For Online Sports Videos, the Action Is No Longer on the Field

For Online Sports Videos, the Action Is No Longer on the Field

A scene from “We Are Blood,” a new skateboarding movie by Ty Evans. Fotografia de: We Are Blood

SAN FRANCISCO — Anyone who went to the Apple iTunes store to buy a movie in mid-August might have noticed that sitting in the digital queue, next to blockbusters like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” was the seemingly obscure title “We Are Blood,” which was not exactly a movie, but a video consisting mostly of skateboarders performing tricks.

Its inclusion in a plum promotional slot, next to the week’s biggest movies, was a small but telling example of how digital media is changing the next generation of sports fans.

This month signifies the beginning of a new football season and the eve of the baseball playoffs — a reminder that traditional ball sports continue to dominate regular television and cable.

But on the computers and mobile phones where young people increasingly spend their time, there is a parallel world where so-called action sports like surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding have more viewers and influence.

Take YouTube, which its chief executive, Susan Wojcicki, says has more viewers on mobile phones alone than any cable network. Soccer is the most popular sport on the video service, reflecting the sport’s global reach. After that comes the broad category of action sports.

Red Bull, an energy drink that has closely aligned itself with action sports, has a YouTube channel with 4.5 million subscribers, putting it among the top three in the sports category.

If these habits hold, “all these second-tier sports become much more the norm,” said Mike Henry, chief executive of Outrigger Media, a data and analytics company following the online video market.

Various studies show that members of the millennial generation — generally speaking, people who were born between 1980 and 2000 and grew up with the commercial Internet — spend most of their entertainment time using streaming services, the most popular of which are YouTube and Netflix. They report being drawn to the endless sea of videos and the ability to watch those videos on any screen at any time.

All this plays to the strength of action sports. You don’t need a study or statistics to see that young people are more likely to have the limber bodies that action sports require. And fans can watch and comment at their leisure — unlike a sports game, a skateboarding video starts when you press play.

Also unlike a game, these videos are more tailored to short bursts that can be consumed on mobile device screens, which Americans now spend about three hours of each day staring at. They spend about four hours watching television, according to the digital-market research firm eMarketer.

“Three to five minutes of pure and unadulterated lean-back, smiling fun,” Mr. Henry said. “Major league sports are a bit more of a commitment.”

Digital media also tends to favor sports where people can upload their own videos, and one needs only to visit a ski slope, where children wear helmet-mounted GoPro cameras, or a skateboard park, where they follow one another with their iPhones, to see that amateur filming is a big part of these sports.

“We’re not seeing tons of people uploading clips of themselves playing football,” said Tim Katz, head of North American sports partnerships for YouTube.

Nobody thinks skateboarding movies are going to supplant the Super Bowl anytime soon. And it’s not as if regular sports are invisible on digital media.

In January, the National Football League announced it was starting its own YouTube channel with features like game highlights and analysis by commentators. Major League Baseball, which has been streaming games online for 13 years, is doing well enough that it recently bought the rights to manage the National Hockey League’s web operations as well.

Still, traditional sports remain heavily tied to television, using a cat’s cradle of blackout restrictions — for instance, baseball fans cannot watch local games online — to keep its viewers subscribing to cable channels and watching network TV.

Also, because even the biggest, most professionally made action sports videos do not have the sorts of multiyear, multibillion-dollar contracts that dominate professional sports, they give digital outlets a content source unencumbered by copyright troubles and, even with rising production budgets, they are relatively cheap to produce.

Vimeo, the streaming site, employs about a dozen “curators” whose job is to do nothing but watch online videos in search of new talent. One of them is almost entirely focused on finding skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding and other action sports videos, said Greg Clayman, the company’s general manager of audience networks.

“Everybody who does this a lot is sort of an amateur filmmaker,” he said.

Vimeo, like YouTube, has many free videos. But it is also trying to build a paid subscription business that offers higher-quality videos. Action sports enthusiasts make a nice target group because older surfers and skateboarders have been paying for surf and skate movies since the advent of VHS tapes and don’t mind doing so in the online world.

Skate videos, as skateboarders call them, have for decades been the industry’s primary means of communication with fans. Visually speaking, they are a cross between a highlight reel and a music video, and the most popular videos tend to determine the tricks skaters try, the clothes they wear and the music they listen to.

Notable directors like Spike Jonze and Stacy Peralta began their careers making skate videos. But skate videos continue to follow a strict formula involving a mind-numbing barrage of tricks that is impenetrable to anyone but the ardent fan.

Digital media is changing that. The stripped-down aesthetic of skate videos makes them fit right in on sites like YouTube, where amateurs can become stars. But as the audience grows beyond devotees, the opportunity arises to make videos and films with higher production values that fans are willing to pay for.

Over the last two years, Red Bull’s media division has released about five action sports films a year, compared with one in 2010. “The audience has expanded, and larger audience segments are interested in these types of films,” said Werner Brell, managing director of the Red Bull Media House North America.

With a larger audience has come the opportunity to make bigger films, which is how “We Are Blood,” directed by Ty Evans, a skateboarding industry veteran who has made two dozen skate videos, came together. Unlike a typical skate movie filmed with hand-held cameras, “We Are Blood” has sweeping helicopter shots and was filmed around the globe, with trips to China, Brazil, Europe and Dubai.

Neither Mr. Evans nor his producer, Brain Farm, a company in Jackson, Wyo., will say how much the film cost to make. But it was probably millions of dollars — very likely the most expensive skateboarding movie ever made.

Paul Rodriguez, the film’s narrator and a famous pro skater, may have summed up the rise of the action sports genre in a scene where he was signing autographs in a throng of fans: “When I was a little skate rat, I like seriously dreamed so hard about this.”

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