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Extreme sports flirt with the brink of human potential, and there are plenty of companies interested in riding the wave of excitement.

When we push boundaries, there’s a point where fear meets exhilaration and the adrenaline rushes in. It’s this feeling that draws people to the world of extreme sports, where defying gravity and high speeds take centre stage. For many, these activities are also a means of self-expression, a way to break away from the constraints of everyday life and tap into a sense of pure freedom.

Extreme sports rose in popularity during the counterculture movement of the 1960s – which also saw daredevils like Evel Knievel and Philippe Petit captivating the public – and have been growing ever since. Skateboarding began to take off with the emergence of skateparks. Freestyle skiers searched for tougher terrain, far from the groomed slopes of competition. Snowboarders developed a reputation for rudeness and insurance liabilities that actually kept them banned from most American resorts until the 1990s. Surfing, with ever bolder tricks, isn’t just an escape from the daily grind, but an industry now worth over US$4b.

Extreme sport athletes were stereotyped as having carefree, nomadic lifestyles that didn’t involve planning beyond the next greatest feat. A shift towards the mainstream was ignited by the first Extreme Games (X Games), hosted by ESPN ($DIS) in 1995, which placed extreme sports firmly in the limelight.

Red Bull was integral to the boom that followed, through sponsorships and organising countless events such as a cliff diving series. The firm has also developed a top Formula One team, but it’s not the only energy drink on the extreme sports scene – Monster Beverages ($MNST) also targets the same youthful market. When GoPro cameras ($GPRO) and drones brought us closer to the action in tandem with the growth of social media, the entertainment value of extreme sports was solidified. 

Rather than being seen as alternative, many are now part of high profile events. Snowboarding is one of the most popular sports at the Winter Olympics, while the summer games have brought in younger viewers by adopting events like skateboarding, surfing, BMX freestyle and sport climbing – which all made their debut in Tokyo 2020.  

This commercialisation allows top athletes to make an excellent living off their passion. The biggest names can rake in millions; snowboarder Shaun White is reportedly worth about $US65m. They also get incredible training opportunities and are kitted out with swag from the likes of Billabong, Quiksilver, Vans and Volcom – all owned by Tillys ($TLYS)– or Arc’teryx and Salomon from Amer Sports ($AS).

However, the desire to impress and perform increasingly outlandish stunts has taken some participants too far. An increase in fatal accidents throws off the risk/reward ratio, and many sponsors are drawing a line with the athletes they associate with. Energy bar brand Clif Bar ($MDLZ) has dropped several participants known for BASE jumping and rock climbing without ropes. Even Mark Zuckerberg’s amateur interest in extreme activities is seen as too risky for Meta ($META).

Most of us prefer to keep our feet firmly on the ground – particularly as we get older. But with extreme sports now so established, it’s easier than ever to watch from afar and still get our share of the adrenaline rush.


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