One year ago, Austin Benzinger, who was then working for an electric vehicle manufacturer, was cruising the aisles of a grocery store with a few friends. On the heels of a pickup basketball game, the players were looking for something hydrating—a seemingly simple quest that ended in disappointment. It was there, in the sports drink section, that Benzinger got the idea for what he describes as “an Outdoor Voices spin on a Gatorade.”
“After spending 10 minutes cruising the aisles ... two of us walked out empty-handed, two walked out with a bottle of water and one person walked out with a Gatorade,” recalls Benzinger. “Gatorade carved out a strong thirst for sports drinks,” he adds—but what are the health-conscious recreationists supposed to drink?
He and Ariel Irby (who has branding experience in consumer packaged goods) would go on to co-found Courtside, a line of effervescent coconut water–based beverages. The brand counts itself among a growing faction of “post-activity” drinks, which are the latest entrants into the nebulous functional drink space, an ever-expanding market that supplies a hydrating and nourishing beverage for every vibe, ailment and occasion.
Billed as refreshing beverages to crack open after leisurely activity with friends, the new sports drinks aren’t unlike the entrenched brands. They, too, are formulated to replenish electrolytes, those essential minerals that are vital to basic life functioning and are lost through sweat. In place of artificial sweeteners and colors, though, the challengers rely on fewer, more natural ingredients. Supa Water, a New Zealand–based line of sports drink that launched last year, uses a proprietary electrolyte blend and natural sugars found in apple juice concentrate. Sap’s, positioned as “a drink for sports & everything else” that soft-launched last October, is enhanced with coconut water powder plus a suite of adaptogens (substances thought to help the body resist and manage stress). The line of flavored drinks claims to have “five times the hydration power” of leading beverages.
“Everything that I was seeing [in the hydration space] was very heavily focused on athletes or medicine, like Pedialyte, electrolytes, et cetera,” says Sap’s CEO Jordan Wilson, who previously worked at Biolyte. “There really wasn’t a lifestyle beverage at the time that not only worked well but was good for you and had a lot of functional ingredients.”
Think of the new sports drinks as athleisure in a can; you don’t necessarily have to participate in the pickleball game to enjoy them. They don’t feature profusely sweaty pro athletes in their branding, but instead 20-somethings outfitted in activewear sets and baseball hats, playing tennis and roller skating. “This is a beverage for both the people who show up to a picnic to play Ultimate Frisbee and the people who show up to socialize,” says Benzinger of Courtside.
“Gen Z wouldn’t be caught with yoni eggs or detox tea. The sober-curious generation just wants to stay hydrated and talk about their anxiety. That’s why the new sports drinks are so effective.”
It makes sense that the alt sports drink would chart its ascent right now. During the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic, many people, confronting their own mortality, started to pay more attention to their health and well-being. Drinking water trended, while vitamin and supplement sales surged. Today, the global sports and electrolyte drink markets are booming, with market research firms projecting considerable growth over the coming years.
As a whole, the category is trending healthier. While the new sports drinks may resemble industry titans like Gatorade, BodyArmor and Powerade in function, they’re more at home alongside the adaptogenic waters and the prebiotic sodas that have begun to occupy increasing real estate and grocery stores. That said, they don’t succumb to the same level of woo-woo as many in the functional beverage space; they don’t make mystical promises to lift your mood, alleviate your anxiety or enhance your cognitive functioning.
“I’m not skeptical about these drinks at all, because they’re not promising me anything but to keep me hydrated,” says Andrea Hernández, a food and beverage trend expert who coined the name “après sport” for this category last summer in her sharp newsletter Snaxshot. She draws a careful delineation between the CBD seltzers and the après-sports drinks: The former arose during the height of wellness culture, a market driven by millennials, while the latter emerges as Zoomers attempt to redefine said culture. (The better-for-you sport drinks that debuted a few years ago, for example, are notably more Goop-esque: One brand leverages the anti-inflammatory benefits of ginger to aid in muscle recovery while another relies on turmeric.) Gen Z wouldn’t be caught with yoni eggs or detox tea—in terms of wellness, the sober-curious generation just wants to stay hydrated and talk about their anxiety.
That’s why the new sports drinks are so effective. They have distinct personalities and stakes in community-building, and often are packaged in climate-friendly cans. Crucially, though, they’re laid-back. “We wanted to lower the bar of what it takes to be engaged in movement, activity and sport of any kind and to build a brand around the nostalgic joy of seeing movement as play,” Irby says of Courtside. Savvy to the popularity of branded merch as a means of promotion, both Sap’s and Courtside sell hats and T-shirts.
Whether or not one needs an enhanced beverage after roller skating is another question entirely. “Most people who are casual exercisers do not need an electrolyte beverage,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center. Unless you’re engaging in high-intensity workouts (or you’re profoundly hungover), you probably don’t need to replenish your electrolytes with a sports drink. Water, in most cases, provides adequate hydration. “I think these are mostly unnecessary,” Hunnes says of the drinks, though she acknowledges, “if you are wanting a ready-made product, probably this is as good as any.”
To that, Beverage Girlies and Girlfriend Collective loyalty members might say, So what? If you aren’t counting exclusively on a sports drink—or any functional beverage, for that matter—to fix whatever ails you, body or spirit, you don’t have much to lose other than a five-spot. Worst-case scenario, they’ll likely do you some good. After all, the placebo effect is one of the strongest drugs out there.