X Files: All grown up, at 10
In case you haven’t already figured it out, Winter X Games X isn’t supposed to be redundant. It’s the tenth anniversary of ESPN’s little extreme brouhaha, as in the Roman numeral X. Duh.It’s hard to believe the Winter X Games is all grown up. Someone please, get me a tissue, because I’m going to cry. Because I’ve been there since the beginning, but also because it makes me feel old for being able to say that. I was working as an editor for Transworld Snowboarding magazine in 1997 and sent to cover the premier event for the magazine’s web site, http://www.twsnow.com. In the late ’90s, snowboarding had exploded, and was on a fast track from alternative to mainstream, a growth spurt the pro snowboarding community was wary of. Everyone was worried about “selling out” or becoming too structured. They wanted to keep it real, to write their own rules and be in control of their own image. At that time, the X Games felt like a consequence more than an opportunity.That first Winter X included events like super modified shovel racing and speed ice climbing, incongruous at best with snowboarding’s image. Athletes and industry folk alike were skeptical about a mainstream cable network exploiting them for youth market profit. In the end (or from the very beginning), no one could resist ESPN’s exposure. Despite the rebellious, independent cries, the bottom line is everyone simply loves to be on TV. It was the first time there had been so many cameras and jumbo TVs and live bands and spectators in one place, like a theme park with action sports heroes instead of roller coaster rides. The truth is, everyone recognized the Winter X Games were big from the start and as much as they hated to admit it, everyone wanted a piece of the action.To ESPN’s credit, when the athletes bitched and moaned about what they didn’t like about the X Games, they did their best to fix it. Sure, there were some glitches along the way, like the year all those skiers nearly killed themselves on the Skier X course at Crested Butte, or the year they tried bringing in kooky events like speed ice climbing and snow mountain biking. Sure, it’s basically a television show and all that goes with it (like course delays and bright lights and pesky camera crews) but that’s also an integral part of its success. The TV people know how to play up the drama. They know how to profile the winners, the losers, and the fallen heroes, to give them a face and a story for viewers to identify with. They know how to magnify the action, like Brian Deegan’s gruesome free fall in 2003, which is eerily reminiscent of the infamous ski jumper’s crash from the old the opening montage of ABC’s Wide World of Sports (no coincidence that ABC and ESPN are now owned by the same company).Aspen Skiing Co. marketing guru David Perry summed it up well in a recent interview about the X Games for The New York Times. “The action sports industry should get down on its hands and knees and thank ESPN for what they have done for these sports in terms of delivering them to the mainstream,” he said. Perry, who helped manifest ESPN’s seven-year contract with the Skico (the first venue ESPN committed to for longer than two years), pointed out Winter X will be broadcast live on ABC in the slot typically reserved for Monday Night Football during the one week the NFL has off between the playoffs and the Super Bowl. “Just think of all those football fans who will be tuning into the X Games. The reach is amazing,” he said.What’s been amazing is seeing it grow from a quasi-Mountain Dew commercial into a bona fide contest – a celebration even-of these sports, their athletes and even better, the lifestyle in general. There are the sheer numbers: the spectators, competitors, viewers, and sponsor dollars. But there’s also the hype the event brings, and the reality that it will continue to grow even bigger in the future.If one thing about the Winter X Games is clear, it’s that these tricks aren’t just for kids anymore.
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