A Team Sport
Extreme sports may focus on the individual more than, say, football, but when it comes to forming a business, many of the athletes find it beneficial to team up with a more business-minded partner.
Ryan Blair, for instance, owns PathConnect, an umbrella company for other ventures like SkiSpace.com, a social networking site for winter sports athletes. Blair, 30, is not much of a skier, by his own admission. But the company's co-owner, Bode Miller, definitely is.
Blair and Miller, also 30, met a couple years ago and became friends. When Olympian-medalist Miller invited Blair to go skiing in Tahoe, the skiing newbie found himself overwhelmed. "I had zero experience skiing," says Blair. "I had all sorts of questions like, What should I wear to stay warm? What's a lift ticket?"
"See, that's the problem with this sport," Miller responded. "It's too intimidating."
And suddenly Blair had an idea. "To me, as an entrepreneur, if I can find a problem in an industry, I'll start up a company to solve it," says Blair, "and in this particular case, the world's best skier knew of a problem in his industry."
So Miller and Blair formed SkiSpace.com, each of them pouring in equal shares of money and expertise in the venture. Blair has served as the specialist in the corporate side, and Miller, of course, is the skiing authority. "Learning about this business from Ryan has been fun, because it's mostly been figuring out how to bring what I felt people needed to the model that Ryan had perfected. So it was a very interactive learning process," said Miller, in an e-mail from his Blackberry while in Europe at a skiing competition.
It's a business model that is working so far. Miller and Bode launched SkiSpace last year and reports that they'll make half a million in revenue in their first season, breaking even. Blair predicts that with their existing buyers and advertisers, revenues should grow to $1.5 to $2 million during the next skiing season.
Teamwork also has proved profitable for Liko Smith and Marc Frank Montoya, co-owners of the THE BLOCK Hotels aimed specifically at snowboarders, with locations in Big Bear and Tahoe, California. Montoya was a professional snowboarder when he married Smith's--a hotelier--sister. With Montoya as the face of the brand, they're capitalizing on the growing popularity of snowboarding.
"There will be more snowboarders than skiers on the mountains by 2015," Smith says. "Why? Because it's fun." He adds that snowboarding is easier to learn, and newcomers to the slopes are taking up the sport much more than skiing. The way Smith sees it, "The future of snowboarding is more and better snowboarders, more expensive clothing and a need for a gritty experience that combines technology with high-altitude riding in exotic locations. Kids are now smarter, they want backcountry and new spots that are hard to find."
To make sure the hotel is "providing the best experience in the world for [its] riders," Smith says that they plan to partner with Burton, ESPN, Universal Music and other companies.
Joe Hawkins, co-founder of Door 2 Door Ski Rentals in Colorado along with Ben Saari, also has recognized the need for partnerships in the extreme sports industry. His company, which delivers ski equipment rentals to people's doors, is now bringing in $20 million during the 2007/2008 winter season. But the co-owners quickly realized that their business model needed some tweaking.
Rather than marketing their services on the slopes and operating independently, they teamed up with Christy Sports, a full-service sporting goods store. They now serve as the new delivery division of Christy's ski and snowboard rentals, a move that has helped them reach even more skiers.
Hawkins believes that operating independently as a small ski shop may become more difficult as the industry changes. "I think there will be a large consolidation within the ski industry," he says. "You can already see that now with large extreme companies like Quiksilver. These companies are buying up smaller ski companies such as Head and Dynastar."
Despite the growth prospects in the extreme sports industry, there are always risks. But that may be part of the appeal. If skier-turned-coach Stone is right, a little uncertainty doesn't bother the extreme athletes who are turning their pursuits into profits: "The biggest thing for an athlete after you retire is you wonder, Am I ever going to feel that rush again?" And there's something undeniably thrilling about knowing that the business you've put your life into might ruin your life--or succeed beyond your wildest dreams.
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.