- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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It's Thursday morning in Tampa, three days before Super Bowl XLIII, and Reggie Bush has just boarded a seaplane decked in Red Bull logos. Twenty minutes after takeoff, Bush is up and out of his seatbelt. He takes an athletic stance—feet spread, knees bent, butt low—and reaches out to brace himself against the frame of an open window. He leans his head and torso out the window, catches the wind in his cheeks and does his best happy puppy impression.
"This cannot be legal," he says. "But it's pretty freakin' awesome." He stops. Corrects himself. "Actually, this is the single coolest thing I have ever done."
Too bad Kim chose this morning to sleep in.
A few hundred feet away, a helicopter hovers alongside the Albatross—an experimental amphibious aircraft originally built in the 1950s for the U.S. Navy and Air Force—and a photographer leans out to snap a few cross shots of the New Orleans Saints running back. Below, wakeboarder J.D. Webb flies behind the wake of a boat that's also painted in Red Bull red and yellow and driven by wakeboard legends Parks Bonifay and Dallas Friday and throws tricks to the sound of T.I. being pumped from the beach. The Albatross lands, Bush deplanes and the wakeboard boat slides up to take him to shore.
What sounds like the makings of a futuristic Super Bowl commercial is instead a media stunt signifying that the future has come. We in the media have talked about a time when sports would not be so heavily categorized, when action sports athletes, adventure sports athletes and mainstream sports athletes would simply be referred to as athletes and extreme-action-stick-and-ball sports simply as sports. In this futuristic world, professional football players who grew up watching the X Games would snowboard in the off-season (as Houston Texans Kevin Bentley and Dave Anderson were doing at the Winter X Games in Aspen last weekend) and be fans of Shaun White (Bush), Blair Morgan (Brian Urlacher) and Kevin Robinson (Lonnie Paxton).
Snowboarders would ride in basketball and football jerseys (too many to list), skip days on the hill to attend Celtics playoff games (Kevin Pearce) and choose careers in snowboarding or surfing over careers in the sports—soccer, football, basketball and hockey—in which they were high school standouts.
But it's not just about participation. Contracts would begin to even out (It's happening: One NFL marketing exec in Tampa told me Shaun White is more marketable, and worth more money per deal, than 99.9% of pro football players.) and companies that had once pigeonholed themselves into a certain segment of the sports market would begin to cross the divide and sponsor athletes they never would have dreamed of only a few years before.
That brings us back to Bush, the first athlete in the big four sponsored by action-sports-heavy Red Bull. (One athlete in each of the other three leagues—MLB, NBA, NHL—is rumored to follow.) What Thursday morning's announcement and over-the-top event was supposed to show was a blurring of sports, and the message it sent was simple: It doesn't matter if you are a fan of wakeboarding, surfing, skydiving or football—Drink our product!
Companies are crossing from the other side, as well.
Over the past few weeks, you've probably seen the Spike Lee-directed TV commercials featuring a lineup of iconic and not-so-well-known athletes. Derek Jeter, holding a bat, nods to Bill Russell, who turns to Muhammad Ali, who tilts his head down to acknowledge a 14-year-old boy who looks up at him and smiles confidently. At the end of the commercial, the letter "G" appears and the voice of rapper Lil Wayne tells viewers, "G is the heart, hustle and soul of the game." That kid is skateboarder Chaz Ortiz, and that "G" is Gatorade. This week, the company flew Ortiz to Tampa for much the same reason Red Bull flew Bush to a private beach in Auburndale. There they announced that Ortiz is one of three young action sports athletes (snowboarder Ellery Hollingsworth and BMX rider Nigel Sylvester are the others) Gatorade is sponsoring in its first major push into action sports.
"We want athletes in all types of sports to see themselves in our brand," says Jeff Urban, senior VP of Sports Marketing at Gatorade. They're not the only company. Two of the athletes Gatorade chose to align itself with (Hollingsworth and Sylvester) are also sponsored by Nike, which, until a few years ago, had very little presence (or respect) outside of mainstream sports. Today, it has one of the most well respected, up-and-coming multi-sport teams in action sports.
As Bush lines up for New Orleans next season and snowboarders drop into an Olympic halfpipe in Vancouver, they will do so knowing the line between their sports is officially blurring. The time has come when skateboarders tilt bottles of Gatorade to their lips after winning the X Games and NFL players douse their winning coaches in Red Bull. And it's about dang time.
Mainstream stars like Reggie Bush are hooking up with sponsors that used to scream "extreme!" Crossover appeal is here.