February 9, 2015

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Forty under 40

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The X Factor

Why has Utah become a Mecca for Extreme Sports Enthusiasts?

By John Coon

February 9, 2015

Being an adrenaline junkie comes naturally to Thom Hall. When a client he worked with as a financial planner sent him a video on flyboarding, Hall became an immediate fan of the sport, which essentially combines a jet pack with a surfboard to make it possible to fly along the surface of a lake or reservoir. “I was instantly mesmerized and had to go track down what this thing was and where I could go do it,” Hall says.

His quest to experience flyboarding took Hall to Florida. He found a flyboard distributor near Tampa and signed up for training on how to use it. Once Hall had the basics down, he returned to Utah with a new flyboard in hand and a business idea to go along with it.

That’s when Hall and his brother, Dave, started Rocky Mountain Flyboard, a company that rents or sells flyboards and hoverboards. Their Salt Lake City-based company is the exclusive distributor of the French-made Zapata Racing Flyboard in 10 Western states and Guam. They also rent out flyboards to use at flight centers in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii.

What started as a side business done for fun has grown into a thriving enterprise.

“I love something that is new and exciting,” Hall says. “It just sparked my imagination. I assume it is the same with other people.”

This attitude is common among Utah residents, which is one reason why the extreme sports industry is growing and thriving in the state.

Extreme Sports Hub

Utah has become a popular destination for all sorts of extreme sports. Events ranging from AMA Supercross motorcycle racing to the Dew Tour—a pro competition featuring a mix of extreme sports from skateboarding to motocross—have come to the Wasatch Front in recent years. These sporting events have drawn healthy crowds and made an economic splash.

Supercross races at Rice Eccles-Stadium from 2001 to 2004 and 2009 to 2013, for example, created more than $75 million in economic impact for the state. During the five years the summer Dew Tour had a stop in Utah, it brought in approximately $10 to $12 million each year, while the winter tour brought in around $6 million. The Dew Tour also set attendance records for both its summer and winter tour stops in Utah.

Casey McClellan, director of the Utah Summer Games, has seen firsthand the broad appeal of extreme sports. The Utah Summer Games draws approximately 10,000 athletes from around the state to Cedar City each summer. While the majority of the sports at the Utah Summer Games are traditional Olympic sports, some extreme sports have been added to the competition in recent years.

Spectators and athletes alike have welcomed the addition, and it has helped the Utah Summer Games appeal to a wider range of sponsors and fans.

“The extreme sports fit a different niche,” says McClellan. “Some of the extreme sports that you see athletes participating in across Utah—that’s a group of folks you might not get if you’re just doing a traditional volleyball tournament on a weekend.”

An Adrenaline Rush

When he takes a group out for paragliding, Jonathan Jefferies encounters people from all walks of life. A typical group can range from a heart surgeon to a college student. Some are there for a tandem ride so they can simply check paragliding off their bucket list. Others sign up for an introductory lesson and are immediately hooked. They return again and again to experience another adrenaline rush.

It has helped Jefferies, who owns and operates Utah Paragliding, conduct a thriving business. He has seen continuous growth every year since starting his business in 2007.

“Even during the big economic downtown in 2008, I wasn’t hurting for business—even though a lot of other industries were impacted and people were losing their jobs,” Jefferies says. “A lot of the people who are looking to paraglide are going to find a way to do it anyway.”

Jefferies says about 50 percent of his clientele comes from outside of Utah. Many of them are white-collar professionals looking for a new thrill while taking a break from their day jobs. Not only does his business benefit from the out-of-state attention, but other extreme sports see a similar benefit.

People who come to ski in Park City might be drawn to try out snow kiting, ice climbing or some other extreme sport before going home.

“Once you start attracting that clientele, other sports feed on each other,” Jefferies said. “I see it. A lot of people that ski in the wintertime, they’ll ski in the morning and then go paragliding in the afternoon or vice versa. There’s people here doing multiple sports. They don’t just come and do one thing.”

Social media plays an active role in building product awareness for extreme sports. The breathtaking landscape that makes Utah famous offers plenty of great spots for trying everything from paragliding to mountain biking. People who do those activities often post a video on YouTube or share a photo on a platform like Twitter or Instagram.

Once that media goes viral, the interest in doing these sports in Utah goes through the roof. Hall says word of mouth on social media is the No. 1 thing driving people to his business these days.

“We take people flyboarding and everybody posts their videos of flyboarding on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter,” Hall says. “That builds on itself. That probably has more of an impact than the X Games and other extreme sport competitions.”

Along the way, it has turned Utah into more than just a winter sports destination.

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