Coco Ho at the Nike 6.0 Pro Juniors–Huntington Beach, CA

When we presented at the Action Sports Retailer trade show last month, one topic we touched on that seemed to resonate the most was where and why certain demographics in youth culture in North America are simply not that into action sports and the lifestyle. First, it should be noted that we’ve been saying there’s a decline in specific demographics in action sports for the last 7 years. In addition, it’s only those in the action sports industry that call action sports “action sports.” You ask 13-25-year-olds today about sports, they don’t necessarily say “I like action sports” or even see it differentiated that way, or even see their activity as a “sport.” Read our North American Youth Culture Study 2009 for more details.

In this story, we want to point out where action sports (for lack of a better phrase at the moment) and corresponding lifestyles are in decline and why. Plus where we anticipate other sports to pop and their corresponding lifestyle brands.

It is true that one of the main differences in sports participation and influences in the past 10 years is the participation of action sports, such as Skateboarding, Surfing, Snowboarding, Wakeboarding, Motocross, and BMX. There’s also been a shift in young people’s participation in activities turning to individual sports including Dance, Yoga, Running, Tennis, Martial Arts, and Cycling, rather than team sports and action sports. However ask youth consumers in North America about action sports, and basically, they are no longer the hot “new” category to this generation of participants. Not only that, they are not necessarily peaking as the top 5 favorite sports any longer even though they are among the top favorites sports that the marketplace would like to learn. For today’s youth culture, there is no longer that separation that used to exist just 5 years ago, whereby a skater kid most likely did not play football. Today’s generation consists of 15-year-olds who have no prejudices about playing basketball and skateboarding, or, playing golf and doing martial arts and snowboarding. The crossover is much broader as preferences continue to move niche and the lifestyle crossovers become more apparent.

While action sports are obviously important, especially the lifestyle surrounding action sports, this genre is not the new thing any longer and hasn’t been for almost a decade now in North America (to clarify, in parts of Europe, Japan, and China (see our Studies), they are relatively new and therefore an exciting marketplace remains in comparison to the saturation found here). For today’s new generation, they simply grew up with snowboarding in the Olympics; skateboarding as an option to their lifestyle. Shaun White is one of their most popular sporting icons and for others, there is some confusion whether Tony Hawk is a real person or a video gaming character.

That being said, each new generation often tends to try and re-define itself with a new subculture as seen in music, fashion, and technology -even though many styles and trends reflect aspects of past eras. A specific example is the decline in popularity of the brand Quiksilver. As seen in our data over the last 9 years, this brand started moving older as a preferred brand ages ago and they were unable or didn’t see that younger demographics coming in simply weren’t into them. Now, young people often say that Quiksilver is “what my Dad wears.” In addition, association with surfing as a lifestyle brand isn’t all that popular with many large demographics in youth culture today. Volcom on the other hand, swept in and their “Youth Against Establishment” motto, overloaded website, entertainment strategy, and moves into many sports with corresponding punk rock aesthetics and apparel, resonated wildly with youth culture within the last 5 years.

However even Volcom, as indicated by our North American Youth Culture Studies Spring and now Fall, has fallen dramatically in terms of it being a “most preferred” brand among 13-25-year-olds. Like Quiksilver, they too are looking overseas for growth.

Interestingly, brands such as Vans, DC, and even Billabong to some extent, tend to resonate with today’s youth culture but in many cases this is because there’s a connection with music for these brands vs. just skateboarding or surfing. Even Burton still struggles with breaking out of snowboarding and becoming a popular lifestyle brand. Converse is now in the category of action sports, yet for most industry players, they wouldn’t necessarily call Converse an action sports brand. Same goes for Nike which continues to move into action sports with skateboarding (and owning Converse), and surfing (and owning Hurley). Fox, Metal Mullisha, and Affliction that cross into motocross (and MMA) are also in the running as the concept of “what are action sports” is shifting based on changes in the marketplace. Interestingly, at the Action Sports Conference during the X Games, after our presentation, several people from the MMA and Ultimate Fighting Industries asked questions about the action sports industry. (In addition, a representative of the U.S. Olympic Committee had similar questions -how do we relate to youth culture and is so-called action sports the route to take?)

Within specific demographics, the greatest decline is among males 21-25-years-old skateboarding or wanting to learn to skateboard. Males in general have lower percentages that want to learn action sports such as Skateboarding, Snowboarding, and Surfing compared with females in the same age group. This has been consistent for the last 4-5 years, indicating that the demographics with the greatest potential growth for the action sports industry are among young females 13-25-years-old. This is a subject we’ve written about for ages (do a keyword search for more).

Sports to watch in terms of growing popularity for both males and females include Dance, Martial Arts, Soccer (among younger demographics), Basketball, Volleyball, Cycling (especially urban cycling and fixed gear riders) and Yoga (see our North American Youth Culture Studies for more details).

It’s the brands that embrace these sporting cultures that are now starting to pop, especially in Dance. What Dance includes is the increase in street dancing cultures such as Jerkin’, Tecktonic, and dance moves as seen on YouTube clips globally. B-Boys and B-girl scenes are being revitalized also because of the spread of clips posted on YouTube, as well as the strength of competitions hosted in Germany, South Korea, and even Russia, giving this Renaissance in dance a global revolution.

Martial Arts (which also leads to Parkour) is also popular because often various styles and moves that are created by actors within top movies and entertainment ranging from Manga and Anime, to videos, among today’s youth culture.

Cycling, especially urban cycling or “fixies” has created an entirely new movement including its own fashion, green lifestyle, film festival, and industrial design elements. Ironically, many people in this movement originally came from action sports.

In terms of retail, if you look specifically at our data comparing top action sports retailers they too have declined and not just because of the economy. Zumiez and PacSun have had serious challenges, whereas Uniqlo, H&M, American Apparel, and Hot Topic continue to soldier on. Even Hollister, as related to surf, has taken a major hit.

One of the most telling examples that an industry is in flux is by looking at their trade shows. At the September ASR trade show, not only was it the smallest we’d seen it in 10 years, but we were also told that they now prefer to go by the acronym ASR instead of Action Sports Retailer. Why? Because they’re trying to attract more outside lifestyle elements such as streetwear, denim, and other subcultures into their trade show. And you still have the growing presence of subculture shows such as Crossroads for skateboarding, Agenda for action sports/streetwear crossover brands, and S.L.A.T.E. riding the middle of urban, street contemporary, and skate. Even Bread & Butter in Berlin pushes the boundaries of new lifestyle elements around sports and action sports crossovers including brands such as Nikita, Royal Elastics, Alpinestars, and a plethora of denim brands such as WESC. All of these show the splintering of an industry that it no longer as clearly defined as action sports as it once was.

Action sports as an industry reminds me of what went down in the Outdoor Industry 10 years ago. As a keynote speaker at the Outdoor Retailer Summit, we were asked why young people aren’t into hiking, camping, kayaking, and other so-called outdoor activities. In our data, quite frankly, their sports were scarcely on the radar as a preferred sport or a sport that young people participated in, or wanted to learn (which is even scarier). This clearly frightened the industry, but the good thing was that they were trying to address this issue. However, they still struggle with connecting to this new generation -just as the IOC does with the Olympics–and in many cases, as indicated in this story, are action sports brands and retailers.

While organizations such as SIMA, ISAC, Board Retailers Association, even ASR continue to work hard to come up with solutions to keep the industry alive and prosperous, one key element is to look at is today’s youth consumer and understand what exactly they are participating in and why. How technology has changed their sense of sports and lifestyle; how fashion influences their activities (not necessarily the other way around); how music plays a roll in getting more young people involved in action sports; and how industries such as video gaming can have an impact in terms of improving communication between youth culture and sports in general.

It’s time to look outside of the industry, past endemic retailer sales data, financial forecasts of brands already in the industry, and endemic media that of course scream that things are OK. Action sports is an incredibly incestuous industry. Without looking at the real consumers -youth culture of today and tomorrow–and understanding who they are and what their motivations are, then the industry, especially the lifestyle of the industry, which lets face it, is where the money’s made, will continue to shrink in the USA, where it all started and where, unfortunately, it’s also becoming pass%uFFFD. 

Note: Dear subscribers, I’m not a hater. I write this out of my passion FOR action sports. As an industry veteran, former senior editor of Powder and Snowboarder Magazines under Surfer Publications, founder of the original action sports and lifestyle magazine for young women called “W.i.G. -For Women in General” and co-founder of Boarding for Breast Cancer, I can say from experience that it’s time to take a look around and come up with new solutions.