Defining action sports: although the category is growing rapidly, it’s not just about competition. (An Executive’s Guide to Action Sports)

There is no definition of action sports in the dictionary. In fact, even within the sporting goods industry, finding a definition is not an easy feat. Ask 10 different people and you'll get 10 different answers.

One thing is certain: statistics show that participation in so-called action sports is growing by leaps and bounds. Although many people lump in a broad range of extreme-type activities into the "action sports" realm, the most common definition of action sports is that they are the sports that have grown out of the board sport culture.

"It depends who you talk to," explains Jon Sabo, a senior buyer at Ron Jon, the FL-based active lifestyle chain. "Surf purists will tell you that surf is the granddaddy of all action sports and everything else grew out of it, including skate, snow and wakeboarding. But action sports encompass more than just the board sports now. BMX is getting very big. I would say that action sports just grow out of youth culture."

The leading action sports include surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and BMX, with wakeboarding also growing rapidly in regional popularity. The combined U.S. participant pool for these five sports was more than 28 million in 2001, according to American Sports Data.

Undoubtedly, the mainstream media has helped play a part in furthering the growth of these once unconventional sports by packaging action sports into high-profile televised events such as ESPN's X Games and NBC's Gravity Games. Additionally, the slew of video games on the market featuring action sports athletes have helped bring stars such as skateboarder Tony Hawk and BMX rider Mat Hoffman into every kid's living room. The inclusion of snowboarding in the Olympics has further legitimized action sports.


"They are youth-oriented sports generated at the street or backyard level," says Scott Sorenson, director of marketing at Dragon Optical, a leading eyewear vendor for the action sports market. "The best thing about this market is that for most of the sports you do not rely on a group effort, only individual achievement. This makes it easy for everyone who wants to participate to get involved. You don't need nine other people, a specific arena, or even a scoreboard; it is about pushing your own limits. The growth potential is incredible."

While competition has legitimized these sports, most of the sports grew out of a non-competitive culture. Many retailers and manufacturers point to the importance of action sports for their influence on trends across the board in athletic style. All of these sports have a few things in common, the biggest being a savvy consumer. And understanding action sports, or being able to define it, does not automatically mean you can successfully compete in the action sports business.

"There is a kind of nebulous quality to divining what the next trend is in this market," says Don Palermini, MarCom Manager at Bell Sports, whose products include helmets and accessories for the BMX and skate markets. "We try to take our cultural cues and work from there. It's interesting how action sports are such a marriage of athleticism and music and culture. You have to really stay close to the scene. You can't buy into it, you have to be about it."