Sports-Apparel Makers Angling to Get 'Big Air' Time on Fox

Times Staff Writer

Channel surfing is about to take on a whole new meaning.

Fox Sports Net is set to launch today the first daily news program devoted to action sports, hoisting the visibility of thrill-seeking athletes such as surfers, skateboarders, snowboarders and motocross riders, while offering fresh marketing opportunities for the companies that make their clothes.

The half-hour show, dubbed "54321," will provide results and analysis from recent sporting events, behind-the-scenes interviews with athletes and a look at what they're doing when they're not hurling themselves down a mountain slope or catching "big air" on a skateboard.

"54321" is being financed, in part, by Huntington Beach-based sportswear maker Quiksilver Inc., which last year launched its own entertainment division, and is a vivid example of the way local youth-apparel makers are tapping into the entertainment industry to help boost their brands.

"Everybody's fired up" about the new program, said Dick Baker, chief executive of Irvine-based Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp. "It's ESPN for board sports, and that doesn't exist."

Getting their logos in the limelight has become ever more important to Southland surf and skate apparel makers because competition is intensifying.

In particular, businesses are feeling the heat from Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch, which is busily expanding its chain of beach-themed Hollister stores.

Industry leaders, such as Quiksilver and Irvine-based Billabong USA, are angling to keep their edge by promoting their brands as authentic. When top-notch athletes appear on television wearing their clothes, shoes and accessories, it underscores that point.

That's where "54321" comes in. The program -- which will air at 5 p.m., with repeats later in the evening -- offers companies the perfect chance to show off their products, and do it on the cheap.

If youth-apparel makers "had to buy advertising on ESPN or place a commercial on ABC, it would be cost prohibitive," said Kevin Flanagan, director of the Action Sports Retailer trade show in Long Beach, where "54321" filmed a skateboarding competition over the weekend.

Not surprisingly, "54321" hasn't had much trouble winning cooperation from the industry. "Every company has bent over backward to give us footage and clothing," said Dan Harrison, senior vice president of programming and strategic planning for Fox Sports Net, a unit of News Corp.

Skateboarding shoemaker Vans Inc., for example, has shipped boxes of shoes, T-shirts and hats for the show's on-air talent to wear.

The elbowing to be seen on "54321" comes as California's sportswear pioneers find themselves under attack.

Since its launch two years ago, Hollister has opened 71 stores in 33 states. Named after a stretch of coastal property north of Santa Barbara that is favored by surfers, Hollister vows to eventually place its tiki-hut-style stores across the entire country. In fact, if its plans are fully realized, the number of Hollister outlets could swell to 800 in the U.S. in the coming years, surpassing the Abercrombie & Fitch chain.

Last year, meanwhile, athletic shoe giant Nike Inc. bought Hurley International, a Costa Mesa youth-apparel brand favored by surfers.

"There's so many companies interested in this market, you've got to go above and beyond the traditional advertising channels," said Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbrook, Ill.

Companies say that to get ahead, they must make their brands more visible and find ways to expand their customer base. In part, this means reaching out to mainstream America through shows such as "54321."

"It's going to add instant credibility to our lifestyle," said Kelly Gibson, president of Irvine-based surfwear maker O'Neill Clothing. "Bringing brand awareness to the masses, that's what it's doing."

The industry's efforts in this regard aren't limited to "54321," of course.

Santa Fe Springs-based Vans, which has its own entertainment division, scored big last year with the release of "Dogtown and Z-Boys," a documentary about skateboarding's early days that featured skaters wearing its shoes. Vans financed and obtained copyrights to the movie and says it is now helping with a new film called "Lords of Dogtown."

Vans also was involved in the production of an unscripted show that is scheduled to air on the WB network in June. Jay Wilson, vice president of global marketing, said the program will feature six surfers -- three men and three women -- who stay together as they compete in a surfing championship on the North Shore of Oahu.

For its part, Quiksilver is helping to produce an unscripted show on MTV about a group of female surfers, a company spokeswoman said.

Analysts say that the industry's creative attempts to build their brands make plenty of sense -- unless they become too much of a distraction.

"I think all this is fine, as long as you don't have management focusing on it in a big way," said Jeffrey Van Sinderen of B. Riley & Co.

One area that Sinderen thinks youth-apparel makers can take advantage of is music. "Anything they can tie into music makes sense," he said. The consumers that these companies are trying to seduce are "very music aware."

With that in mind, Ocean Pacific has teamed with Fender Records to produce a CD that will feature new artists, including surfers and skateboarders who also are musicians. Vans now has its own record label. Costa Mesa-based Volcom has had one for years.

"We've seen a convergence of sports, music and fashion today more so than at any other time," said Wood of Teenage Research Unlimited. "It's not enough to be involved in skateboarding as a sport. You also want to be wearing the right clothes, listening to the right music and getting as close to the culture as you can."

That's precisely why "54321" will delve into athletes' lives, according to Gary Considine, the show's executive producer.

"You can't talk about these sports without talking about the culture that goes along with it," Considine said. "That's why it's not a stretch to say it's 'Access Hollywood' meets 'Sports Center.' "

Harrison, the Fox Sports Net executive, said that to help launch the show, Quiksilver invested "a significant amount of money." The apparel company will be credited as a producer of "54321," but Fox says it is responsible for the content and has solicited support from many other local sportswear firms.

"They sponsor the athletes, they produce and sponsor the events," Harrison said. "These companies really do, in a way, control the sport."

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