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Out Of The Wild With his made-for-TV Eco-Challenge, Mark Burnett launched the adventure-racing craze, but now he may be exiting the sport--leaving its future in doubt

May 12, 2003
May 12, 2003

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May 12, 2003

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Out Of The Wild With his made-for-TV Eco-Challenge, Mark Burnett launched the adventure-racing craze, but now he may be exiting the sport--leaving its future in doubt

Mark Burnett may revel in the great outdoors most days, but
today his corner office hard by the Santa Monica Freeway is
shuttered against the L.A. glare. As he stands behind his desk
in a black suit, crises large and small vie for his attention.
He is on the phone with his lawyer about a sticky problem on a
project in a faraway country. He has an off-site meeting in 45
minutes, about 10 minutes after TIME magazine has scheduled an
interview. He is currently working on about 10 projects he can
talk about and several others he cannot. "I have to
compartmentalize," says Burnett. "From minute to minute I can
completely shut off one thing and focus on another, and it's a
real annoyance to people around me. But if I didn't do that,
I'd be totally screwed in my job right now."

This is an article from the May 12, 2003 issue

Burnett is in everyday command mode, but something is missing:
his hat, the brown-felt Akubra that gives him a vague resemblance
to Indiana Jones--minus the coiled whip and the damsel in
distress--when he is in the field producing the Eco-Challenge and
Survivor. The hat is such a Burnett trademark that he delayed the
start of the 2001 Eco-Challenge in New Zealand when he couldn't
find it. After a long search, he gave up and showed up at the
start in a wool beanie. "Not very Mark at all," says racer Ian
Adamson.

Today the Akubra sits on a shelf in his office, as does,
metaphorically speaking, the Eco-Challenge. Earlier in the day
news came out that there would be no race in 2003, and it will be
a blow to the sport he almost single-handedly put on the map in
the U.S. Before Burnett decided to launch his own race in 1995,
after reading about the Raid Gauloises--the multisport, multiday
expeditionary endurance race created in 1989 by Frenchman Gerard
Fusil--America had never heard of adventure racing. Burnett's
Eco-Challenge, conducted in exotic corners of the globe every
year since 1995 and brought to TV audiences in dramatic
miniseries fashion by, in succession, MTV, ESPN, Discovery and
USA Network, spawned a whole sport and several ancillary
industries, from adventure-racing gear manufacturing to corporate
team-building events. Of course, it also generated Burnett's
groundbreaking Survivor and the whole tsunami of reality TV that
followed. "Survivor wouldn't be on television today if it weren't
for Eco-Challenge," says Burnett, who won one of his three Emmys
for Eco-Challenge shows.

A USA spokesperson says the cable network is waiting to evaluate
the ratings for Eco-Challenge: Fiji, which began airing Monday
and will continue through Thursday, before going forward with
another contract. Burnett, whose staff is laying groundwork for a
race in early 2004, seems eager to get his show off cable, though
he has already been beaten to the networks by Dan Barger, who has
secured a deal with CBS to air two hours of his Primal Quest
adventure race on weekend prime time late this year or in early
2004 (page A10). Or, more likely, a few people close to Burnett
whisper, he might want to get out of the event altogether. As his
bean counters remind him constantly, Eco-Challenge, an enormous
undertaking that drew an average of just 1.8 million viewers per
night, is hardly boosting Mark Burnett's financial fortunes
anymore.

"If I was really into the business of it, I would dump
Eco-Challenge," says Burnett in an accent that is a pastiche of
his native East London, Australia (where he lived for a year) and
every global outpost he has ever visited. "The reason I haven't
is that I love it. I've got the financial and legal side of my
company [Mark Burnett Productions] saying, 'Do we really need
this anymore?' The other side of the company--all the crazy
people--just wants to do it because it is great fun. And I'm in
the middle. Obviously, if I wanted to, because of my TV success,
I could push a button and get it done. I'm thinking of what is
the right thing to do. I'm just taking a pause."

Actually, what he is doing is juggling one fewer chain saw. The
Fiji event was his ninth Eco-Challenge, and he is due to start
shooting his seventh Survivor in June. He just shot a pilot for a
new WB comedy about a dysfunctional family traveling in Europe
called Are We There Yet?; he is postproducing Boarding House:
North Shore, a WB reality show that followed seven top pro
surfers during the 2002 Triple Crown of Surfing in Hawaii; he is
prepping The Apprentice, a reality show on NBC in which people
compete for the chance to earn a six-figure salary working for
mogul Donald Trump, who is his partner on the project; and he's
shooting The Restaurant, an NBC reality show that will follow
noted chef Rocco DiSpirito as he endures the hassles of opening a
new restaurant in Manhattan. Beyond that, Burnett says, he is
"attached" to two different movie projects that he declines to
elaborate on. "From June to December, I'm gone, in jungles," he
says. "I'm 42, I've been doing this for 10 years. I just need a
break."

Before Burnett entered the realm with a flock of cameramen,
adventure racing consisted primarily of two events, the Raid and
New Zealand's Southern Traverse, and it was practiced in
obscurity by a scattering of hyper-fit masochists, few of them
Americans. In launching the Eco-Challenge in Utah in 1995,
Burnett used the Raid template--his rule book was literally a
photocopy of the Raid's rules--but in putting together a show for
TV, he focused on storytelling, highlighting the pain, suffering
and bickering endured by the teams on which he trained his
cameras. Much to purists' disdain, those teams have increasingly
had a celebrity element: The Fiji series includes, among others,
teams made up of Playboy Playmates, reality-TV stars and the
family of Star Wars: Episode II actor Hayden Christensen.

As grueling and gross as the ordeal Burnett presents can be--a
competitor describing a leech crawling up his urethra in the 2000
Borneo race left an indelible impression on viewers--people have
signed up in droves to try the sport. According to Competitor
magazine, which covers endurance and adventure sports, tens of
thousands of racers competed in some 300 adventure races in the
U.S. last year, compared to zero and zero, respectively, 10 years
ago. Thanks to sponsorship driven by the Eco-Challenge and the
occasional sizable first-place purse such as the $100,000 offered
at Primal Quest, there are even a handful of racers who can make
a living, though barely, off the sport.

At the same time, the possibility that Burnett might permanently
ditch the Eco-Challenge is casting a shadow over the sport. "It
would be a major blow," says Isaac Wilson, who won the 2000 race
as a member of Team Salomon/Eco-Internet. "It would be like
bicycle racing losing the Tour de France. The sport would
survive, but it would be weakened because there are so few people
with Mark's circus-ringleader quality. He knows that what's
interesting to viewers is the team dynamic. The average schmo who
is used to office politics can relate to that. He can't relate to
a bunch of crazies running across the Sahara Desert."

As much as racers--at least those who get airtime without winning
the $50,000 first-place purse--may grumble about being unpaid
actors in Burnett's TV show, they owe him a great deal. "The
sport of adventure racing has been riding Mark's coattails for a
long time," says Bob Babbitt, the editor of Competitor. "A lot of
people get sponsors because Eco-Challenge is done by the same guy
who does Survivor, and he puts out a great product. Like any
brilliant guy, if he's involved in your industry, you want him to
do more for that industry. A lot of adventure racers look at Mark
and say, 'Create something else, create something new!'"

Those people won't be happy to hear it, but Burnett doesn't spend
a lot of time thinking about adventure racing. Indeed, he doesn't
even consider it a sport. "At least in triathlon or bike racing
or football, you can say what it is," he says. "With this, there
are three-hour races, three-day races where you sleep every
night, or weeklong races where you don't sleep at all. You can't
define this. The minute you define it and make it an Olympic
sport, is it still adventure? Adventure, by its very definition,
you don't know what to expect. It's not an adventure if you can
plan it completely, is it?"

The funny thing is, Burnett did plan the adventure that has been
his life, at least the last decade of it. The only child of
factory workers who often whisked him away from their East London
home to go hiking and camping in their native Scotland, Burnett
got the adventure bug early. He devoured adventure literature,
from Lord of the Flies to The Lord of the Rings. He skipped
college to join the elite British Army Paratroop Regiment and
travel the world. After seeing combat in the Falklands, he
emigrated to the U.S. in 1982. Within 24 hours of landing in Los
Angeles with $600 in his pocket, he had snagged a $250-a-week job
as a Beverly Hills nanny by convincing his employer that nobody
could make neater beds or provide better security than a former
British paratrooper.

Soon he was making good money selling T-shirts on Venice Beach
and, later, even better money signing people up for credit cards.
In 1991 he read an article about the Raid Gauloises and became
consumed with the idea of staging his own race in the U.S. First,
however, he thought he should experience a few Raids. He
assembled a team from his local gym, rounded up some sponsors and
then set to work attracting press coverage, persuading an L.A. TV
station to send a crew to Oman to do a one-hour special on his
first Raid. When teammate Susan Hemond-Dent had to drop out
before the 1994 Raid in Borneo, Burnett made finding her
replacement a media event he called "The Search for Miss Indiana
Jones." He invited Dateline NBC and Competitor and Competitor for
Women magazines to the beach near his Topanga Canyon house to
watch several female athletes--including future adventure racing
stars Cathy Sassin, Robyn Benincasa and Sarah O'Dell--compete in
a 48-hour tryout conducted by Navy SEALs.

A year before, after Burnett's team finished ninth in the Raid in
Madagascar, he invited freelance writer Martin Dugard to his
house for a New Year's Day visit. There Burnett revealed his
long-term goals: Eco-Challenge, then TV, then movies, with lots
of money made along the way. "His assets for Eco-Challenge were
about $2,000 at the time," says Dugard, who cowrote Survivor: The
Ultimate Game with Burnett. "Within the next five years he
planned to make $100 million or something like that. And
everything he told me came to pass."

It wasn't easy. Burnett plowed every cent he had made in credit
cards into Eco-Challenge, whose very name he had market-tested by
sending people with clipboards into malls to try it out on
shoppers. Armed with nothing but his enthusiasm and a five-minute
video of the Raid, he sold the concept to sponsors--and MTV,
which bought the TV rights that first year--with his unshakable
belief that it would work. "Eco-Challenge will always have a soft
spot in my heart, because it was my biggest risk," says Burnett.
ESPN asked him to stage another, smaller race for their 1995 X
Games soon after the first race. He hasn't seen red ink since.

An assistant knocks. Donald Trump is on the line, wanting to
discuss music for The Apprentice. Burnett jumps up and moves to
his desk. He stands behind it and has a rapid-fire discussion
about music rights. "The Beatles would be hard to clear,
obviously, with [rights holder] Michael Jackson," Burnett is
saying to Trump. "Do you know Pavarotti? Do you really? Mmm. Will
Michael Jackson return your calls?"

Burnett has regarded Trump as an inspiration ever since he read
Trump's book Trump: The Art of the Deal while selling T-shirts on
Venice Beach. But the American mogul to whom he is more often
compared is showman P.T. Barnum, who made a fortune giving the
public what it wanted. Like Barnum, Burnett seems to have
limitless powers of persuasion.

"I've seen him get people to do things I would have bet money
they would never do," says Survivor host Jeff Probst, who got a
whiff of the devotion of Burnett's crew on the first day of
filming on the first Survivor. "We were shooting on this tiny
island [in the South China Sea] that had no plumbing, so the
water surrounding the island was the toilet, the trash can,
everything," says Probst. "There were needles, there was human
excrement floating everywhere. You knew there was disease in
there. It was a bad, bad thing. Mark didn't ask anyone to go in,
he just said, 'This is what we're going to do, but I don't want
to ask you guys to get in that.... ' And before you knew it,
pish, pish, pish, the cameramen were jumping into the water. I
thought, Damn, these guys love Burnett."

There are plenty of people who feel otherwise about Burnett. Some
are jealous of his success, his power, his willingness to
compromise the purity of adventure racing to help his shows'
ratings. "People hate him like crazy," says Wilson. "Sometimes
people have expected him to be on some higher level. They would
race the Eco-Challenge and it would change them profoundly, and
they would think Mark was their David Koresh for this wacky
little religion he has created. But in fact, he's not. He's just
a guy with a vision, and really, he just wanted to make money."

Burnett has never pretended that the Eco-Challenge was not
primarily a business venture. When many top racers decided to do
Don Mann's Beast of the East race in Alaska instead of the
Eco-Challenge in Borneo three years ago, Burnett lured them back
by promising to pay expenses and airfare, an offer no underfunded
adventure athlete (which is to say, all of them) could refuse.
Mann had to cancel his race. "Mark is hard to like, but he's also
hard to dislike," says Dugard. "He has an infectious personality,
yet he's not afraid to step over people to get where he wants to
go."

Like any other successful entrepreneur, Burnett recognizes that
his business has to evolve to survive. After declaring that the
2001 race in New Zealand better resembled an off-road triathlon
than an expedition race, Burnett loaded Fiji with navigational
hurdles and problem-solving. (Competitors were, for example,
forced to build their own rafts at one checkpoint.) Only 10 of 81
teams finished. No one complained. Still, Burnett muses, "Maybe
the Eco-Challenge needs new blood."

Maybe Burnett needs a new big risk. A few years ago he had a deal
with NBC and the Russian space agency to do a show called
Destination: Mir, in which contestants would go through astronaut
training, with one getting eliminated each week. The winner would
get shot into space aboard a Soyuz rocket to visit the Mir Space
Station. Various things happened to stall the project, including
Mir's being taken out of orbit. But Burnett is still pursuing the
idea, renamed Destination: Space, financing the research with the
money he has made on other shows. "I think space is the biggest
adventure in the world, or, rather, out of the world," he says.
"It's the next thing."

It's a tantalizing concept, Burnett bringing all his maverick
promotional talents to a new kind of space race. The Search for
Miss Flash Gordon could be airing on a network before you know
it. How many of us can say we won't tune in?

COLOR PHOTO: INSET BY COREY RICH [INSIDE COVER] Mark Burnett And the Future of ECO-CHALLENGE The man who brought adventure racing to millions ponders pulling the plug on the sport's biggest eventCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ARKHAVEN GROUP [INSIDE COVER] [See caption above] ECO-MANIACS Despite its bevy of world-class athletes, the Eco never let the race get in the way of good TV. CONTENTS --The Next Big Race p. A10 --Sailing Around the World...Solo p. A16 --Vanilla Ice: Motocross Icon p. A22 --Survival by Self-Amputation p. A31 --Murphy's Law p. A40COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY COREY RICH NO PAIN, NO GAIN Burnett (left) kept the cameras rolling with a formula that involved plenty of suffering (and Playboy Playmates).COLOR PHOTO: DAN CAMPBELL [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF DANELLE FOLTA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ARKHAVEN GROUP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PORTER BINKS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF MARK BURNETT (TOP) THEN AND NOW Burnett's military past shaped his vision for the Eco and, ultimately, Survivor.COLOR PHOTO: CBS PHOTO ARCHIVE [See caption above]
"From June to December, I'm gone, in jungles," says Burnett.
"I'VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR 10 YEARS. I JUST NEED A BREAK."
"Racers thought MARK WAS THEIR DAVID KORESH for this wacky little
religion he created. But in fact, he just wanted to make money."