Mike Porra - Nitro Circus
GAMECHANGERS TALKS TO MIKE PORRA, NITRO CIRCUS CEO AND CREATIVE DIRECTOR AHEAD OF NITRO CIRCUS TOUR, THE WORLD’S BIGGEST LIVE ACTION SPORTS SHOW:
Nitro Circus is the world’s leading youth action, sports and entertainment brand. And CEO Mike Porra is aiming to make it even bigger and even better in coming years with bigger events, more daring stunts and global championships for the world’s best daredevils. We caught up with Mike to get the lowdown on Nitro Circus; its origins, the highs and lows, the thrills and spills and Mike’s plans for the future.
Mike, take us back to the start. How did this crazy journey begin and how did Nitro Circus become a worldwide brand?
Well, it was all down to Travis Pastrana. He kind of created this thing and he’s a remarkable guy. I guess it happened at his house. He invites all his friends round and things get a little crazy. One time when we were there, someone came up with the idea of a circus movie. About a year or so after that, one of the guys from Jackass put forward the idea of producing an MTV thing and it became a number one hit. That was what made Nitro Circus famous.
So how did you get involved?
I came in and offered to buy it. I wanted to create the live show. I wanted to do something to turn Nitro Circus into a theatrical spectacular. Travis and I hit it off immediately when we first met. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for so many years and have a lot of experience. When Travis and I talked, he realised that I could do it. He knew I could make Nitro Circus a global phenomenon. We did the deal pretty much straight away and we’ve been touring every continent in the world ever since. The action has been the same across borders and across languages.
What are the different audiences like around the world?
Well, young people love what we do. We get people right around the globe who love to see stuff like this. They yell and they scream, wherever we are. In Japan, we thought they might be more reserved but they just go crazy. They rip the roof off. It’s the same in China. We thought they would be quiet but they definitely weren’t. It’s been pretty much the same reaction everywhere we’ve gone. It’s been amazingly successful.
Nitro Circus is a colossal show and it costs you around $1 million USD to put on a show. You roll into towns and cities with 16 trucks of gear, 125 staff and an insurance bill that is terrifying. It seems as though you’re taking the same sort of financial risks as your riders are taking when they do their jumps.?
Well, you’re right about that. We’ve put about $60 million USD in to this over the past couple of years. It’s still a relatively niche touring company. But we want to turn it into a full blown media and entertainment company. That’s what we are. We’ve shot a 3D movie, which has done very well. We’ve launched the Nitro World Games, which will be the biggest event in the history of action sports. We’ll be streaming those live on prime time TV in the Sates, on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra. We have so many plans. What we are doing is going to be phenomenal.
How important is it for you to embrace social media now that we live in a digital age. How much easier is it for you to get your content out there and satisfy the audience?
We’re producing multiple content streams right now just to keep up. We have up to three or four different clips per day from whatever we’re doing the show. The quality of our content drives our profile. People around the world can click and watch every day. The idea is to create incredible events and to be in touch on a daily basis with our fans around the world. The things that we screen are unique. You know, we had a guy do a triple back flip through the air, it was literally a do-or-die stunt. It had more than 20 million views online. That’s the size of the audience that we’re tapping into. So we’re continually pumping out these crazy, outrageous specials.
Nitro Circus taps into our childlike love of daredevils. How difficult is it for you to continually come up with something new? It must be tough to keep on pushing until you find the edge?
Well, we’re always looking at what comes next. We have an enormous stunt in the pipeline over the next 12-18 months, for instance, which we’ll talk about in more detail soon. Then there’s the Nitro World Games. They’re going to revolutionise action sports. They’ll happen in July 2016 and will be the biggest event we’ve ever been involved in. They’re happening at Salt Lake City. We looked around the world for venues and talked to guys in Europe and China and Australia, as well as the States. In the end, Salt Lake City came back with the best bit. It made a very, very large cash contribution as well as providing a free venue. It’ll be the home of action sports worldwide. But we know that we have to keep pushing. We have to come in and completely blow everything out of the water.
Mike, Nitro Circus seems to tap into something primal in all of us. Watching riders risk their lives doing these incredible stunts is one of the most thrilling things in the world.?
You’re right. And I think it all goes back to the Gladiator days. There’s nothing any different between what we’re doing now and what they were doing then. These days there are people 30ft away from the action and there’s some guy who’s 50ft up in the air on a motorbike and if he makes one mistake he’ll land on cold metal and he’ll probably die. People know they are 30ft away from danger and that creates incredible excitement.
The crew of riders must be pretty special. Where do you find them?
Well, all the guys who are on our team are true daredevils. They’re like the kids who were at school who would be at the top of the tree jumping off for kicks. At Nitro Circus, everyone is like that. They have no fear. There’s nothing unusual about them. They’re not stupid, they’re not bad boys or rebels. They are absolutely normal. They are lovely, sweet kids who want to do something spectacular. They are polite and sign the autographs after shows. They’re cool. But the difference between them and the man in the street is that they literally have no fear. Sometimes I’ll talk to the guys and say: ‘I have this idea, it’s gonna sound crazy, but I want to talk about it’. Then they’ll look at me and say: ‘Yeah, I’ll try that, it’s not so crazy’. Everything is planned and everyone is trained.
Sure, but then if you’re constantly coming up with edgier and edgier stunts, there must be an even greater element of danger?
Well, not quite. You see, we take as much as the risk as we possibly can out of it. There’s always some risk, that goes without saying. But I won’t let anybody do a jump until they’ve done it 50 times in a row without making a mistake during a practice. The chance, then, is that they will make it when they do it in front of a crowd. But in every show we have several crashes, without a doubt. We are always going to have a crash.
The atmosphere at the Nitro Circus events is electrifying. It’s more than sport. It’s entertainment. And the guys know how to put on a show for the crowds.?
That’s right. They do because they are all showmen. They are professional athletes and supremely talented. All of them could make it in some other sport. But they like the freedom to be able to express themselves and do what they want to do. They do this sport, which is freestyling, because they can take huge risks and push themselves to the limit. They need and must have that adrenalin. For the riders, it’s all about exhilaration. If they don’t get that, they become bored and unhappy. The guys are a great mix and they’re from all over. We’ve got riders from Japan, the UK, America, New Zealand, Australia, Eastern Europe and beyond. We get great riders from all over the world.
You mentioned taking the risk out of the show and making things safe for your guys. Explain a little more, please, about how you do that.?
I’ve been doing this for 12 years and we are way, way ahead of all the best practice on this. We are required to have one team of paramedics but we have two teams plus two ambulances and a fulltime trauma doctor. Then there’s an overall lead doctor who is based in Los Angeles and checks the records of all the athletes. The guys all go to him and he tracks all their injuries. We have all the protocols in place. We are doing better than a lot of the football leagues. We’re not required to do a lot of these things, there’s no governing body, but we go above and beyond. Look, what we do is dangerous and the riders we have are great kids and we want to look after them. We can afford to put the best possible care in place. If I have a kid go down I want to know that he’s got paramedics and an expert, trauma specialist with him within three seconds of him hitting the ground. I want to know that he’ll be at a local hospital within minutes. I couldn’t live with myself without that. These kids are such great kids. You know, we stick by each other. We’re family. If your mate goes down, you don’t leave him down.
There must be incredible mateship on the road. You’re like a band of brothers, heading from city to city, or town to town. It must be like being in a band, or being in the trenches together?
It is. These kids are my friends and my family and my mates. I would give it away before letting things slip. We take precautions. We know that from time to time we’re going to get broken legs and wrists but in all my years we’ve only had one really bad injury.
Do you mind telling us what happened?
We’ve got a guy called Bruce Cook. He became the world’s first paraplegic to backflip a motorcycle. He went down in Hamilton, near Toronto, in 2014 when he was doing a double frontflip on a motorcycle. He didn’t quite get the bike around and had a hard crash that broke a veterbrae and damaged his spinal cord. It was sad, really sad. But the shining light is that he came to me a couple of months ago because he’d managed to get on his bike. You know, this is a guy who’s in a wheelchair but he can ride his bike now because it’s been specially adapted. He asked me if he could go on the road and backflip his bike. I went and saw him and he did it 20 times perfectly. Then we went on the US tour but I couldn’t let him do it. When the time came, I said no. It broke my heart. I couldn’t have lived with myself if anything else had gone wrong. I couldn’t put him on.
Bruce came to me and said if I didn’t let him do it he would have nothing to live for. He said: ‘If you don’t let me do it I’m just a guy in the wheelchair sitting around my house and I may as well kill myself’. So I gave in. And he did it and it was the most incredible thing. Three months on, he’s got a huge following. He does his jump at halftime and has all the kids jumping out of the stands. Bruce has become a phenomena. He gets more requests for interviews than Travis.
Wow, that’s a really inspirational story. It’s incredible that he came back from the brink. It shows the strength of the human spirit.
It does. It’s so tear jerking and inspirational. People see him strap himself into his bike. They know that if he crashes he goes down with the bike. And because he can’t move the bottom half of his body, it’s incredibly dangerous. There’s only a handful of guys who can back flip, let alone do it without the use of their legs. Bruce has to generate all of the movement using controls with his fingers, rather than his bodyweight. It’s extraordinary. But he does it. Everyone cheers. I cried for five minutes the first night he did it. I was so scared. I had my head down and was looking through my fingers and I couldn’t even watch. I’m a grown man but the pressure on me was unbearable. You know, I had made that guy a paraplegic. And I knew that if he rolled the bike he’d be gone, he’d be a quadriplegic. But he did it. He landed cleanly. I had my head in my hands and uncontrollably sobbed for five minutes.
You have such a cool job. You’re travelling the world. You’re giving the riders the chance to live their dreams. You’re entertaining the crowds. I imagine it gets pretty stressful, but it must be great fun too?
For me personally, I consider myself to have the best job in the world. You know, I get to see this thing every Saturday night and the shows are usually sold out for four months in advance. The people around the world really appreciate it. So, you know, I love it. I get excited about it. I’m six years into this job with Nitro and I’m just as excited about the show tomorrow as any of the other shows I’ve ever done. It’s amazing to have a job that’s so exciting and so much fun.
But if the riders are the ones getting all of their kicks from the adrenalin of jumping, how do you get your buzz?
Well, I’m an adrenalin junkie myself. I’m from a big surfing background. My risks are financial, in some ways. But I need to take those risks to feel happy and my family knows that. They let me do it because they know I won’t be happy unless I do it.
It must be a great feeling at the end of a show?
It is. The after party with all my riders is awesome. The crew and the riders all work hard and we all smash into the drinks and the shots after a show. We’re all up there dancing and the feeling is like we’ve won the Premier League. To have that kind of intense celebration where the euphoria is amazing is a real gift. To have that at my age and have that camaraderie and friendship with the riders is a blessing. It’s fun and I love it. I wouldn’t swop it for anything else on earth.