Alt-Athletes have little interest in sitting in the stands and rooting for a traditional sports team. They don’t want to watch—they want to play. While the Alt-Athlete may not be clearly identifiable by the team logo they wear on a jersey or hat, they are the fastest-growing market—76% of all regular exercisers are millennials—with a thirst for new products and technological advances that help them reach that next goal.
We are in the early days of a social technology revolution that is transforming solo activity into team fitness. Once fiercely individualistic, the Alt-Athletes are banding together around shared achievement. Networked by smartphones and social media, they crave connection with their fellow enthusiasts. Video channels featuring Alt-Athletics draw millions of views and make individual athletes famous. New competitions and events are selling more tickets and packing in rowdier crowds. The sweaty sports fringe is going mass-market.
Alt-Athletics aren’t just about exercise, they are about finding meaning, identity and belonging. Climbers and surfers look for experiences that connect them with natural environments. Yoga and Tai Chi devotees seek cross-cultural spiritual transcendence. For runners, the ultimate prize is not just a faster time, it’s triggering the body’s endogenous chemicals to reach the Zone. 42% of the US health club market is now composed of studios catering to specific Alt-Athletics like yoga, pilates, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, dance, rock climbing, CrossFit, etc. These sport-specific chains have been adding new studios at a rate of 450% per year since 2010. At this rate, alt-athlete gyms that cater to specific activities will very soon outnumber the traditional gym.
SPORT-SPECIFIC FITNESS STUDIOS
42%OF ALL US HEALTH CLUBS
450%MARKET GROWTH SINCE 2010
ALT-ATHLETICS IS MASH-UP CULTURE
Alt-Athletes have reenergized ancient activities like yoga, rock climbing and distance running. They have also created wholly new enthusiasms like parkour, skateboarding and bungee jumping. Perhaps even more interesting, millennial Alt-Athletes have begun to mine the activities of their youth with traditional sports to create new games. Snowboarding is a combination of surfing and skiing. Disc golf is a mashup of Frisbee and golf, while Ultimate combines Frisbee with soccer. Kite windsurfing is a hybrid of surfing, sailing and parachuting. Dodgeball has been reinvented on trampolines. Paddleboarding is a mash-up of mucking around in a canoe and paddling big wave surfboards over to breaks. Everything old is made new again and the combinations are endless—there are no rules like in other sports. So as soon as underwater foils were invented, they spread virally from sailboats to windsurfing to surfing.
Polyethylene, the most common plastic, seems to have no limits on how it’s fabricated. Long-molecular chain Dyneema cloth is 15 times more RESISTANT TO ABRASION than carbon steel; its bike shorts and tights have already saved the thighs of several Tour de France riders. Fabrics with BUILT-IN SENSORS, like from Athos, can measure not just how your limbs move, but how each muscle group is engaged, providing immediate feedback on your form. Fabrics are also being made out of ACTIVE PARTICLES that can improve on the body’s natural process to dispense heat. The active particles absorb the body’s infrared energy, heat up, and attract sweat off the body through electrostatic force, speeding evaporation. Soon athletes will wear SELF-HEALING TEXTILES based on the science of biomimicry—engineering inspired by the natural world. For instance, self-healing polyelectrolyte polymers (now in industrial use) are modeled after squid ring-teeth proteins.
NATURAL & ENERGY FOODS
Thirty years after the launch of the PowerBar, energy bars will hit the $9 billion revenue mark in 2017. Gone is the pervasive brown rice syrup in every bar, replaced with SUPERFOODS like chia, moringa and carrageenans, or sweeteners like beets and natural erythritol. But the bars of the future will be engineered for more than nourishment, triggering specific metabolic pathways—inspired by the KETOGENIC DIETS of extreme athletes who trick the fuel systems in their bodies to burn fat rather than glucose for energy. Next-generation bars and drinks will also be PERSONALIZED, based on genomic tests and food-reactivity tests.
Wearable integrations of technology have been surging, but 3D PRINTING IS TAKING OVER. Expect customized shoe insoles to be printed in store. Sunglasses frames and bike helmets will be perfectly molded to fit skull shape. Once we can print titanium, every piece of gear can be customized for fit and performance. This effectively demolishes the notion of a product life cycle and all it entails—inventory, shipping, design fatigue. As soon as a new creation has been tested, its 3D blueprints can be distributed, and custom builds can be sold immediately. NEXT-LEVEL SAFETY gear becomes increasingly important, as Alt-Athletes pursue their passions in evermore dangerous geography. Beacon technology allows families to know where their adventurers are at all times.
The $80 billion health club industry is rapidly evolving to attract Alt-Athletes indoors. There are now over 11,000 CrossFit gyms just in the US. Both encouragement and competition are enhanced by technology, resulting in greater motivation, harder workouts and regular consistency. GLOBALIZATION has also driven widespread change. Just five years ago, the Latin American health club market was half the size of the North American market; now it’s 30% bigger. The Asia-Pacific market is in the middle of making the same jump. Once-regional activities are bounding onto the world stage. Zumba comes from Colombia, yoga from India, parkour/free running from France. China gave the West Tai Chi, and in return, they have taken up bodybuilding in record numbers, recovering from the communist government’s 30-year ban on the sport.
THE VIEWING AUDIENCE
If you love baseball, you catch your highlights on MLB Tonight. But if you love running, is there a television show for you? There is now—it’s called Run Junkie, produced by FloSports out of Austin. Tough Mudder has a network TV show. CrossFit is on ESPN. The Dutch channel INSIGHT features alt-sports shows like Running the World, following a parkour-crazed duo around the globe in 360-degree ultra-high definition. The two Ultimate leagues merged and produced their first superstar. With GROWING SPORTS BROADCAST NETWORKS, every alt sport has a chance to jump off YOUTUBE and gain an audience. You may not know who teen phenom climber Ashima Shiraishi is, but millions of climbing devotees do. Equipped with ever-higher-quality cameras, the Alt-Athlete with the most INSTAGRAM followers may not be the best athlete, but he is the best at capturing the spirit, Zeitgeist and aesthetic of the sport.
TOURNAMENTS, CIRCUITS & TOURS
In some ways, formal competitions run counter to the free-spirit ethos. In competition, climbers ascend prescribed routes and mountain bikers stay on the path. But in other ways, these new events hew very much to the Alt-Athlete ethos. Ticket holders at ALT-SPORTS EVENTS don’t like to see themselves as spectators but as participants who regard the top people in their sports less as heroes and more as teachers. These new events are changing the definition of “sports venue”—and are pulling increasingly large crowds and media attention. The US Open of Surfing attracts 600,000 to Huntington Beach; the CrossFit Games packed 50,000 into the StubHub Center for the finale, using the soccer and tennis stadiums as well as the velodrome. This evolution signals a huge opportunity for both venue owners and sponsors to reach new audiences.
THE VIRTUOUS CIRCLE OF THE CASUAL AND HARD-CORE ALT-ATHLETE
Usually engages in several different alt-athletic pursuits in a month. Identifies very much as an active person, if not a sport-specific athlete. They find fellow enthusiasts on social media. Major market for general Alt-Athlete gear such as GoPro, outdoor clothing, sunglasses and camping gear. Hires the hard-core Alt-Athlete as a trainer, a guide or a guru. As gear and shared information continue to make sports more accessible, the garage will continue to fill up, and the calendar will always be full of activities and adventures. As the casual Alt-Athlete ages, she will adapt to doing less extreme versions of her sports, and she will look for accommodations that allow her to keep going at a safer and less intense level.
Often sponsored (with products, money or free travel) by a half dozen or more clothing or gear brands. Early in life, competed at the highest level; as they age, they find work as a coach, trainer or guide. The hard core have old-school legitimacy, and they guard and preserve the lore and ethics of the sport. Hard-core Alt-Athletes will be the ones to drive their sports to the next level of public engagement. Some will launch companies making specialized gear or authentic apparel. Others will leverage their status to become commentators for burgeoning media channels, and they’ll become consultants for the growing number of events and competitions.
These individuals are often interested in fitness, but they’re also interested in some kind of self-realization, self-verification; that they have a special talent or a special individual characteristic that they can be known for. Add to that technology, and then stir with social media.
T. Bettina Cornwell
Professor of marketing Lundquist College of Business at University of Oregon
Marketing to this sector is dialing back superstardom and dialing up the realness. There has been a shift to profiling the normal human being who’s a lot like me. And that’s quite different from the traditional view of superstars who are way out of our league.
Professor of sport management, University of San Francisco
50KCROSSFIT GAMES, STUBHUB CENTER SOCCER STADIUM, TENNIS STADIUM and VELODROME
600KUS OPEN OF SURFING, HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA