Thursday, January 22, 2004 Updated: May 14, 5:42 PM ET
Business as (un)usual
By Darren Rovell ESPN.com
Four years ago, snowboarding brothers Danny and Matt Kass were on the ski slopes of Colorado, when the two started discussing the number of companies that had recently entered into the action sports business in quest of a piece of the ever-growing cash cow.
Olympic silver medalist Danny Kass has finally struck gold as an extreme sports entrepeneur.
The two wanted in.
But unlike almost every other entrant in the marketplace, the Kass brothers didn't want to create another money-hungry company. They wanted to build one that prides itself on being anti-corporate.
Inspired to carve a niche in the market, Danny, who at the time was snowboarding with two different gloves on his hands, suggested that the two make gloves for snowboarders.
Soon, they launched Grenade Gloves, a burgeoning extreme sports outfitter that hit the market without all the glitzy marketing strategy that has become so common today. With little more investment than buying a table at an annual snow sports trade show in Las Vegas and offering only a catalogue for consumers to peruse, they began selling their gloves with a grassroots strategy of word of mouth.
Thanks in part to the brothers' care-free attitude so respected in today's action sports market, they sold more than 6,500 pairs of Grenade Gloves, without a single physical sample on hand.
"It was like a perfect Seinfeld episode," said Peter Carlisle, an agent who secures endorsements for Danny, a silver medalist at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics two years ago. "They had a brand before they had any product."
The action sports market is big business. Large events like X Games IX in August and Gravity Games V in September attracted 187,000 and 162,000 spectators, respectively, and draw a growing television audience. NBC has since broken off from the Gravity Games and could have their own events in the near future.
Winter X VIII, which will be shown live on ABC and ESPN from Saturday through Tuesday, has attracted blue-chip sponsors like Jeep, Taco Bell and Right Guard. And top-of-the-line snowboarders like Kass can make $500,000 alone by wearing boots made by VANS and wearing Quiksilver clothes.
"Events like the X Games increase the participation in the sport, which has resulted in a dramatic increase in companies wanting their athletes to endorse their brands," said Bob Klein, an agent who also represents Danny Kass.
Despite the competitive environment, the Kass brothers didn't have any problem attracting attention for their small company, despite the fact it did not have a marketing budget.
It all started when two friends of the Kasses made a stencil of their Grenade logo.
"After that, it was all over," Danny says.
They used a guerilla marketing campaign that had friends, some dressed in helmets and fatigues, tagging anything in site with the company's logo. That included unsuspecting people, including an NBC cameraman on hand for the 2001 Grand Prix in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
Last year, the brothers did something that Madison Avenue marketers only dream about. They included a stencil of the Grenade logo with every pair of gloves. Soon the company's brash, young customers became brand messengers by spraying its logo everywhere.
Grenade took it a step further by launching a contest for the most creative use of the stencil. The winner was a kid who tagged Vernon Township High, the school the brothers attended.
"It was pretty crazy," Danny says.
"Credibility is all that matters in this space, but it's brutally hard to get it," Carlisle said. "Getting credibility is all about the approach, the image and the product."
Aside from the way the company has gone about their business, credibility isn't a problem with Danny, who is clearly one of the hottest athletes in snowboarding. The 21-year-old followed up his Super Pipe championship at the 2001 X Games with a silver medal in the Half Pipe at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"My success may have created a bit more of a frenzy," Danny says understatedly.
The Olympics provided a challenge for Grenade's guerrilla marketers. A background check of Matt was ordered after a guard saw the Grenade logo on his jacket. Wanting to play it safe, Danny bought 10 tickets for his friends, who attracted attention by carrying around inflatable dolls.
Grenade lovers could become easily frustrated. Although the company's Web site, www.grenadegloves.com, shows full color pictures of the army green gloves, T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, these items can't be purchased online and pictures of new items such as grip tape, goggles and socks aren't yet available. There are about 300 dealers that sell their products across the country, with almost 100 shops in California alone.
"We get letters all the time," Danny says. "I live here and there isn't a shop close to me ..."
Nonetheless, Grenade is doing quite well. Though being labeled a success might hurt their brand, the company reportedly has sold more than $1 million in product. But don't expect it to beef up production. Unlike most companies that seek to cash in on their popularity, the Kass brothers say they make sure there's never enough product to satisfy the market. As a result, "you'll never see our stuff on sale," Matt says.
It's hard to take them seriously since they don't take themselves seriously.
When asked how many people work for Grenade, Matt replies, "between six and 600." Listed on the Grenade team list on its Web site is actor Patrick Swayze, whose movie posters team members are often targeted for the Grenade logos.
Another powerful marketing tool are the videos that Grenade produces. Snowboarders in films such as "Night of the Living Shred," "Holy Shift," and "Full Metal Edges" appear in Grenade gloves and apparel.
As for the X Games, the Kass brothers insist they do not have specific plans to vault Grenade into the spotlight during one of the sport's most high-profile events.
But it's hard to trust them.
Says Danny: "It just might get crazy out there."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org