Looking for High-Flying Rewards
Investment Tied to Blooming Action Sports Tour

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Nearly 80 construction workers have been beavering away in downtown Louisville for the last week to build the action sports version of an Olympic host city. Two dozen tractor-trailers carried in everything from a $350,000 prefabricated skateboard vertical ramp to a mobile mini-hospital. Dump trucks hauled 300 loads of dirt to a downtown parking lot for a bike course. One sponsor built a temporary, 3,000-square-foot colonial model home. NBC has sent a production crew of 100.

Welcome to the second annual launch of the Dew Action Sports Tour, NBC's attempt to create a new sports league targeted at the most coveted and hard-to-reach audience in America -- 12-to-34-year-olds. It aims to capitalize on the popularity of action sports, the genre of sports that includes skateboarding, snowboarding and dirt biking.

The tour will visit five cities over the next five months, starting tomorrow with four days of competition in Louisville, and features six disciplines: vert (vertical) and park skateboarding; vert, park and dirt BMX biking; and freestyle motocross.

"This is a big investment," said Kevin Monaghan, vice president for business development at NBC Sports. "We are really committed to this."

The network, which is owned by General Electric, and tour partner Clear Channel Communications are trying to succeed where others have not. NBC has a lot at stake: it has $30 million to $50 million in the venture, according to published reports. The Dew Tour reportedly lost money last year. It drew respectable crowds and television ratings, although both were below rival ESPN's X Games, which the Disney-owned network launched 12 years ago.

Although NBC executives have said they have a long-term commitment to the games, the network adheres to a strict bottom line; it pulled the plug on the XFL, its NFL rival, following a single season in 2001 that lost millions. The Dew Tour needs big crowds and respectable television ratings to prove it has a future, according to media experts. Last year's Louisville opener drew 36,000 fans over four days; the finale in Orlando five months later drew 59,000.

"The jury is still out on how big action sports can be," said Peter Carlisle, director of Olympic and action sports for Octagon, a sports management firm. "NBC is pushing a totally different business model [than the X Games]. Can you do three of these [tour] events? Can you do four of these? Will it be as big as baseball one day? Who knows?"

In addition to the X Games, the other large action sports event is the Action Sports World Tour, a 12-year-old enterprise based in Marina del Ray, Calif., run by Rick Bratman and brothers Mark and Todd Shays.

The Dew Tour was created when NBC decided it wanted to take control of its own action games after its experience airing the now-defunct Gravity Games from 1999 to 2003. The Gravity Games was a single event that had a different owner in each year of its brief lifespan. NBC effectively sold the airtime to the games' owners each season, but never had much of an active role; it broadcast some of the events weeks after the competition.

NBC decided to do things differently this time. It wanted multiple events over a season to help develop story lines and create a sense of anticipation. The network enlisted live-event specialist Clear Channel Entertainment's motor sports division, now known as Live Nation, as a 45 percent partner to run the events on the ground. It sold the title sponsorship to Mountain Dew, leading to the name Dew Tour. It committed to hours of live broadcasting and -- most importantly -- it attracted the sports' stars, among them Olympic snowboarder and skateboarder Shaun White and BMX bikers Jamie Bestwick and Dave Mirra.

"We were starting from scratch, and we had to figure out how to get the best athletes," Monaghan said. "We said if you offer network TV, really good prize money and really good equipment, with good courses and where the athletes are treated well and you do parties for them and have top medical equipment, you will get the best athletes."

NBC paid a California company to design and build a state-of-the-art skateboard ramp that can be dismantled and crated on 12 tractor trailers to each stop on the tour. It consulted top action sport athletes on matters such as the skateboard park and the quality of the dirt for the BMX and motocross course.

The goal: convince them NBC wasn't just putting on a crash-fest.

"You've got to make sure the right people are involved to keep the authenticity there," said Dennis McCoy, a top BMX rider with 21 years of experience. "Like the dirt. The dirt is very important. [Poor] dirt has gravel and is too dusty. Good dirt you can shape into good jumps."

To keep the athletes happy, the tour will provide catering, an athletes' lounge and medical service, including ambulances. Athletes get to pick out their favorite music for the backdrop to their performances.

McCoy helped NBC design a $3.5 million tour purse and a prize structure built around a point system that keeps many of the athletes in the hunt for the title, much like the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. The winner in each of the disciplines each month gets $15,000, while 20th place gets $1,000. If an athlete accumulates the most points in a discipline by the end of the tour, they get a $75,000 bonus and a pickup truck.

The goal is to keep athletes, and fans, interested.

"Guys aren't going to blow off events because you could still get the $75,000 at the end and the truck, and you are getting exposure for you and your sponsor throughout the year," McCoy said.

NBC sent proposals to about 50 cities, telling them what the network planned, and the facilities and space it required. The league needed a major metropolitan area, with a 15,000- to 20,000-seat arena, and a million square feet of space to make room for stages, interactive villages and everything else. It also wanted host cities that would support and promote the event. Taking a page from the Olympic playbook, the network emphasized the buzz as well as the economic benefits that a major sporting event can bring to a locale.

In addition to Louisville and Orlando, Denver, San Jose and Portland, Ore., will host the tour this season.

"We helped with everything from grass-roots promotional programs to working arm-in-arm with the NBC staff to help manage the event on the ground," said John Saboor, executive director of the Central Florida Sports Commission, who helped Orlando win the coveted final stop on the tour.

With NBC guaranteeing 22 hours of live coverage (four hours per weekend event) and 10 hours of late-night coverage on its cable subsidiary USA Network, event sponsors such as Panasonic, Gillette, Toyota, Vans and Sony signed on at around $2 million each. Mountain Dew, whose brand was resurrected a decade ago on its identity with the high-octane action sports world, signed on as the title sponsor for nearly $4 million -- a crucial addition because sponsorship represents more than half of Dew Tour revenue, according to people close to the tour.

The tour also earns income from a distribution deal with Fox Australia and is licensing highlights and other footage in the United States to Fuel TV. Tickets to the event average around $12. Wade Martin, the general manager of the Dew Tour, is hoping for bigger crowds this year but emphasized that patience is required for a startup to develop a following.

"You create a tour out of thin air and put it on the ground and you get 36,000 people, that's not bad," Martin said. "There's some sports leagues that would be happy with that."

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