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Appeal of the X Games Is a Growth Enterprise

Action sports showcase is a big moneymaker for ESPN as the drift toward the mainstream persists.

August 11, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

There was a time when the NBA wasn't the lucrative, money-churning, mainstream media behemoth it is today. It was a regional game, marooned in the Midwest and struggling on the East Coast some 40 years ago, failing to register more than a blurb in newspapers, lagging behind the headlines given to baseball and football.

Players didn't leave early from college. There were no sneaker endorsement deals. National interest in the sport was marginal.

Then came the '80s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird followed by Michael Jordan, and the rest is NBA history -- an explosion into mainstream media and culture, the latest examples a $4.6-billion price tag for the NBA's TV broadcast rights and a $90-million shoe deal for wunderkind LeBron James.

When the X Games began nine years ago, they were essentially a band of tattooed skateboarders running around in baggy shorts and having water-balloon fights at the dorms in which they were housed at a small Catholic college in Newport, R.I.

The rest of the nation barely noticed. Or cared.

But what began as the brainchild of an ESPN accountant has turned into a moneymaking entity with big-name sponsors that dole out millions for a chance to persuade America's youth how cool it is to drink Mountain Dew.

Don't fool yourself: Skateboard terms such as "switch pop shove-it" and "backside 180 fakie nosegrind" aren't exactly cropping up in coffee-shop chatter.

But the X Games, which run Thursday through Sunday and have events at Staples Center and the Coliseum, have drifted more and more into mainstream culture and media.

The original creator of the X Games, Ron Semiao, didn't use complex formulas or confusing numbers to measure the popularity of action, or "extreme," sports. His favorite argument for their success? The Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards.

Shaquille O'Neal, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant were on last April's ballot. The landslide winner was the other guy on the ballot -- Tony Hawk.

"Kids look at the best skateboarder and [extreme motocross] people in the same regard and admiration that they look at any athlete," said Semiao, now a senior vice president at ESPN. "[X Games] is not as popular as the NBA Finals, but when they measure the pro athletes, people like [skateboarders] Tony Hawk and Bob Burnquist are on the same level as Barry Bonds and Shaq."

X Games resonates with the younger generation, even when looking at statistics more important than kids' awards shows.

The all-important demographic of 12- to 24-year-old males increases by 50% during the four-day run of the annual X Games, said Mark Shapiro, ESPN's vice president of programming and production.

ESPN, looking to tap into the surge in young viewers, will use this year's X Games to kick-start NFL programming for the upcoming season and to pitch its first scripted dramatic series, "Playmakers."

"Our [audience] gets younger than it ever is that weekend," Shapiro said.

Younger and, corporate America hopes, more impressionable.

About 15 big-name sponsors -- Sony's PlayStation2, PepsiCo's Mountain Dew and AT&T, to name a few -- have bought advertising packages reportedly worth between $1.5 million and $3 million. Depending on the investment, sponsors receive commercials, on-site signage and cross-promotion in ESPN's other media outlets -- its magazine and radio network.

The return on the investment is as simple as 9-year-old Johnny digging into his pocket to buy a can of soda or as complex as a 16-year-old asking mom and dad if he can have a Saturn as his first car.

"They are the hardest generation to reach and in a self-created franchise, ESPN has been able to dip into that," said Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "I think if you strip away the sport itself, what it really reflects is a wonderful target audience they've been able to find a way to attract."

Attract, yes. But the big question is whether the X Games can keep their audience over time. Will today's teens still idolize skater Eric Koston and biker Dave Mirra 20 years from now? Truly mainstream sports have the ability to tap into multiple demographics, not only one, and can retain such audiences over time.

"If we want to view X Games in the same vein as the NFL and other sports, there's that ultimate litmus test: Is there that 40-year-old guy out there that's still a fan?" Swangard said.

ESPN doesn't seem concerned. Some executives claim that extreme sports were launched to appeal to a niche group of fans, not to convert older fans that favor traditional sports.

The view through ESPN's rose-colored glasses is something like this: Teens fall in love with extreme sports, continue to be fans as they transition into their 20s and are replaced by a new wave of teens who enjoy extreme sports as much as or even more than the previous cycle of teens.

"The natural evolution of time grows the fan base and keeps the industry going and the X Games healthy," Semiao said.

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