Kevin Shaw: Lumberjacks, Sugar Water & Mexican Beer


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It’s not often that I get enough downtime to enjoy watching TV. Between two magazines and a family with three young children, there’s very little time to plop down on the couch and soak in an hour or two while my brain checks out. So it was a rare instance when my wife and I found ourselves scrolling through the various offers on Hulu before stopping at something we both found perplexing: the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. First, we had no idea such a thing existed; and secondly, we couldn’t believe that while Hulu only had three years’ worth of episodes available, the series has been ongoing since 2009.

The energy drink-sponsored series welcomes professional (and sometimes Olympic) divers from across the globe to compete in a limited number of venues that equally crisscross the planet. The series has been globally televised through FOX Sports domestic and international channels, and is viewed by literally millions of persons a year. A little digging revealed that the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series has literally zero impact on Olympic qualifications or other major sanctioning bodies, and is a completely stand-alone event. It is, for all intents and purposes, an imposture.

As we watched the first few minutes, mutually impressed with the sheer athleticism on display, my wife leaned over and commented, almost morosely, “And yet there’s nothing for jet skiing.” We both laughed a little at the bit of gallows humor, but she was right. Mainstream media coverage broadcasts a swathe of different sports, many of which are anything from what you’d call mainstream. Just off the top of my head, I recall a day in college when a roommate and I spent a whole day “marathoning” episodes of the Stihl Timbersports’ Lumberjack Games, wherein giant-sized men use overpowered chainsaws, axes and their Thanksgiving turkey-sized bare hands to cut lumber in a myriad of ways in record time. Again, a whole day’s worth.

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Above: The only sport where athletes train by eating 3 pounds of bacon every morning.

Yet, for whatever reason, jet ski racing in all of its forms, is not regularly televised. Even at the sport’s height in the mid-1990s, consistent coverage (and yes, there was quite a bit) was found on ESPN2 on Thursday nights for an hour or two, and not the home channel. (If you’re feeling nostalgic, you can still find grainy, converted-from-VHS footage on YouTube.) Now, in all fairness, being on ESPN’s second channel is nothing to sneer at (like being shown at 2am on “The Ocho”), but when three days’ programming is given to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (preshow, show, and wrap-up), things seem a little imbalanced in the universe.

Of course, both the Pro Watercross and AquaX organizations have made great efforts to get their respective race series broadcasted across the airwaves: AquaX has enjoyed success in getting their events shown in FOX Sports’ regional markets, as well as some international coverage; as too has AJ Handler’s inaugural Pro Watercross World Championships with CBS Sports on a National scale in a degree, with CBS willing to return again this September. All of this is great news, and can (and will) be a continued benefit to the personal watercraft industry as a whole, from aftermarket parts, to OE dealer sales, and down to local service shops, rentals and repairs.

Yet, I think we can all agree that the brand recognition that comes with a non-endemic, mainstream sponsor such as Red Bull, and the consequent funding that comes with being a title sponsor, would be the catalyst to project the sport larger and wider before innumerable eyes. ESPN2’s coverage was of the Budweiser IJSBA National Tour (or “Bud Tour” as it was often branded). When Budweiser left, Dos Equis stepped in, then Monster Energy with a few other sponsors sprinkled in-between and afterward. The problem was that the loss of Budweiser, due to waning public interest, stripped the tour (and Finals) of larger mainstream exposure, costing the sport further public exposure. Consequently, the sport has been declining from popularity and mainstream attention since then.

Some have gone so far as to demonize Budweiser for this decline, and to a degree, are justified. But haranguing that “all we need is for Bud to come back” is not the answer, as is winning the lottery the solution to your financial problems. Rather, the fix is systematic: a professionally-ran, inclusive and unified national tour, with set standards of presentation for promoters in regards to actual promotion, venues, entries and classes; and the utmost being clear and decisive leadership. A body can survive for only so long without an operative and conscious mind, but it will never thrive. Once the mind is active, motivated and alert, only can the body truly rise to its feet. And only then will people (and potential sponsorship) flock, not the other way.

Red Bull and Budweiser are not in the business of saving floundering sports (not to say ours is “floundering” per se). In fact, employees within Red Bull unaffiliated with the company’s energy drink production, joking refer to the other half as “those guys making ‘sugar water’,” to riff on Steve Jobs’ old line. Businesses are in business to make money, and clearly, for whatever reason, a cliff diving world series has proven lucrative. Once some brighter minds find out how to make jet ski racing as big of a money maker as watching a 130-pound Columbian jump from a 92-foot rock face, then we’ll be in good shape.

Go Get Wet,
Kevin

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Kevin Shaw

Kevin Shaw is a decade-long powersports and automotive journalist whose love for things that go too fast has led him to launching The Watercraft Journal. Almost always found with stained hands and dirt under his fingernails, Kevin has an eye for the technical while keeping a eye out for beautiful photography and a great story.

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