Monday, January 27, 2003

Fox's '54321' hopes to lure X-fans

Fox Sports Net is going to extremes to attract young viewers who like skateboarding, snowboarding and BMX biking. But here's my question: Will kids hop off their skateboards, snowboards and bikes long enough to watch?

Starting today, Fox devotes a half-hour weekday show called 54321 (5 p.m.) to the five major extreme sports. Think of it as Sports-

Center for snowboarding, skateboarding, BMX, motocross and surfing.

"This is the first show that treats these sports as real sports, with real athletes," says Tracy Dolgin, Fox Sports Net president.

54321 is aimed specifically at the 12-24 age group, about 77 million Americans who care more about individual extreme sports than baseball, football, basketball and other traditional team sports, according to Fox Sports research.

In other words, all those kids playing Tony Hawk video games, or snowboarding down Tristate hills last week.

Yet extreme sports are not routinely covered in newspapers, radio, SportsCenter or Sports Illustrated.

"It should be (covered), and this generation is going to demand that it is," Mr. Dolgin says. "It's the future. And the future happens to be here now."

Not just another pretty face

Leeann Tweeden, a regular contributor to the Best Damn Sports Show Period, will co-host 54321 with Kip Williamson, an announcer for NBC Sports' Gravity Games, and surfer Chad Towersey.

Ms. Tweeden, 29, a former Victoria's Secret lingerie model, isn't just another pretty TV face. She grew up in a BMX racing family and has spent her free time snowboarding, skydiving, go-karting, hiking and riding dirt bikes.

"I just bought a truck because I needed to fit my snowboarding bag in, and my golf clubs, and my dirt bike gear," says the Virginia native. "I'm not just a pretty face. . . I actively participate."

54321 analysts include X Games champion moto-rider Brian Deegan, two-time Olympic snowboarder Shannon Dunn and former skateboard champion Mike Vallely.

They will help Fox Sports Net profile athletes, comment on their game and explore their lifestyles.

"No sport has the lifestyle so integral to the actual sports as these do, where the music, and the video games, and the movies are so much a major part of what makes these sports so much fun to be around. And that's the overriding aspect of our show - fun," says 54321 executive producer Gary Considine, a former producer for The Tonight Show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien and Access Hollywood.

A first step for Fox

54321 is the first step toward reaching young athletes by Fox Sports Net, which can be seen in 82 million homes through 21 regional sports channels. Fox will launch an around-the-clock extreme sports cable channel later this year, Mr. Considine says.

While some have questioned whether skateboarders and surfer dudes are athletes, Mr. Vallely says he never considered skateboarding a sport.

"I looked at it more as an art form, or a way of living my life," he says.

He's not surprised by the increasing popularity of extreme sports.

"These sports are just growing up. ... It's just the natural progression of these kinds of things," Mr. Vallely says.

Skateboarding has become popular because it doesn't take a lot of money, people or space.

"You can do it anywhere," Ms. Tweeden says. "You can do it off your curb. You don't need 12 other teammates. ... You don't need a team. You don't need a coach."

Ms. Dunn, who won a bronze medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics, says it's time for extreme sports to be recognized by a daily show. She has seen the explosion in her sport.

"I see more girls hitting the water (surfing), hitting the mountain, than I see cheerleading or anything like that, or gymnastics," says Ms. Dunn, who participated in volleyball, gymnastics and basketball as a child.

"It's just a different generation," she says. "It's not a novelty any more. Obviously, these sports are here to stay."

The 54321 gang just hopes that kids aren't having too much fun skateboarding or biking - and forget to see the new TV show.

"We want the kids to get out(side) after school," Ms. Tweeden says. "But we want to make sure that they're (home) by 5 p.m. to watch our show."


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