Lessons from Aggressive Inline Skating
The quick rise and even quicker fall of the aggressive inline skating movement sparks insight into how today’s brands live and die by their ability to differentiate what they offer, unite behind a vision and bring that vision to life through a clear ambassador.
Justin Kohut, Analyst, Strategy & Insights
It's 1996, and Arlo Eisenberg, one of the biggest aggressive inline skating figures at the time, is about to drop into “the pipe” at the Summer Extreme Games in Rhode Island. He drops in and wows the audience with flips, twists and “big air.” His stunning performance draws a standing ovation from the crowd. Ten years later, his performance is a mere memory, as ESPN has removed aggressive inline skating from the X Games.
Aggressive inline skating (also known as “blading”) was founded and cultivated by many of the competitors at the Extreme Games (later renamed the X Games) during the 1990s. People like Chris Edwards and Arlo Eisenberg took the idea of inline skating (designed and developed by two Minnesota hockey players) to a whole new level. Launching off ramps, sliding down rails and dropping down steep quarter pipes were all part of aggressive inline skating. The sport's popularity coincided with a cultural movement toward extreme sports, culminating in ESPN's creation of the Extreme Games in 1995.
The extreme sports movement is constantly evolving. This, coupled with the decline in popularity of inline skating in general (usage dropped nearly 50% between 2000 and 2008, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association), spelled disaster for aggressive inline skating. Skateboarding, BMX and Motocross have had much longer and more storied histories. Aggressive inline skating was the new kid on the block who suddenly didn't fit in.
A recent article in ONE magazine (an aggressive inline skating magazine) claimed that aggressive inline skating is poised for “breakout,” but all evidence suggests otherwise. Aggressive inline skating didn't significantly differentiate itself from the other extreme sports of the time – its methods and tricks, while unique in the eyes of fellow bladers, weren't to the general public. The participants in aggressive inline skating also never followed a strong direction, leading to the sport's lack of advancement. Finally, aggressive inline skating never had (and to this day still doesn't have) a true Tony Hawk or Shaun White to represent the sport. While the picture seems bleak, aggressive inline skating does have potential, but this can only be unlocked by a standing ovation–worthy effort by a new class of giants in the sport who could get the world excited about blading once again.
Implications and Action Items
The story of aggressive inline skating presents many parallels to brands in the marketplace – how fast they can rise, and how they can fall even faster.
- Differentiation: Aggressive inline skating never led the conversation. The result was a sport that wasn't different enough from other extreme sports to merit continued attention.
- Great brands always find a way to innovate and be different. Nike has been a remarkable innovator in shoe technology and emotion behind what they make. The feeling of achieving, whether in sport or style, is special in a pair of Nikes.
- United vision: The participants in aggressive inline skating never established a united vision for their sport.
- Great brands clearly state their vision in everything they do. The NFL has established a clear vision that participants and spectators connect to throughout their lives.
- A strong ambassador: Aggressive inline skating didn't have a clear or strong ambassador. The result was a sport without a figure for participants and spectators to rally behind.
- Great brands recognize champions of their vision. For Subway, it was Jared's inspiring weight-loss story that solidified the restaurant's position as a place for healthy alternatives to fast food.