Parkour and freerunning, the incredibly athletic urban speed gymnastics sports, are perhaps 15 years old. They are individualistic, grassroots and often non-competitive. But they are unquestionably awesome to watch. And so YouTube has actually done a lot for parkour — introducing the world to the sport, sending many jaw-dropping clips viral and recruiting many more people to think creatively about how they navigate their own environments. (Note: Parkour is at core about efficiency, while freerunning is a more recent acrobatic offshoot; we’ll primarily use the older term for this story.)
We can’t exactly give parkour credit for YouTube’s success, though it’s true that parkour videos have been hits on the site since its inception. While YouTube may have provided a perfect global platform for parkour, it doesn’t offer the tools to connect and unite athletes and true enthusiasts. And so an organization called the World Freerunning and Parkour Federation was formed two years ago, and launched a parkour-focused online social network this year. To be sure, the WFPF is not the only parkour group, and it was (cardinal sin!) founded by non-athletes — but it has significant appeal: Parkour and freerunning stars such as Daniel Ilabaca and Ryan Doyle have signed on, and the company has a deal with MTV to air a one-hour parkour competition and maybe more.
WFPF CEO Victor Bevine said in an interview this week that his company can bring together parkour athletes because it is not taking sides in contentious debates about whether the sport should have competitions and which definitions should stick. “In a way, the fact that we were not involved has been an advantage,” Bevine said, and he added, “We’re certainly jumping on more park benches then we used to.”
The WFPF plans to make money through a combination of athlete management, live events (in the U.S. for now), sponsorships and TV productions. And no matter how much of a purist you are, everybody wants to be on TV! WFPF has created a one-hour special called Ultimate Parkour Challenge that is set to air this fall as part of MTV’s “Guy Block.” The show — produced by Emmy Award-winning producer Francis Lyons of MTV’s Made — pits eight top parkour and freerunning athletes against each other (so it does seem like WFPF is to some extent taking sides about competition in the sport). If the show does well, a series could result.
As for the WFPF web site, it doesn’t seem to have carried over the immense enthusiasm for parkour from YouTube. To be sure, it’s very difficult to start a new social network from scratch — a similar dance-focused project, MC Hammer’s DanceJam, hasn’t taken off either. Further, the WFPF site, built by Grossman Interactive of Roslyn, N.Y., is not particularly sleek or easy to navigate. It has just about 1,000 members so far, three months after launch. Top-ranked videos on the site appear to have less than 1,000 views each.
Asked about the difficulty of transferring a broader audience to such a specific venue, WFPF co-founder David Thompson replied, “We’re not really trying to compete with YouTube. There are how many thousands of parkour videos on YouTube — a lot of them never get seen.” And so back at YouTube, the WFPF has a channel of its own.
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.