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Despite a fingertoy tumble, extreme sports gear and games are still prospering

Has kids' enthusiasm for grinding handrails died? Concern that the extreme sports trend might be petering out flared up last year when fingerboard and fingerbike sales took a dive, with NPDFunworld reporting a drop of 39% to US$67 million (down from a total category take of US$110 million in 2000).
June 1, 2002

Has kids’ enthusiasm for grinding handrails died? Concern that the extreme sports trend might be petering out flared up last year when fingerboard and fingerbike sales took a dive, with NPDFunworld reporting a drop of 39% to US$67 million (down from a total category take of US$110 million in 2000).

So what went wrong? It was a classic toy story of category overkill, says Adam Beder, VP of licensing for Spin Master Toys. The Toronto, Canada-based toyco rode the trend wave with its Flick Trix line of fingerbikes and play sets that came emblazoned with the names of famous riders and bike brands. ‘Last year, us, Jakks Pacific and X-Concepts were all over-inventoried, and that led to a terrible retail climate. As a result, everything was being closed out,’ explains Beder.

Though Spin Master has since decided to discontinue the FT brand, Beder doesn’t think the fingertoys flameout is indicative of the overall health of extreme sports. ‘Kids today still have a strong affinity for extreme sports, probably as much or more so than they do for baseball, football or [other traditional sports],’ he says.

Indeed, as participation rates fell or remained flat for many traditional team sports like baseball and basketball during the late ’90s, the number of Americans over age six participating in extreme sports-related activities ballooned, says Harvey Lauer, president of American Sports Data, a Hartsdale, New York firm that specializes in sports and fitness research.

Yet there are indications that kid interest is cooling in some areas. According to a 2001 ASD report, participation dropped in wakeboarding (down 14%), BMX biking (down 8%), snowboarding (down 5%) and surfing (down 27%). Of the activities usually associated with extreme sports, only skateboarding (up 7%) rose last year, says Lauer, whose company surveyed 25,000 Americans for the report, 60% of which were males ages six to 17.

Even so, the genre is still holding its own in some categories. ‘The licensed products that are [currently] doing well are those that allow people to immerse themselves in the sports, like skateboards, apparel, bikes and bike safety equipment,’ says Jackie Blum, president of Primedia Enterprises, which manages the Gravity Games property. Mark Kaplan, divisional VP of toys and sporting goods for U.S. department store Ames, agrees, noting that he’s seen a mini sales boom in bikes, skateboards, ramps and grindrails for the first few months of this year. (However, Kaplan attributes part of this increase to a reduction in the retail cost of such items.)

Even within the toy arena, certain products continue to sell well. Activision’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater series of video games has amassed retail sales of US$425 million over the last three years, with Pro Skater 3 ranking number six on the NPD Group’s 2001 list of the top 10 video games in terms of sales. And Mattel’s R/C Tony Hawk Skateboard was the top-selling item in the remote control category in Q4 2001.

These stats prove that kids still crave extreme sports merch, says Joy Tashjian, president of Joy Tashjian Marketing Group, which is overseeing TV sales and licensing for Mainframe Entertainment’s new series Tony Hawk’s Feasters (for more details, flip to page 74). Tashjian says toycos have already shown a lot of interest in Feasters, and she expects to make broadcaster announcements in Q4.

Also in the broadcast sphere, ESPN’s X-Games and Primedia’s Gravity Games continued to increase their audience shares last year. X-Games, a one-week event televised by ESPN, ESPN 2 and ABC networks last August, posted a 60% gain over 2000 numbers with the 12 to 24 demo. Meanwhile, Gravity Games, now in its fifth year of broadcast on NBC, saw a year-on-year ratings jump of 38% with the same demo. Both properties also posted gains with the two to 11 audience in 2001, but ESPN and Primedia admit this group still represents a sliver of their overall fan bases.

That may be one reason why Primedia has decided to up-age the Gravity Games licensing program. Now that high-profile exclusives with retailers like Toys ‘R’ Us have secured aspirational value, Blum is looking for licensees in categories that appeal to male teens and young adults, including sunglasses, watches and apparel. And with Midway Games releasing the first GG video game title this month, Blum is confident that the program will play to an older crowd. ‘Gravity Games is more than just a sport–it’s also a lifestyle that includes older-skewing music and activities.’

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