, skateboarders and freestyle motocross riders will compete in six disciplines before a mostly live TV audience.

Organizers compare the setup to that of the PGA tour: a four-day event, leaderboards, and a pool of money paying the athletes according to how they place.

Five events in midsized markets -- Los Angeles is not a host city -- will feature four days of competition for a purse of $2.5 million. At season's end, an additional $1-million bonus will be distributed among the top 10 finishers in each discipline. Champions will be awarded the Dew Cup.

NBC and Clear Channel are founding partners of the Dew tour, which most industry experts expect to complement -- rather than threaten -- such annual competitions as the X Games.

"For a while we were a bit of an island, where ESPN was the one charging forward and we were the main exposure outlet," said Chris Stiepock, X Games general manager. "I think this tour will help put more posters of action sports athletes on kids' walls and that will benefit us all."

Bestwick, Dave Mirra, Chad Kagy and Ryan Nyquist are headliners on the BMX slate. Paul Rodriguez, Bucky Lasek, Andy Macdonald, Shaun White and Ryan Sheckler are among the top skateboarders. Nate Adams and Kenny Bartram are featured in freestyle motocross.

Top athletes qualify based on accomplishments in 2004. There's also on-site open qualifying, which further sets the Dew tour apart from invitational events such as the X Games and Gravity Games. Currently, only the LG Action Sports Championships uses a qualification criterion in choosing competitors.

"It's survival of the fittest because you have to make it through one contest to qualify for the next one," said Sheckler, 15, a street-park specialist from San Clemente who at age 13 in 2003 became the youngest X Games gold medalist. "I've been training for this, eating more protein and not as much junk food.

"I'm a kid and have loads of energy, but now I need to look at this like it's my job. It's what I do for a living, and I'd better treat my body better for the long run."

Bestwick, a vert-ramp specialist in the twilight of his career, says he's excited for himself but also for emerging stars such as Sheckler, whom he predicts will someday attain the same widespread fame as football, basketball, baseball and tennis players.

"This is what we've been waiting for, and nobody wants to squander the chance," Bestwick said.

Whether the Dew Tour will attain such prominence remains to be seen. But experts in and beyond core circles say the timing of its launch is ideal.

It comes less than a year after the Summer X Games drew a four-day crowd of 170,471 and were seen in nearly 1 million homes.

Skateboarding, the most popular of action sports, continues to grow and has more than 11 million participants in the U.S. There are more than 3.5 million BMX riders. Freestyle motocross lacks widespread participation but has become a fan favorite because of its wow factor.

Dew Tour General Manager Wade Martin expects a crowd of nearly 200,000 for the Louisville event.

Other sites are Denver (July 7-10), Portland, Ore. (Aug. 18-21), San Jose (Sept. 8-11) and Orlando (Oct. 13-16). Los Angeles was left out to avoid conflict with the X Games, which will be held Aug. 4-7 and remain in L.A. through at least 2009.

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