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X Marks the Spot for a TV Show

August 17, 2003|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

The most popular X Games athlete of all time will compete at this year's games for the only time today at Staples Center. But if you want to see Tony Hawk in action, get there early.

Hawk will be competing in the skateboard vert best trick, an event that takes place on a mammoth half-pipe ramp -- called a vert -- inside Staples Center. The nature of the ramp, however, makes viewing events on it difficult from many Staples Center seats.

The best way to get a good look at Hawk today is to beat the crowd. Or, watch it on television.

That's more in line with what the event's organizer, ESPN, would want anyway.

Saturday's attendance -- 67,500 -- was the largest single-day crowd in X Games history and brought the three-day total to 111,323. For many, however, it was apparent from the moment they arrived that the games were second fiddle to the television show.

Television cameras are everywhere -- 81 to be exact. At every event there is a booming announcer imploring fans to make noise as cameras sweep overhead for crowd shots. There are cameramen at the top of every ramp. Competitors must wait for ESPN approval before beginning each run. At awards ceremonies following each event, half a dozen or more cameras surround the podiums.

"You might as well be at Universal Studios," said George Parker, 31, of Long Beach. "Am I watching a sporting event or am I on a television set?"

Before the skateboard vert finals Friday at Staples Center, the arena announcer begged the crowd to make noise while the cameras were rolling. Over and over he told the audience to "Get it up for these guys."

At one point, not satisfied with the reaction, he told the truth.

"Television said that was good," he said. "But we've got hours of programming this weekend and we need lots of b-roll."

B-roll is a television term for the footage during breaks in the action, so basically the crowd was asked to manufacture reactions at a live event.

Still, tournament organizers say the sports come first.

"I don't look at it as a made-for-TV event," said Rich Feinberg, ESPN's senior coordinating producer. "I look at it as the biggest action sports competition in the world. It just happens to be that the people who stage that competition are a member of the same company that films that competition. So we work very, very close together."

Close indeed.

There are cameras hanging from wires overhead and cameras on cranes. Cameramen shove their equipment into athletes' faces after events as the athlete awaits the judges' score. On the stunt park course, a cameraman on in-line skates chases competitors through the field of play. Can anyone imagine a cameraman chasing sprinter Michael Johnson at the Olympics?

And while cameramen cover every nook of the vert ramp inside Staples Center and will give television viewers an up-close-and-personal look at Hawk, only the early birds will get to see his entire routine live and unobstructed. Those seated on the wrong sides of the ramp, where Olivia Matthews sat during skateboard competition Saturday, will be better off watching the giant video screen hanging above.

"There really should be a better way to do this," said Matthews, disappointed that she drove children ages 8, 10 and 11 from Riverside to watch skateboard vert doubles and could see only half the action from her seats.

There are eight television production units at the X Games. Each has a producer, a director and a control room. There are 600 people on site working for ESPN. There are five mobile television trucks and 12 miles of cable.

"Ratings," Feinberg said when asked what the goal of the telecast was. "What do you do to build ratings? You become a better storyteller. You have unique camera angles. You have special music. That is not different than any sports television show. The idea is that we are storytellers. We document an event and we tell the story of the athletes and the plight of their competition through the event. The X Games is by far the largest single production that ESPN does."

Television is the reason the X Games exist. These sports, with high-flying antics and spectacular crashes, make good television. Fans caught on and started watching. Television ratings for the X Games grew 37% from 2001 to 2002. Last year, ABC got a 1.58 rating -- comparable to the 1.7 rating the Stanley Cup finals drew on the same network.

ESPN brought skateboarding and stunt bicycle riding into the mainstream, which helped draw corporate sponsors and made some of the competitors millions of dollars.

So the athletes repay ESPN by tolerating the production aspect of their events.

"Occasionally it's distracting," said Shaun White, a competitive skateboarder and snowboarder. "Snowboarding is scary. When you're doing your run, there is somebody following you. It's so scary. I've almost hit the guy a ton of times. He doesn't know what you're going to do in your run.

"But TV has been great for the sport. It's gotten so huge in the last couple of years. ESPN and the X Games have a lot to do with that."

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