ESPN sells majority stake of X Games to global firm; new CEO talks about future
More than two decades in, X Games is set for a makeover. How substantial of one is still to be determined.
On Wednesday, it was announced that ESPN — which created the franchise, first held in 1995 — had sold its majority stake to MSP Sports Capital. ESPN will maintain a minority position and continue to broadcast the events, but the day-to-day operational control of both the summer and winter contests is now in new hands.
“There is so much excitement around the X Games brand and I think everyone is just like, ‘Hell yeah.’ And I think that’s really exciting,” said new X Games CEO Steven Flisler in a phone interview with The Aspen Times on Wednesday. “It’s intimidating and overwhelming in a wonderful way, because there is so much opportunity and everyone has got a great experience of X Games and this imagery in their head.”
How much MSP paid for its majority stake wasn’t released. The global private equity firm, founded by Jeff Moorad and Jahm Najafi, has a portfolio that also includes investments in McLaren Racing Limited and four European soccer franchises.
The next X Games event — and the first with MSP Sports Capital — will be X Games Aspen from Jan. 27-29 at Buttermilk Ski Area. Aspen has been the host of the primary winter contest since 2002 and is under contract with the city and Aspen Skiing Co. to keep it there through at least 2024.
Flisler couldn’t commit to the event staying long term at Buttermilk, but did make it sound like that would be the desire of the new ownership.
“Like a lot of things, we have a plan to have a plan. We are talking amongst the team and I think it’s important to indicate Aspen has kind of been the nucleus of the Winter Games for 20 years,” Flisler said. “That is incredible. For me, the further you look back at the history of a brand like X Games and really the home being Aspen, the better you can shape the future. I’ve been to Aspen many times. It’s actually where I learned how to ski in the mountains there back in college. So it’s near and dear to my heart.”
Flisler recently served as the vice president of original content at the streaming service Twitch and executive producer of Twitch Rivals since 2018. Prior to that, he held numerous leadership positions at NBCUniversal. He is based in California.
He said the core staff that helped make X Games go in the past has come on board with the change and will again be working the Aspen event this winter. While less than three months away, Flisler said the team is brainstorming ways to make the most out of X Games Aspen 2023 despite a limited window to prepare.
“They’ve been hard at work building this and working with a lot of the top partners and vendors that we have. They are up and running,” Flisler said. “In rapid order, we are going to try and do maybe a year’s worth of planning in maybe three months.”
X Games began as a quirky event, then dubbed the “Extreme Games,” in the summer of 1995 in Rhode Island. Contests included sky surfing and street luging, among other oddities, as well as staples of today, like skateboarding.
The first Winter X Games was held at Snow Summit Mountain Resort in California in 1997, a year before snowboarding made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Games. Crested Butte then hosted Winter X Games in 1998 and 1999 before moving to Mount Snow, Vermont, for 2000 and 2001.
Then, in 2002, it moved to Aspen, where it has remained ever since. In 2021, Winter X Games celebrated its 20th anniversary at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Over its more than two decades of existence, X Games has become the premier contest for the “extreme” athletes and helped launched the stardom for names like Tony Hawk and Shaun White, among others. Hawk, one of the greatest skateboarders of all time, has joined the new investment group as a brand steward, with Flisler hinting that he is likely to join the broadcast team. He also hinted that other famed X Games athletes would likely have some sort of seat at the table when it came to the franchise’s makeover.
“I can’t wait to just sit down with the team and also some of the GOATS, like Tony and a lot of the other athletes that I think are all really thrilled, and kind of prioritize the best ideas,” Flisler said. “I’m a storyteller at heart and X Games has really been characterized by the most remarkable athletes competing at the highest level of competition, as I’ve heard from so many of the athletes, under the lights.”
Much like ESPN in recent years, Flisler stressed that first among their priorities would be telling the athletes’ stories across as many platforms as they can. While ESPN will continue to broadcast the event, there is latitude for additional streaming and digital content that may have not been used in the past.
“The second thing is to really position the brand to grow more,” Flisler said. “There is obviously two wonderful tent pole events with summer and winter. A lot of the objective for us will be how do we grow this? How do we build up more local and regional events, stateside and across the world, where we can be intimate, where we can get local communities together?”
Flisler expects to have many additional members of the new team in Aspen sometime in November to help work toward January’s competition at Buttermilk.
While new restaurants enter the Aspen scene, there are several spaces that will remain empty this winter. Meanwhile, the retail market remains extremely hot.