Tor Constantino looks at the risks of extreme sports for both the participants and advertisers who sponsor them.
The idea of extreme sports is nothing new and could arguably date back to the days of gladiators and the Roman Coliseum.
If athletes and daredevils want to take their lives into their own hands—so be it, we’ll be happy to watch.
However, that “gawker-effect” of spectators did give rise to the relatively novel idea of sponsoring individuals who tempt fate and death. Advertisers pay to get their message in front of many eyes as possible, and the possibility of seeing someone die in front of your very eyes is difficult for most sports spectators to ignore—ergo, extreme sports have a lot of eyes on it.
Extreme sports and the resulting sponsorships have become big business with the greatest amounts of money flowing to the most daring performers.
These types of activities run the gamut of popularity and acceptance—ranging from ESPN’s X-Games, solo rock climbing, BASE jumping, NASCAR, motocross, surfing or tight-rope walking without a net—there is a bona fide audience for these spectacles.
ESPN captures every crash, spill and mishap of the X-Games with the competitors who are covered in logos.
NASCAR drivers and their vehicles are likewise branded head-to-toe and all around with product brands.
Even every queasy step hundreds of feet off the ground by daredevil, tightrope walker Nik Wallenda is broadcast live via his exclusive contract with the Discovery Channel and their logo is prominently placed in every shot.
And spectators watch with rapt attention and gasped breath—internalizing the dare doer and the associated brands.
But what happens if someone is injured, maimed or dies with a corporate logo emblazoned across their chest?
One of the most recent and high-profile fatalities to occur during an extreme/mainstream sporting event was the death of driver Kevin Ward Jr. who was run over during a dirt track race by NASCAR driver and dirt track enthusiast, Tony Stewart.
That incident shocked the tightly-knit racing community as well as broader sports fandom.
The risks of such sports have always been there, but for some reason they only seem to become more real after the fact.
However, one company Clif Bar—maker of nutrition and protein bars with long-standing ties to the extreme climbing community—proactively announced recently that it will no longer sponsor some of its more daring competitors.
In an open letter to the climbing community, the management at Clif Bar explained its rationale to stop sponsoring a handful of its athletes.
Climbing has been a part of our company’s DNA from the beginning. Over a year ago, we started having conversations internally about our concerns with B.A.S.E. jumping, highlining and free-soloing. We concluded that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go. We understand that some climbers feel these forms of climbing are pushing the sport to new frontiers. But we no longer feel good about benefitting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net.
Despite this decision to end its relationship with a handful of athletes, Clif Bar still sponsors more than 90 other athletes across a wide range of activities.
Critics have said the company is being hypocritical in its sponsorship selectiveness. Despite those assertions, the company defends its right to restrict or endorse based on the best interests of the business.
The bottom line is that the adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers that comprise the ranks of extreme sports participants never did it for the money.
It’s unlikely that any extreme athlete would be hurt by a company who withdraws its advertising dollars.
However, there’s a much greater likelihood they’ll be hurt by simply participating in their extreme sport of choice.