NOSTRUMS FOR THE BOARD SET

Byline: Katherine Bowers

LOS ANGELES — For Web sites aimed at surfers, snowboarders and skateboarders, it’s the ultimate challenge: how to remain cool enough for core participants who provide cachet, while appealing to the millions of armchair enthusiasts logging on at home who build sales volume and attract advertising dollars.
In recent months, numerous action sports sites trying to negotiate this balance have wiped out, including iFuse, iCast, Fusion.com, Hardcloud, Chicksticks.com and SkateSurfSnow.com. Kick Media, a Los Angeles-based Web content provider, has cut back operations and dropped its action sports brands, including Web sites for Surfer, Skateboarder and Snowboarder magazines and the magazine portion of Op.com.
Kick Media chief executive officer Joseph Shak said while boardsports made “great fodder for content,” the sites were a hard sell to advertisers.
Despite these woes, there are still plenty of companies determined to use the Web to grab a share of the boardsport soft goods market, widely estimated at $2.2 billion wholesale.
The current scene in cyberspace is as varied as a skateboarder’s terrain, with Web sites ranging from big-budget branding efforts to boutique e-shops to homegrown content sites offering everything from daily photos of local surf breaks to video clips on how to ollie.
It’s a world that remains male-dominated — more than 70 percent, according to trend researcher Board Trac. But women are a growing force, both as participants online and as consumers who happily grab up their boyfriends’ sneakers or T-shirts when a female equivalent doesn’t exist. Recently, young women have been snapping up Dickie’s heavy cotton men’s pants. Their interest prompted the Fort Worth, Texas-based brand to ink its first U.S. junior license in June, with Los Angeles-based Apparel Limited Inc.
While brand preferences depend on the sport, boardsport enthusiasts behave pretty consistently online, according to data from Board Trac, based in Trabuco Canyon, Calif. About half spend more than five hours online weekly. Approximately one-third have purchased clothing online, and another third said they intend to purchase clothing online in the future.
Keeping in mind the notorious fickleness of youth, industry experts recommend the following to bring both core and casual enthusiasts online:

Pictures and Video
The cliche about a picture’s worth holds true here, said industry experts. This is a visually-oriented demographic, that follows sports with strong artistry elements — such as twisting jumps, flips and curving rides. Most Web sites update their pictures weekly, and some, like the three action sports sites managed by e-tailer Swell Inc., are updated daily.
Glenn Wilk, director of e-commerce and online marketing with Anaheim Calif.-based retailer Pacific Sunwear, said the company shoots for a ratio of 70 percent pictures to 30 percent copy on Pipeline, the magazine section of its site. Pictures will play an important role in the company’s next initiative, Wilk said, which is to make the site more “grassroots” by posting pictures of customers snowboarding, skateboarding or surfing.
Juli Schulz, formerly an executive with now-defunct portal iFuse, said brief video documentaries profiling action sports athletes were among that site’s most popular features.
Michael Marckx, director of marketing with Broadband Interactive Group, which produces the Bluetorch action sports TV show for Fox Networks, said Web traffic spikes during and immediately following the TV program, as viewers log on to check out extra video clips. But while Web videos were given a thumbs up, video-style intros that take too long to download drew mixed reviews, and a “skip intro” button is definitely mandatory.

Content You Can’t Find Elsewhere
Be first — or have something no one else has. “These folks care passionately about being first, whether it’s a new accessory or a new trick or a piece of news,” said Margaret Heffernan, who founded sports site Zinezone.com, which was eventually acquired by now-defunct iCast. “It’s very important to their self-esteem to be early in the game.”
Swell.com, a surfing Web site, attracted national and international media attention when it published the first pictures of a 60- to 70-foot wave breaking on an underwater mountain top 100 miles off the coast of San Diego.
“We cracked [the story] on Swell and within 24 hours, I was getting calls from around the world,” remembered Aaron Chang, the photographer sent with the team tracking down the mammoth wave.
Chang, who uses his own photographs as the basis for his swimwear prints, believes he can strengthen traffic to his newly launched site, Aaronchang.com, by producing short Web documentaries that track the process of how his photos become garments.
“I can see the documentary starting from when we take the trip to get the photo,” Chang said. “All the way through to the morphing the print onto a human body in 3D.”
While many in the industry consider a content-commerce mix essential, former iCast Web executive Heffernan said explicitly mixing the two — for example, by embedding a link to a pair of boardshorts within an article — doesn’t work.
“[At iCast] everything we did editorially had a commerce component,” said Heffernan. “And we discovered it didn’t work at all. We found it didn’t drive buying and, of course, it raised a lot of journalistic hackles.”

An Insider Tone
Not only do sites need to offer information enthusiasts can’t get elsewhere, they have to have an “authentic” tone.
Authenticity generally means funny, chatty copy that does not break the cardinal rule of trying too hard or taking itself too seriously. “[Board sport enthusiasts] tend to be able to call bulls–t pretty easily,” said Bluetorch’s Marckx.
Katy Swanson, a 13-year-old skate and snowboarder from Salem, Ore., applauded the “hilarious articles written by the athletes.” Echoing the sentiments of her peers, Swanson added she liked tips on how to do new tricks, gossipy profiles of athletes and sporting contest results.

Conditions
Like stock quotes to a broker, wave height and powder depth are decision-making currency to surfers and snowboarders who schedule their lives around the perfect combinations of wind and weather.
Kyle Van Horn turned a college project into a full-time job when he began offering emailed surf reports of Southern California breaks from Surfjivers.com. Van Horn now has a staff of three, 400 registered members paying $9.99 per month for surf reports delivered before 7 a.m., and preliminary plans to open an e-shop on his site.
These reports can do for an e-shop what a window display can do for a brick and mortar: pull in regular traffic.
Swell has used the strategy on a larger scale. In March 2000, the company acquired surf reporting Surfline.com and with it came a devoted audience, some who check the site’s live surf cameras as many as 40 times a day, said executive vice president Doug Palladini.
Each time a surfer visits, the site pops up a featured product, with links to the company’s e-shop, which is organized to give each brand its own page. John Broderick, vice president of commerce for Swell, said the company shipped roughly $550,000 over the holiday season.
The company mailed its first Swell catalog in November and is currently on the lookout for a retail location which would complete its multi-channel push.
Plans are underway to build Swell’s other brands, Crossrocket and Monsterskate, through similar strategies. The company began offering snow conditions reports for more than 300 mountains in mid February and plans to mail its first Crossrocket catalog in August.

Follow Fashion
These (often) body-proud, youthful shoppers aren’t looking for basics — and they’re willing to spend on something eye-catching. On PacSun.com, accessories, footwear and items plucked from the “new items” section have been selling well, Wilk said. He noted that an average sale on PacSun.com is $61, as opposed to the $40 average brick-and-mortar sale.
Swell.com will push forward with even more fashion in coming months, said Broderick who noted he was “pleasantly surprised” by the demand for novelty items such as jewelry, belts and unusual branded items, such as pajamas and slipper sets. Going forward, the site will add fashion content pieces such as lists of hot trends, as well as click-swatching which will allow browsers to view all the colors of a particular style.