ESPN, looking beyond the middle-aged male sports fan, will unveil a new digital strategy Wednesday aimed at the Dogtown crowd.
The move seeks to establish online what the Walt Disney Co.-owned cable channel did more than a decade ago in television when it created the X Games, a twice-yearly competition of assorted nonteam, untraditional sports events catering to extreme sports enthusiasts.
Called ESPN Action Sports Network, the new hub will launch in the fall and encompass a cluster of Internet sites, each devoted to a specific "action sport," to offer coverage of events that aren't usually carried on mainstream television.
"We felt like we were under-delivering on a year-round basis," said Dave Finger, director of action sports for ESPN Digital Media. "We felt like we were missing out on covering action sports with the same voice and authenticity that we bring to stick and ball."
Fans of action sports -- surfing, skateboarding, motocross, snowboarding and the like -- are an increasingly attractive, if elusive, audience for the major networks. Estimates peg the size of the audience at anywhere from 27 million to 115 million. However, the audience is also highly fragmented, with enthusiasts interested only in their particular sport.
Still, extreme sports fans are a big-spending group that advertisers who sell equipment and clothing tied to the lifestyle are desperate to reach.
"It's 15- to 34-year-old men who are voracious consumers," said Ron Bension, chief executive of Sportnet, a network of websites catering to action sports and fitness. "Active participants in the sport will buy anything associated with the sport."
ESPN was the first media outlet to court the anti-establishment athletes and their fans with the debut in 1995 of the Extreme Games, later re-dubbed the X Games. The event has gained momentum, attracting nearly 38 million viewers last year, and the big media companies now want to get into the game.
In May, NBC formed a joint venture with MTV to expand its Action Sports Tour beyond summer and winter competitions to include "lifestyle" programming focusing on some of the tour's stars. News Corp.'s Fox Cable Networks launched Fuel TV, the only cable channel devoted to action sports, in 2003, and it now reaches 25 million U.S. homes.
"There's this massive population of participants and aspirants who connect with these activities in a very visceral way," said C.J. Olivares, senior vice president and general manger of Fuel TV.
ESPN wants to draw the audience for extreme sports to the online world, where avid sports fans spend nearly as much time watching video streams and reading and posting on blogs as they do sitting in front of the television, according Jupiter Research. Finger said the network developed the EXPN.com website about a year ago to start offering daily content of extreme sports, but that will now become ESPN Action Sports Network.
Hoping to build on that momentum, the Action Sports Network will offer more original digital programs such as "Guerilla Cam," which takes fans behind the scenes of events. The site will provide exclusive content and "first looks" at sports films, including snowboarder/producer Travis Rice's film "That's It, That's All." And it'll invite fans to upload and share their own sports videos as it seeks to form a community around each of the sports.
ESPN also struck deals with sports information and product websites Surfline.com, Vans.com and Active Ride Shop to share content and do cross-promotion.
But don't expect big air verts to replace "Monday Night Football," at least not soon.
"TV still knows its bread and butter is baseball, basketball and football," said Bobby Tulsiani, lead analyst for Jupiter Research. "While they want to experiment with this, there's a finite amount of hours you can dedicate to it. Online, you can cater to every taste. Online is perfect for this."