ESPN X Games: Commercialized Extreme Sports for the Masses Paul M. Pedersen & Matthew L. Kelly The Florida State UniversityABSTRACTFor years, extreme sports had little to nothing in common with each other except for high risk, and an appeal to women and men from the ages of 12 to 34. Entertainment Sports Programming Network (ESPN), realizing this age group was a prime viewing audience, brought together several extreme sports and created yet another commercialized sporting spectacle. Since 1995, this television network has produced the Summer X Games. After these summer productions proved to be successful television and live spectator events, ESPN expanded into the winter extreme sports.
The Winter X Games have been produced since 1997. This paper, which commences with the rise of extreme sports, is an historical and sociological analysis of the creation and growth of the ESPN X Games. While these commercialized adventure and extreme sporting events have had some obvious growing pains, both the Summer and Winter X Games have grown into events which annually attract thousands of spectators and viewers while offering fame and a few dollars to their participants. INTRODUCTION One need only take a quick glance at the daily news to discover that society in general is still in a state of constant change (Leonard, 1993).
In the United States, this is especially true as the baby boomers begin to age and the new generation comes of age. In particular, social scientists define the emerging generation of youth, which has been labeled the X Generation, as extremists who at times defy both logic and protocol (Terraza’s, 1998).
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Popular culture is a reflection of these attitudes, from the music of Marilyn Manson to the newly released video, There’s Something about Mary. Furthermore, this new generation, and its followers – Generation Y (or Generation Next), supports the postulation that sport is a microcosm of a incessantly changing society. The X Generation, considered by some as less mainstream than preceding generations of youth, has been swept away with a relatively new type of non-traditional sporting activity that is referred to as ‘extreme sports’ (Reitman, 1999).
This is a high thrills, dare devil, real life sporting activity for enthusiasts who are willing to go to the ‘edge’ of athletic participation and sometimes beyond. The creation and evolution of the X Games were a carefully orchestrated chain of events.
The purpose of this paper is to highlight the conditions involved in the formation and growth of the X Games. The major factors that have contributed to the biannual successes of the X Games have been the close connection of ESPN with the X Games, the involvement of corporate sponsorship, and the site choices and intense bidding by cities to serve as host sites. This article includes both key factor analyses and a historiographic examination of this extreme sporting phenomenon. HISTORICAL CLIMATE The Summer and Winter ESPN X Games are a commercialization of these extreme sports. With the X Games, ‘ESPN had assessed what it took to be the…
in-your-face persona of Generation X and assembled a scaffolding of ‘events’ that made it all marketable’ (White, 1997) 1. As one journalist noted, ‘the X Games present a sporting event for a post-punk audience raised on MTV and moshing… This wide world of sports represents a complete inversion of the old order in which team sports and team ideals were the standards that jocks lived by’ (Maurstad, 1998).
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The X Games, the originator of which was the Director of Programming at ESPN 2 Ron Se miao, are not the only alternative sports that have survived recently as a commercialized endeavor. Other similar adventure activities have increased in popularity. They have taken a variety of forms such as vacations known as the ‘thrill seeker,’ the ‘whiz’s ports in France, and ‘panic’s ports (Rinehart, 1998).
Therefore, extreme sports and the X Games are the newest phenomenon in an already existing and ever-expanding alternative sports genre. The term ‘extreme sports’ was coined around the early 1990’s on the West Coast of the United States (Booker, 1998).
Something that is extreme, according to Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (1993), is defined as ‘going to great or exaggerated lengths; exceeding the ordinary, usual, or expected’ (p. 332).
Extreme was used in the context of sports to describe any sporting activity that was taken to the edge.
According to Booker (1998), extreme sports are ‘far beyond the bounds of moderation; exceeding what is considered reasonable; radical’ (p. 20).
Yet another applicable definition is, ‘situated at the farthest limit; outermost’ (Booker, 1998, p. 23).
The term ‘extreme sport’ describes a variety of sporting activities that have almost nothing in common except for high risk and an appeal to men and women from the ages of 12-to-34.
This age group is a prime viewing audience for television and a prime target for most advertisers (Pitts & Stotlar, 1996).
It must be remembered that commercialism is an integral aspect of the X Games (‘For love or money,’ 1995).
Entertainment, on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster’s (1993) as ‘something diverting or engaging such as a public performance’ (p. 313).
The combination of extreme sports and the X Games provides the perfect illustration of what it means to be extreme and to entertain. Through the production of the ESPN X Games, extreme sports, which consist of death defying trickery, have caught the attention of television viewers, spectators, and the general public (Reitman, 1999).
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To state it in its simplest form, the X Games are commercialized extreme entertainment. CREATION OF THE ESPN X GAMESThe X Games were created in 1995 by the Entertainment Sports Broadcasting Network (ESPN).
The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) which is owned by the Walt Disney Group owns this television network. The X Games were created to provide a new high thrills, cutting edge, and dangerous sporting activity for both on-site spectators, television viewers, and participants (Booker, 1998).
The primary objective in the creation of this event was for profit (and entertainment) in the form of sponsorship and endorsement. These occur for non-sport and sport-related activities, goods, services, and merchandise.
The targeted age group (12-to-34 year olds) of extreme sport participants and observers is ideal for the marketing of a myriad of products such as clothing, soft drinks, automobiles, and credit cards (White, 1997).
According to Youngblut (1998), the demographics of the viewers, spectators, and participants were and continue to be an easy sell to sponsors and advertisers who helped finance the X Games. ESPN offers two types of sponsorships for the X Games: gold and associate. Gold sponsors finance the majority of the events, including the giving away of cash prizes (nearly $1 million at the Summer X Games in 1999) to the winners.
These sponsors have exclusive rights to advertisements during the X Games with their products being placed throughout the venue for the sporting event (Youngblut, 1998).
Furthermore, the gold sponsors use the television, radio, and Internet to advertise their products to the listening and viewing audiences. The X Games commercials and advertisements are found in both print and electronic media. In the 1999 Summer X Games, Pontiac, Chevy, Mountain Dew, Taco Bell, AT&T, Adidas, Snickers, and Starburst were the gold sponsors. All of these companies were repeat sponsors, a fact ESPN officials point to with obvious pride (‘X Games Fact Sheet,’ 1996).
A main reason why these companies continue to support the X Games is because of increased brand awareness and sales as a result of the marketing of their products through the X Games (‘Got Milk? ,’ 1999).
Associate sponsors finance specific events such as skateboarding or in-line skating. Unlike gold sponsors, associate sponsors are not involved in the awarding of prize money. As a result, they are allowed to sponsor specific venues with advertisements limited to only at the particular venue with which they are associated. This results in limited exposure, which in turn leads to limited brand awareness and limited sales (Pitts & Stotlar, 1996).
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Like their counterparts, however, associate sponsors also advertise through the television, radio, and the Internet. The 1999 associate sponsors of the X Games, most of whom are repeat sponsors, were Visa, Lee Dungarees, Heineken, Sony, Disney, Speed Stick, Got Milk? , the U. S. Marine Corps, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (‘Got Milk? ,’ 1999).
According to Chris Fowler (1998), host of the X Games since their inception, ‘Do the X Games represent sports in a pure form? Nope… There’s plenty of politics and controversy.
Some showboating to seduce sponsors, who too often rule the day. But it’s worth it’ (p. 250).
While sponsorship supports the X Games, it can also have a negative impact. Rinehart (1998) stated that, ‘With incorporation (and corporate support) comes responsibility. ESPN is gradually, piece by piece, bringing these ‘outlaw’s ports and some of their participants into line with mainstream values’ (p.
Despite the drawbacks, there are two avenues through which sponsorships have worked wonders for the X Games. First, they have helped to establish and promote the events. Second, they have provided additional sources of revenue for the participants.
In addition to television and site sponsorship, many of the male participants have sponsorship deals with sponsoring companies (White, 1997).
However, while sponsors pay many male participants to advertise their products, the same cannot be said for the female athletes. As one female participant said, at the X Games, ‘we paid our dues like the men, but we still didn’t get the prize money we were promised, nor the primetime coverage… if we had worn skimpy clothes, something a little sexier… would we have been televised? Probably’ (Dennis-Vano, 1995, p.
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Therefore, just as in the mainstream sports, through the inequality of opportunity, sponsorship, and media coverage, the sanctioning of gender differences by corporations can be found and reproduced in the newly established X Games (Rinehart, 1998).
EXTREME SPORTS OF THE SUMMER X GAMESThe Summer and Winter X Games are the two major events held by ESPN each year. While the Winter X Games have taken place every January since 1997, the Summer X Games have been held every June or July since 1995.
Most of the extreme sports involved in these events evolved from existing or established sports. For example, street luge developed as an offspring of skating, skateboarding, and cart racing. Sky surfing developed as a stepchild of sky diving and snow boarding. Sport climbing developed as a result of mountain climbing (Stanley, 1999).
There were nine main sporting events in the 1999 Summer X Games.
These extreme sports consisted of aggressive in-line skating, bicycle stunt riding, freestyle Moto-X (new in 1999), skateboarding, sky surfing, snowboarding, sport climbing, street luge racing, and wake boarding. The most popular Summer X Games sport is skateboarding (Gasperini, 1998).
This sport, which was developed as an offspring of skating, was one of the original underground sports. Originally, people would casually skateboard in driveways or down their own streets. Skateboarding has increased in popularity thanks to corporate sponsorship and the mass media (Maurstad, 1998).
As a result, new skateboarding parks have been built all around the country to encourage this activity. One reason skateboarding has been embraced by the X Generation is that the costs to participate in this activity are lower than most of the participation costs in the other extreme sports. Furthermore, skateboarders have the unique opportunity to practice both individually and within the confines of their own driveways (Bragg, 1999).
In the X Games competition, skateboarders leap, jump, and grind over the obstacle-filled street course while performing tricks. In the Summer X Games of 1998, the top finishers in the skateboarding competition divided a purse of $41, 800 among themselves (Berke y, 1998).
Aggressive in-line skating is another similarly popular Summer X Games activity. This sport is a hybrid of roller-skating, with the wheels of the skates being placed in the center of the skating shoe. Because participants of this sport many times attempt hair-raising stunts, an amateur skating circuit, the Aggressive Skaters Association (ASA), was developed to discourage and prevent young and inexperienced skaters from attempting to perform dangerous stunts (‘Aggressive in-line skating update,’ 1997).
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The ASA, which also has increased enthusiasm and competition among young skaters, is the governing body of the in-line skating community. This sport has exploded since its 1980 discovery and has grown 634% since 1987 (Schutz, 1998).
It is estimated that more than 22.
5 million Americans participate in in-line skating (Schutz, 1998).
After two years of men’s in-line skating, ESPN finally introduced women’s in-line competition at the Summer X Games of 1997. In this event, $57, 000 was distributed among the aggressive men’s and women’s in-line skating champions (‘Aggressive in line skating update,’ 1997).
Yet another thrilling sport of the Summer X Games is the bicycle stunt racing. This sport traces its roots back to the days of BMX racing in the early 1980’s (Booker, 1998).
The X Games offers four competitions in this sport.
These include the half-pipe, street, dirt jumping, and flatland. Combining style and creativity into their routine, riders maneuver through various obstacles and courses in the competitions (Youngblut, 1998).
Street luge racing is considered the most dangerous of all the Summer X Games events (‘Aggro skate,’ 1999).
Participants lie on their backs two or three inches off the ground and hurtle down steep mountain roads in excess of 70 miles per hour. To discourage inexperienced riders from participating in this sport, three organizations have been created and govern the sport itself. The organizations are: Extreme Downhill International (EDI), International Gravity Sports Association (IGS A), and the National Street Luge Association (NSLA) (‘NSLA,’ 1999).
The street luge events include dual luge pilots racing against each other, luge-four pilots racing against each other, and mass-six pilots racing against each other (Youngblut, 1998).
EXTREME SPORTS OF THE WINTER X GAMES Snowboarding is offered as both a Winter and Summer X Games event. This sport is a hybrid of surfing and skiing. The objective for this event is for the participant to perform intense, heart-pounding tricks on a snowboard, while moving down a steep mountain or artificial slope.
Participants are usually allowed up to one minute to perform their routine. Judges rate participants on the degree of difficulty within their routines. Typically, the judges are ex-participants of this event who performed such gravity defying performances a decade earlier, before extreme sports received the publicity that they have now (Bragg, 1998).
snow mountain biking is another popular Winter X Games activity.
This sport is an off season hybrid of mountain biking. Participants ride their bikes through a rough and rugged snow packed downhill course and are judged on how fast they can maneuver through the tumultuous course. This sport, like many of the other extreme sports, is becoming increasingly technologically advanced and expensive (Youngblut, 1998).
The Union Cyclist International (UCI) is the official governing body of snow mountain biking.
This board sets the regulations for the sport and is responsible for enhancing public awareness for mountain biking clubs and events worldwide. Lastly, the extremely entertaining Winter X Games sport of free skiing is similar to regular downhill skiing. However, the biggest difference is that the participants perform tricks during their routines. Skiers participate in downhill slalom and giant slalom courses performing various routines.
Judges grade the participants on time, skiing trickery, and the degree of difficulty of the routine. Today, free skiers use either the traditional skis or the super-side cuts skis. Super-side cut skis are shaped like an hourglass and allow more cutting surface to carve through snow. Traditional skis do not bend as easily as the super cuts and require a greater amount of force to maneuver them. SITES OF THE SUMMER X GAMESThe X Games made their debut in Rhode Island in the Summer of 1995.
According to Chris Fowler (1998), host of the X Games, ‘television coverage began in Rhode Island back in 1995 with a confession: we weren’t sure what to expect… But once the ’95 Games began, we realized we were on to something… the kind of good, clean fun that makes compelling TV’ (p. 250).
This inaugural made-for-television extravaganza included competitions in such sports as skateboarding, bungee jumping, in-line skating, sky surfing, and mountain biking. Within these sports were subdivisions which emphasized different terrain, aptitudes, and tricks. The highest cash purse for an event in 1995 was $20, 000 in the field of sky surfing (Tyrrell, 1996).
While Newport, Rhode Island, served as the base of operations for the inaugural X Games, other cities within the state (Providence and Middletown) hosted some events. It was estimated that over 300 athletes participated in the events and over 130, 000 spectators were in attendance (Tyrrell, 1996).
Advil served as the official pain reliever.
In addition, ESPN sold six gold-level sponsors for the inaugural event (Miller Lite Ice, Taco Bell, Mountain Dew, Nike, AT&T, and General Motors).
The ESPN X Games actually debuted in 1995 as the Extreme Games. After the conclusion of the inaugural event, however, ESPN changed the name from the Extreme Games to its present title, the X Games. Assistant director of marketing for the X Games Amy Cacciola said that one of the reasons for the change was that the word ‘extreme’ had become ‘completely overused.
(Therefore, ESPN) felt that X has a mystique to it’ (Rinehart, 1998, p. 400).
In addition to the overused word, ‘extreme,’ the letter X was tied to the target audience of the X Games, Generation X. Furthermore, there were marketing and licensing conflicts involved with ESPN’s use of the word extreme.
Rinehart (1998), who claimed that the primary motivator for the name change was economics, added that the seemingly arbitrary, ‘name change signifies the power and control that ESPN’ was beginning to exert over the event (p. 400).
The main site of the newly named ESPN X Games was, once again, Newport, Rhode Island. The 1996 X Games gathered over 350 alternative sports athletes who participated in the seven-day competition at multiple venues throughout the state. According to the X Games Fact Sheet (1996), athletes who were involved with the second annual exhibition competed in front of 200, 000 spectators for more than $300, 000 in prize money in nine sports categories. The ratings for this event indicated that an average of nearly 700, 000 households tuned in to each telecast.
ESPN and ESPN 2 combined to televise 34 original hours of the X Games. ESPN International distributed the event to 150 countries worldwide (‘X Games TV Schedule,’ 1996).
In 1997, after two successful years in the Northeast, ESPN decided to move the Summer X Games to San Diego. This move was justified by the fact that nearly 25 percent of the X Games athletes had resided in California. ESPN senior vice president for event management Jeff Ruhe stated that it was simply imperative that the X Games move to ‘the mecca of alternative sports – the West Coast’ (‘X Games Moving to San Diego,’ 1997).
After accepting an official invitation from San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, the third annual X Games opened and featured 400 athletes who competed in 11 categories for more than $450, 000 worth of prize money (‘ESPN Rolls Out Third X Games Xperience,’ 1998).
More than 225, 000 spectators attended the week long event. One of the highlights of the event was the first-ever X Games snowboarding competition on the beaches of San Diego. The one-day extravaganza, featuring artificial snow, attracted more than 9, 000 spectators. The executive director of the ESPN X Games, Jack Wiener t, said after the conclusion of the 1997 event, ‘after looking at the response, we feel like the future is very bright for the X Games. I’m surprised we ” ve grown to where we are in such a short time’ (Madden, 1997).
After a 1997 X Games which featured record-breaking crowds, ESPN decided to return to San Diego for the fourth annual Summer event. The 1998 Summer X Games once again attracted more than 400 of the world’s best alternative sport athletes. ESPN, ESPN 2, and ABC’s Wide World of Sports televised the Games domestically, while ESPN International distributed the event worldwide to 155 million households in more than 180 countries and territories in 21 languages. Furthermore, the Web site, ESPN Sports Zone, provided extensive on-line coverage (‘Summer X Games Back in San Diego,’ 1998).
Adidas, AT&T, Chevy, Mountain Dew, Snickers, Starburst, and Taco Bell sponsored the 1998 Summer X Games on the gold level.
The associate sponsors for the 1998 event included AC Delco, Lee Jeans, Pringles, Sony Corporation, Sony Electronics, Speed Stick, Touchstone Pictures, Visa, and the U. S. Marines. The 1998 Summer X Games once again had a record-breaking crowd with a total of 242, 850 spectators attending the 10-day event (‘Fabulous Finale,’ 1998).
Six cities made it the final round of bidding to host the 1999 and 2000 Summer X Games (Poling, 1998).
When San Francisco beat out Denver, San Antonio, Seattle, St. Petersburg, and Newport, it meant that the ESPN event would not move out of California where it already had been located for two years. The Summer X Games simply moved from Southern California to Northern California.
San Francisco hosted the X Games in 1999, and will also host the 2000 event. After awarding the Summer X Games to Northern California, ESPN’s Jeff Ruhe said, ‘San Francisco has been on our wish list since we started… Every two years we have brought the X Games to a larger market, and now we are very excited to be welcomed to a city of San Francisco’s size and cultural diversity’ (‘Doing Business in the City,’ 1999).
San Francisco Mayor, Willie Brown, added that, ‘this event is terrific for our city because it’s a family event and one that embraces our city’s youth culture’ (‘Fifth Annual X Games set for June,’ 1999).
ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN International, and ABC combined to televise nearly 40 hours of the 1999 event, which lasted from June 25 to July 3 and drew more than 450 athletes.
These athletes competed in 24 sport disciplines for nearly $1 million in prize money (‘Winter X Games headed to Mount Snow,’ 1999).
The $1 million total purse prize money represented a 166% increase from the 1995 X Games. The promotion of the Summer X Games in San Francisco was aided by the United States Postal Service which kicked off the event on June 25 with the release of 152 million postage stamps recognizing BMX biking, in-line skating, skateboarding, and snowboarding. ‘The ESPN X Games is the ideal venue for issuing these stamps,’ said Azeezaly S. Jaffe r, Executive Director, Stamp Services. ‘The Xtreme Sports stamps represent the Postal Service’s commitment to broadening the stamp program to include subjects which appeal to America’s youth (‘Xtreme Sports Get Stamp of Approval,’ 1999).’s ITES OF THE WINTER X GAMES After the Summer X Games of 1995 and 1996 proved to be successful television and live spectator events, ESPN decided to expand into Winter extreme sports.
Therefore, in January of 1997, as an extension of the Summer X Games, the inaugural Winter X Games took place at Snow Summit Resort in the Southern California. The marketing director at Snow Summit Resort, Greg Ralph, added that Big Bear Lake, a San Bernardino Mountain resort town of 16, 000 residents, became host of the X Games because of its location and acceptance of the ‘younger lifestyle’ of the X Games (MacDonald, 1997).
The reduction in the hotel and motel tax from 8% to 6% was one of the attractions that encouraged ESPN to choose Big Bear Lake as the host of the inaugural Winter X Games (‘About Big Bear,’ 1999).
The first ever Winter festival featured five sports (snowboarding, ice climbing, snow mountain bike racing, super-modified shovel racing, and crossover events), 11 categories, and 150 athletes who competed for $200, 000 in prize money. ESPN and ESPN 2 televised 16 original hours of programming on the event (‘Winter X Games Events,’ 1996).
The inaugural Winter X Games, however, were not a total success for ESPN or Big Bear Lake.
Attendance was disappointing to officials of both ESPN and the host city (‘About Big Bear,’ 1999).
One headline in the San Bernardino County Sun (1996) read, ‘Hey, where did all the people go?’ (White, 1997).
Of note here is that the announced attendance at the ESPN X Games has been a contentious subject at times. Because there is no definitive figure of the number of spectators, the attendance figures (133, 500 for the 1995 event) provided by ESPN must be accepted.
However, everyone has not accepted the attendance figures reported by this television network as fact. This can be seen by the writings of a magazine journalist who covered the 1997 Winter X Games: While a (n ESPN) network staffer had, prior to the event, been quoted in a local newspaper as promising that the X Games would attract no fewer than 12, 000 people per day to the town of Big Bear Lake, the actual figure was between 2, 000 and 6, 000. And that is a generous estimate, because judging by the thin crowds in the viewing stands, most of Big Bear’s visitors had come to ski or snowboard themselves, not to watch the games. Indeed, during (one of the) downhill preliminaries, the camera crew working the finish line had to assemble a claque of volunteers behind the winners and cheer on cue in order to suggest some semblance of crowd enthusiasm (White, 1997).
Regardless of the exact attendance figure, with the X Games’ overall lack of success at Big Bear Lake it was not a surprise when ESPN announced it would move the Winter sports extravaganza to a new location. In 1998, the ESPN Winter X Games changed venues from Southern California to the Rocky Mountains.
After only one year in Big Bear Lake, ESPN moved the second annual cooler event of the X Games to Crested Butte, Colorado. As the city’s president, Edward Callaway, said at the announcement of the awarding, ‘Crested Butte is very excited about the opportunity to debut… the ultimate Winter extreme competition… in Colorado’ (‘Crested Butte Selected to host Winter X,’ 1997).
Crested Butte, located high in the Central Rocky Mountains, is known for its ability to host Winter outdoor events and Summer festivals (‘Area Activities & Attractions,’ 1999).
In the 1960 s with the influx of young people moving to the town, the ski area was developed and Crested Butte saw the birth of its present economy (‘History of the Area,’ 1999).
The 1998 Winter X Games featured 19 disciplines and more than 200 athletes, including 40 international competitors (Destefano, 1998).
The world’s best alternative Winter athletic participants competed for more than $200, 000 in total cash prizes. There were 8 hours of original programming developed and aired in the weeks leading up to the 1998 Winter X Games on ESPN and ESPN 2. Once the event commenced, there were 17 overall hours devoted to the Games that reached more than 221 million homes in 190 countries and territories (‘Winter X Games Facts,’ 1998).
The Gold Sponsors for the second annual Winter X Games were AT&T, Nike, Mountain Dew, Pringles, Taco Bell, and Volkswagon. The Associate Sponsors included Salomon, Speed Stick, Starburst, Visa, and the U.
S. Marines. The third annual ESPN Winter X Games remained in Crested Butte in 1999. From January 14 through January 18, more than 500 television technician and production personnel from ESPN helped to broadcast nearly 90 hours of the event on ESPN, ESPN 2, and ESPN International.
The Games also required an additional support staff of 200 organizers and 250 volunteers during the week of competition (‘Snowfall Greets X Games at C BMR,’ 1999).
Once the Winter X Games got underway, the spectators saw the top athletes in each discipline, which was not the case too often in the first two years of the Winter X Games. But the Games evolved into an event that the top athletes no longer could avoid. And neither could the other media outlets (Sandomir, 1998).
ESPN Director of Marketing and Communications for the Winter X Games Chris Stiepock admitted that the ‘first couple of years it wasn’t necessarily an event (the other media) had to be at. But…
as a Winter event, it’s really getting its name out. You can tell by the amount of attention we receive by the individual (media) industries’ (‘Snowfall Greets X Games,’ 1999).
Mount Snow, Vermont, a four-hour trip from New York City and a 2 1/2 -hour drive from Boston, will host the 2000 and 2001 Winter X Games. This announcement was made on May 10, 1999. American Skiing Company, which is the parent company to nine resorts in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Utah, Colorado, and California, signed a four-year agreement with ESPN to host the Winter X Games at its resorts. BIDDING FOR THE X GAMESThe United States has an insatiable appetite for sport evidenced by the never ending quest of cities to finance and build stadiums and finance and attract sport events (Noll & Zimbalist, 1997).
The ESPN X Games are a prime example of this phenomenon. As Madden (1997) stated, ‘cities all over the world are bidding for the rights to host them.’ Furthermore, as one journalist wrote in the Seattle Times, ‘We used to laugh at ESPN’s Extreme Games. Now cities bid for them’ (‘Quotes about X,’ 1999).
This can be seen most clearly in the battle by San Francisco, Denver, San Antonio, Seattle, St. Petersburg, and Newport to serve as the host city of the 1999 and 2000 Summer X Games. There are obvious benefits to hosting a sport event such as the X Games.
In addition to the new money that is pumped into the host city’s economy by spectators and sponsors, the host city also receives the benefit of purchases of local services, youth programs, and thousands of visitors. One economic impact study of the 1996 X Games in Rhode Island estimated that ESPN spent approximately $7 million in the state. A majority of this amount paid for most of the 10, 000 room nights reportedly booked in the state by ESPN to house athletes, administrators, volunteers, and officials (Tyrrell, 1996).
Furthermore, the X Games have brought media exposure and increased tourism to the states and cities that have hosted them. Again, in the same economic impact study of the 1996 X Games, the programming and commercial exposure on ESPN, ESPN 2, and ESPN International represented an in-kind contribution by the ESPN television network of $4. 7 million.
The total in-kind economic impact, including television promotion of Rhode Island as a tourist destination, was estimated at $5 million (Tyrrell, 1996).
According to Amy Cacciola, assistant director of marketing for the X Games, ‘the exposure that is given to the city is more than compensation’ (Poling, 1998).
Therefore, according to ESPN, the exposure alone is enough to merit the push by cities to serve as host of the X Games. Despite the benefits of hosting this sporting extravaganza, industry analysts wonder if there is a better alternative investment by a city than to host the X Games (‘Economic Bulletin,’ 1999).
What is usually ignored throughout the bidding process is the factor, referred to by Howard and Crompton (1995) as ‘opportunity cost’ (p. 79).
The battle for the rights to host the 1999 and 2000 Summer X Games provides the best example of this. Although San Antonio made it to the final round in the bidding process, the city decided to eventually step away when it discovered that the investment required could produce better results if spent on some other endeavor (Poling, 1998).
Soon after withdrawing its name from contention, San Antonio released the 24 demands that ESPN places on the cities that wished to host the 1999 and 2000 Summer X Games. There was the standard request by ESPN for a ‘pledge of total commitment’ from the mayor and city council.
However, some of the major demands included: 6, 500 square feet of ‘free or virtually free’ office space (a cost of between $169, 000 and $208, 000); 50, 000 square feet of warehouse space with at least three loading docks (another cost of $324, 000); free cellular service, phones, pagers and radios; free courtesy vans and cars; low cost housing for the executive director; free rent on the X Games venues; and free city services (Poling, 1998).
To make matters worse, ESPN retains the rights to sell sponsorships. This leaves the city that hosts the X Games with no easy way to defray costs. Even without a specific fee for the right to host the games, there are the obvious costs that each host city must address. The total financial figure for these costs has not been calculated or released to the public.
However, the cost for the Gravity Games (a lower scaled alternative sports event) has been estimated. According to Rofe (1999), the organizers of the Gravity Games (NBC Sports and magazine publisher Petersen Cos. ) will receive ‘what amounts to a couple of million’ dollars in support from local government and business (p. 20).
One can only imagine how much greater the cost is for the already established and successful X Games. A casual glance at some of the economic impact studies and an examination of the assumptions and estimations of these reports might convince most people of the positive financial impact of ESPN’s sports extravaganza.
According to a study done by the University of Rhode Island, the 1995 ESPN X Games infused $15 million into the Rhode Island economy (Tyrrell, 1996).
Another estimate by the San Diego International Sports Council placed the economic impact of the 1997 X Games in excess of $20 million (‘X Games Moving to San Diego,’ 1997).
Yet another study, the full version of which the University of San Diego will soon release, states that the 1998 ESPN X Games had a direct impact of $14 million and a total impact of $32 million on San Diego (Kok ila Dosh i, personal communication, March 3, 1999).
As Zipp (1997) stated, ‘Even though it is difficult to place much faith in studies touting (economic impact), the absence of other sorts of analyses have created a situation in which their conclusions have gone largely unchallenged’ (p. 432).
SUMMARY It must be restated that, while the X Games provide entertainment, they were created primarily for one simple reason: profit (White, 1997).
Therefore, ESPN is looking to exhaust its opportunities to market and promote the X Games through various vehicles such as sales, marketing, and sponsorship. There is much more to the ESPN X Games than just the events held every Summer and Winter. Ways in which ESPN further markets the X Games is through X Games gear and sporting goods, toys, games, gifts and stationary, home furnishings, apparel and accessories, books, soundtracks, videos, computer games, school supplies, and posters (‘ESPN Sports Zone,’ 1999).
These items can be purchased over the Internet and throughout the United States in retail stores and outlet malls. Similar to the products, there are many events that serve as offshoots of the ESPN X Games.
These events include: the ESPN X Trials (a showcase by athletes who are competing for spots at the X Games); the Gravity Games (an alternative sports and lifestyle festival produced by NBC Sports [Rofe, 1999]); the ESPN 2 B 3 (a competition for bikers, boarders, and blades who show their skills in various cities throughout the United States every Summer); extreme sports pro tours sponsored by ESPN; and the ESPN X Games Xperience (a road show of the best new music artists and the best athletes in alternative sports).
All of these events have fed off of the success or work toward the promotion of the X Games throughout the United States. Are the X Games a success? While the answer to this question is relative to one’s perception of success, television ratings do provide some clue to the growth of the event. According to Pitts and Stotlar (1996), the exposure of sport through the media and television in particular ‘has influenced the awareness of sport, the popularity of sport, and the participation in sport’ (p. 9).
This is particularly true of the X Games. According to ESPN executives, ‘the X Games phenomenon (is) the most watched sports category among males aged 12 through 34’ (White, 1997).
Whether television ratings are a true indication of the success of the X Games can be a contentious item. However, according to Madden (1997), ‘while the X Games may never go off the charts in the Nielsen ratings or make the cover of Sports Illustrated, it has found its niche.
And it’s growing.’ So far, whether the beholders or stakeholders are sponsors, spectators, participants, or the media, success appears to be a word frequently used to describe the X Games. This success is not just in the eyes of the beholder. Others are also noticing this success as NBC seeks to get in on the action with the creation of the Gravity Games (Sandomir, 1998).
Each year the ESPN X Games become more popular.
The extreme sports involved are exciting and creating new markets within the already massive sports industry. The future of this extreme sporting event appears bright. As Chris Fowler (1998) commented, ‘The X Games might never amount to a true revolution, maybe just a welcome diversion on the crowded sports calendar. But if you arrive with an open mind, you ” ll get sucked in. The energy is contagious. Even if (ESPN is) still not certain exactly what to expect’ (p.
If the X Games are kept fresh and supported, and the production and marketing of the events are performed properly as they have been so far, it would seem this commercialized alternative and extreme sporting experience will continue to succeed. CONCLUSIONS Examination of the historical climate and the key areas involved in the creation of the X Games has shown the ability of this extreme sporting phenomenon to be successful. The close affiliation with ESPN and the ability to secure sponsorship dollars were two crucial elements involved in the initial success of the Summer X Games.
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Pedersen and Matthew L. Kelly are both Ph. D. candidates in Sport Administration at The Florida State University. Correspondence concerning this manuscript should be directed via e-mail to.