Crash Course on Extreme Sports

These action-sport athletes are taking on business ownership at full speed and finding out it's not always a smooth ride.

Once you get past the stereotype of twentysomethings swigging energy drinks while skateboarding, you start to see the extreme sports industry like any other--filled with executives and venture capitalists wearing Armani and Donna Karan.

After all, NBC, Universal and Sony are just a few of the conglomerates that have jumped on the bandwagon in recent years. Fox Cable Networks' Fuel TV, which covers wakeboarding, surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX and motocross, is watched in 24 million U.S. homes. And then there's the reality TV shows: motocross pro Carey Hart's Inked, which aired on A&E for two seasons; THE BLOCK, about the hotel chain for snowboarders on the G4 network; and Life of Ryan on MTV, which follows 17-year-old skateboarding phenom Ryan Sheckler, who's signed on for a second season.

In short, the extreme sports industry has become a goldmine, and the prospectors are rushing to make their claims.

The Perfect Fit
That means plenty of opportunity for athletes wanting to turn their passion into a business. And the role of entrepreneur fits them like a ski glove, suggests Nikki Stone, who in 1998 became the first American to win a gold medal for inverted aerial skiing, two years after a debilitating spinal injury. Stone is now a personal and professional development coach in Park City, Utah.

"Extreme sports athletes know how to take risks," says Stone, who used to do things like going downhill off a ski slope at 40 miles an hour and then completing a triple back flip. "They have to put themselves on the edge to accomplish what they want, just as entrepreneurs, if they want to be successful, have to take that extra unknown risk at times."

Simon DumontAnd then there's the fact that many athletes realize they won't be on their boards or bikes competitively for the rest of their lives. "I've always known that athletes don't have the longest careers," says 21-year-old Simon Dumont, a four-time X Games medalist, who recently launched snow apparel company Empire, along with his manager. "So I thought I'd start up a company now. I just figure that action sports is going to another level. Media outlets are getting more involved, and it's only going to get bigger and bigger."

It wasn't until a potentially career-ending injury--two broken arms and legs--that Hart began to focus on his business, Hart & Huntington Tattoo Company. While he recovered, he launched his Las Vegas-based tattoo and apparel company and has grown it to four locations. He also plans to open Wasted Space, a rock nightclub in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, in April.

Cary Hart: Hart & Huntington Tattoo

Hart now is ready to get back on his bike and will be competing in the 2008 AMA Supercross season. "I would love to see [motocross] be as popular as the Super Bowl or as Nascar," says Hart. "I think the excitement level's there, and I think there're enough contests to keep people involved. The biggest thing it needs is to grow the TV package. Just like anything, TV feeds the sponsors, which feeds the riders, and I think that's going to be the crucial part."

Girl Power
For extreme athletes--or anyone, for that matter--in search of a target market for their business, catering to women is well worth considering. Just look at the surfing industry. According to the 2006 Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Retail Distribution Study, the surf industry grew from $6.52 billion in 2004 to $7.48 billion in 2006. SIMA attributes the growth, in part, to the industry capitalizing on the "purchase power of women," reporting that women's surf apparel sales increased 32 percent in 2006 to $327 million compared to $249 million in 2004.

Surf DivasIt's a trend that the women behind Surf Diva, a surf school and clothing boutique, invested in more than 10 years ago. "Women are the future of surfing," says Isabelle 'Izzy' Tihanyi, a former competitive surfer who co-owns her La Jolla, California-based business with her twin sister, Caroline 'Coco' Tihanyi.

Since we spoke to them for our first Xtreme Entrepreneur feature almost 2 years ago, they've extended their Costa Rican surf camp to 8 months of the year and are launching an Australian camp in March. Their classes have become so popular that the divas even started a "Guys on the Side" program for males. As Coco says, "Guys like learning from girls." Their current success is a far cry from when the sisters were told they would fail because girls don't surf.

Kim Goldstein, 26, and Jan Kodadek, 29, who co-founded Shredding Betty, similarly are carving out a piece of the female market. Shredding Betty--out to destroy the image of the cocoa-sipping snow bunny--sells gear and apparel to female snowboarders, and while neither Goldstein or Kodadek have gone to the Olympics or are competing on a professional level, they are completely dedicated to the sport.

"I was a skier first," says Goldstein. "I grew up as a kid skiing, and then I started snowboarding 7 years ago." She took up the sport when she went to college in Boulder, Colorado, and later worked at a resort in New Zealand, where she snowboarded every day for an entire season. "It was incredible," says Goldstein, who knew where her future was.

She later met Kodadek, who was just beginning the sport. Since Kodadek's career was in marketing, it wasn't long before the two women decided to start a business. And while women snowboarders may seem like a small sliver of customers to go after, specializing is paying off.

"We're getting a lot of those core customers," says Goldstein. "We're doing very well with selling our smaller, lesser-known brands. We get the customers who know what they want. I wasn't so interested in carrying those big brands that you can find at Kmart."

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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