Here in Southern California, the parameters of the Ultimate Boarder contest this month were perhaps best encapsulated in the slogan painted on a van parked at the fairgrounds: “Skate. Snow. Surf. Get paid.”
To crown an all-around champion of skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding, the organizers attracted 55 competitors, ages 11 to 40, who were judged for style points in the manner of figure skating in each of the disciplines. Most came from around the state, some from as far as New Zealand. Paying a US$300 entry fee, each athlete had to list a primary discipline.
For some, geography was destiny. The one from Oahu favored surfing. The one from Incline Village, Nevada, favored snowboarding. But others had grown up practicing all three. From Huntington Beach, California, alone came three contestants who each listed a different event as a primary strength.
Billed as a sort of triathlon for extreme sports, the contest promised purses totaling US$58,500.
“It’s a new frontier for the board sports,” said Tom Curren, 44, a retired world surfing champion. “Before, you had to have all the free time in the world training at all three sports.”
Derived from an ancient lineage in track and field, such challenges have become a modern marketing ploy in so-called extreme sports. As they compete for a limited pool of sponsorship money from makers of outdoor gear and energy drinks, promoters have increasingly turned to combination events to expand their audiences.
Organizers of the Teva Mountain Games in Colorado last year introduced a four-part race involving trail running, bike racing, hill climbing and kayaking. The annual Race of Champions, scheduled next winter in Beijing, has started inviting drivers from outsider styles like drifting to take on stock-car and Formula One specialists. Even mixed martial arts, the cultural juggernaut once derided as barbarism, found its sweet spot by combining the waning showmanship of heavyweight boxing with the ascendant youth appeal of Brazilian jujitsu.
While the X Games have effectively showcased a variety of outsider sports in their individual forms, some more ambitious efforts to address the crossover market have faltered. In Anaheim, developers filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002 after spending years trying to build a US$150 million indoor action sports complex with artificial ski slopes, climbing walls and wave pools.
The modern history of mainstream sports is littered with pairings born of boredom, like the football-soccer-Frisbee amalgam known as Ultimate. Few have set the world on fire, though Hollywood skewered the combination-sport concept in the 1998 comedy Baseketball.
In recent years, gear companies have sought to exploit the potential crossover appeal of three sports sharing the fairly obvious common point of balancing on a board. Through online videos, athletes have learned to study one another’s innovations from far-flung locales. Many of the most progressive aerial tricks of modern surfing mimic the maneuvers known as ollies in skateboarding. And advances like flexible yet tightly insulated wetsuits have diminished the restrictions of climate.
The Ultimate Boarder organizer, Tim Hoover, a 38-year-old amateur surfer and onetime film industry worker, described the contest as his ticket to raising his family in this easygoing beach setting 97km north of Los Angeles.