Many sports can be considered alternatives to dominant sport forms, but the term alternative sport has generally been used in sociology to refer to a group of activities that meet a particular set of organizational criteria. Alternative sports initially existed outside of formal sports organizations and participants were primarily young people who, for one reason or another, did not fit into the world of traditional youth sports such as baseball and football. Though they differ greatly from one another, Robert Rinehart (2000) suggests that alternative sports can be loosely defined as: (1) participant controlled and directed, rather than organized through a governing body or other official organization; (2) individually focused, emphasizing personal achievements; (3) focused less on competition than traditional sports; and (4) generally possessing an insider requirement. That is, they are more likely than traditional sports to encompass their own subculture – one that stands in opposition to the dominant culture. In other words, skateboarders, for example, are not just people who happen to ride skateboards, but are ‘‘skaters,’’ expected to participate in a lifestyle associated with involvement in the sport.
Some alternative sports were originally titled ‘‘extreme.’’ This appears to have meant that they involved risk taking that more mainstream sports did not (like BASE jumping or cliff diving). The term was appropriated by the media and applied to any sport that was not generally considered a sports staple on television in the 1990s, and the label has by and large been abandoned by participants and, to some degree, by the media. Increasingly, mass media narratives refer to alternative sports as ‘‘action sports.’’
Throughout the 1990s, alternative sports became increasingly popular. All sports cable television networks like ESPN and Fox Sports have been instrumental in exposing the sports to the public, particularly targeting the attention of young males (aged 12–34) in their coverage. These sports are now featured on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, and ABC. The best known alternative sporting events are ESPN’s annual X Games and Winter X Games, which feature a varying array of sports including skateboarding, snowboarding, inline skating, motocross, bicycle motocross (BMX), ski boarding and snow mountain biking. The X Games premiered in 1995 (originally titled the eXtreme Games). ESPN reported that between 1994 and 1998 its audience for alternative sports increased 119 percent and that the 2003 X Games were expected to reach more than 110 million homes in 145 countries and territories worldwide. Corporate sponsors have also gotten into the action and previous X Games sponsors include AT&T, Coors, Nike, Taco Bell, Mountain Dew, Chevrolet, VISA, and Snickers. According to a recent newspaper article, sales of skateboard shoes exceed $1.4 billion annually, more than the total regular season game receipts of major league baseball, and skateboarder Tony Hawk’s series of video games earned him a $20 million advance from Activision while his clothing line brings in $50 million annually.
Participation rates also reflect the increasing popularity of alternative sports. According to a survey conducted by the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), between 1996 and 2001 participation rates for snowboarding increased 72 percent and skateboarding participation rates increased 106 percent. These two historically alternative sports had the highest growth rates of all sports surveyed. For example, baseball, a more traditional sport, had a growth rate of only 8 percent and two other traditional sporting activities had declining participation rates – football was down 4 percent and basketball was down 12 percent.
The rapid increase in popularity of these sports has led researchers to examine why they are attracting so many (especially young) people and what they offer that perhaps mainstream sports do not. NSGA Vice President of Information and Research Thomas B. Doyle points out that snowboarding participation rates have tripled since 1990, while alpine skiing rates dropped more than 30 percent, and adds that skateboarding has experienced phenomenal growth since 1995, when it hit a low of only 4.5 million participants. Doyle contends that the growth of these two sports may reflect the fact that young people often choose activities that set them apart from adults. He suggests that traditional sports like skiing may have become too mainstream to be of great interest to adolescents and young adults.
Sociologists have addressed the claim that traditional sports are too mainstream for young people today and have examined what has historically attracted individuals to alternative sports. Beal (1995) analyzed the subculture status of alternative sport in her study of skateboarding in the early 1990s. Using Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, she examined the competing potentials of sport as an enforcer of dominant ideology and as a site of social resistance. Her findings indicated that members of the skateboarding culture she studied held beliefs about their sport that stood in contrast to the ideals of commercial sport. They were generally non competitive, process rather than goal oriented, and emphasized participant control of sporting events. She determined that, to some degree, the skaters were successful in resisting outsider control of their sport. Rinehart and Grenfell (2002) studied a group of BMX riders and examined the differences between the participants’ experiences of riding at a self made bicycle track and at a corporate sponsored ‘‘park.’’ They found that the riders often preferred the home made course, as it was truer to the original values of the sport, including participant control and informal organization.
Rinehart (2000) has studied a variety of alternative sports and their associated subcultures and has addressed the conflicts that arise as the sports become increasingly commercialized. He argues that participants’ desire to have their sports legitimated and to prosper individually from their participation leads them to take part in commercial events like the X Games, but there they encounter conflicts with corporate and media sponsors who have different ideas about how to organize and present the sports. Rinehart contends that, while athletes participate in commercial events like the X Games, they simultaneously resist outsider definitions of what and who they are. He concludes that control over the presentation of alternative sports is significant because those who own and control the presentation of these events control not only the economics, but also the very core or ‘‘soul’’ of these sports.
What is emerging within alternative sport subcultures are struggles between corporate culture producers who are attempting to organize and present these sports like mainstream sport forms and the participants themselves, who seek to maintain some control of their sports and of the ‘‘authentic’’ roots of their cultures as they become commercialized. Beal and Weidman (1998), for example, found that skateboarders were indeed resisting outsider definitions of their culture and were participating in the production of their culture by influencing the advertising industry in its marketing strategies toward skaters. Within snowboarding, Crissey (1999) found that Winter X Games participants were dissatisfied with ESPN’s organization and presentation of their sport and engaged in symbolic forms of resistance to the commercialized nature of the event. Snowboarders refused to be interviewed, criticized the judging format, and called the competition ‘‘a joke.’’ However, this resistance did not appear to be having much success, as the opposition was largely in the form of verbal complaining rather than organized action directed at change. In addition, their complaints were certainly not broadcast by ESPN or affiliates and the participants were essentially supporting the commercialized version of their sports by participating in the X Games events. The snow boarders appeared to be ambivalent about the role of commercial interests. Kleinman (2003) comes to a similar conclusion in his analysis of professional skateboarders, who expressed both positive and negative sentiments toward the commercialization, or ‘‘mainstreaming,’’ of their sport.
Commercialization can be both beneficial and detrimental for alternative sports and their adherents. While commercialization results in organizational changes such as outsider control, increased competition, and extrinsic rewards for performances, it also provides new opportunities for participants including monetary rewards, product endorsements, new facilities, and video and television appearances. The most current data indicate that while athletes dislike the organizational changes and the commercial versions of their sports, they recognize that the newfound popularity and media coverage of their activities have opened new avenues for involvement in alternative sports, in terms of both sport participation and business ventures. For example, public and privately funded skateboard parks can now be found in many cities and towns, ski resorts now cater to snowboarders by building terrain parks, and the most talented athletes can earn income through contests, corporate sponsorships, and media performances. Though many alternative sport participants continue to view participation in the commercial version of their activities as ‘‘selling out,’’ there is evidence of an increasing acceptance of the mainstream status of alternative sports and attempts to capitalize on their current popularity through participant owned businesses that market equipment and apparel, host demonstrations and contests, and produce videos of sport performances. While commercialization and social resistance are the most common targets for analysis, researchers have also examined other aspects of alternative sports and their subcultures. For example, sociologists have studied gender relations within alternative sports to determine how alternative sports either reinforce or challenge dominant gender roles. Alternative sports are overwhelmingly a male activity. Approximately 17 percent of skateboarders, 20 percent of surfers, and 30 percent of snowboarders are female. At ESPN’s X Games, arguably the most publicized current alternative sporting event, only 15 percent of the competitors in 2000 were female. Of the three most popular events, skateboarding, BMX, and inline skating, only inline skating featured a women’s division, and there were six female competitors as compared to 20 in the men’s division. While some competitors and ESPN organizers attribute the disparity to a genuine lack of interest on the part of women, many female participants call it sexism.
Male participants in alternative sports often attribute the lack of female involvement in their sports to the difficulty of the activities – claiming, for example, that BMX requires exceptional upper body strength. Advocates of women’s participation in these sports contend that it has little to do with physical ability or lack of interest and much more to do with discouragement from male participants. Beal (1995) found that, in her study of skateboarding, girls and women were marginalized as a result of discouragement by male skateboarders and trivializing terminology such as referring to female skaters as ‘‘Skate Betties.’’ Although four of her 41 participants were female, Beal found that, within skateboarding, girls and women were most frequently relegated to the role of girlfriend or supporter of male skaters.
Although the marginalization of female athletes occurs in both traditional and alternative sport, gender relations are not identical across the two sport forms. Beal (1996) points out that male skateboarders construct an alternative masculinity that, while continuing to privilege males, rejects the ‘‘jock mentality’’ of traditional sports. Within snowboarding Kristen Anderson (1999) argues that the alternative nature of snowboarding means that the construction of gender in the sport is different than it is in mainstream, organized sports. She asserts that male snowboarders construct the sport as a masculine practice through a variety of social practices including sporting a ‘‘street punk’’ style of dress, adopting an aggressive and superior attitude, emphasizing the danger of their sport, and stressing their heterosexuality. Because alternative sports like snowboarding are individualistic, loosely organized, and controlled by the participants, standard methods of constructing and enforcing gender are less readily available to male participants than they are in the organized world of mainstream sports, especially team sports, where gender borders can easily be patrolled through the sex segregation of teams.
Other areas of inquiry within alternative sport include issues of identity, subcultural member ship and cultural production, and, particularly within skateboarding, the use of urban space. Sociologists interested in the use of public space have studied how skateboarders utilize urban locations for purposes other than what was intended, and, in this way, ‘‘disrupt’’ city space. Methodological approaches in the study of alter native sport have been largely qualitative, employing methods such as participant observation, interviewing, and content analysis of sport media. Future analyses of alternative sports are likely to continue to explore the strategies commercial interests use to ‘‘mainstream’’ these sports, the changes that occur as they become mainstream (as is currently the case within snowboarding), and forms of social resistance employed by participants as they seek to retain some control over the future of their sports. Quantitative data are also needed to assess the reasons for the popularity of alternative sports among participants and to investigate possible future directions for these sport forms.
- Anderson, K. L. (1999) Snowboarding: The Construction of Gender in an Emerging Sport. Journal of Sport and Social Issues 23(1): 55-79.
- Beal, B. (1995) Disqualifying the Official: An Exploration of Social Resistance Through the Subculture of Skateboarding. Sociology of Sport Journal 12(3): 252-67.
- Beal, B. (1996) Alternative Masculinity and its Effects on Gender Relations in the Subculture of Skateboarding. Journal of Sport Behavior 19(3).
- Beal, B. & Weidman, L. (1998) The Skateboarding Image: An Analysis of the Industry’s Impact on the Participants’ View of Authenticity. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Sociology of Sport Association, in conjunction with the World Congress of Sociology. Montreal, Quebec.
- Borden, I. (2001) Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body. Berg, Oxford.
- Crissey, J. (1999) Corporate Co-optation of Sport: The Case of Snowboarding. Unpublished Masters Thesis. Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, CO.
- Heino, R. (2000) What Is So Punk About Snowboarding? Journal of Sport and Social Issues 24(2): 176-91.
- Kleinman, A. (2003) Post X-Games Skateboarding: An Exploration of Changes in the Skateboarding Subculture. Unpublished Masters Thesis. Temple University, Philadelphia.
- Muggleton, D. (2000) Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. Berg, New York.
- Rinehart, R. E. (2000) Emerging Arriving Sport: Alternatives to Formal Sports. In: Coakley, J. J. & Dunning, E. (Eds.), Handbook of Sports Studies. Sage, London, pp. 504-20.
- Rinehart, R. E. & Grenfell, C. (2002) BMX Spaces: Children’s Grassroots Courses and Corporate Sponsored Tracks. Sociology of Sport Journal 19: 302-14.
- Rinehart, R. E. & Sydnor, S. (Eds.) (2003) To the Extreme: Alternative Sports, Inside and Out. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
- Wheaton, B. & Beal, B. (2003) ‘‘Keeping it Real’’: Subcultural Media and the Discourses of Authenticity in Alternative Sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 38(2): 155-76.
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