Even in action sports, context is everything. In 1995, when ESPN launched the Extreme Games in Rhode Island (renamed the X Games in 1996), a great many board-sports enthusiasts gazed skeptically upon the affair. After all — Disney owns ESPN. While delivering conventional sports like NASCAR and Major League Baseball to the mainstream TV-viewing masses might have been a no-brainer for the folks running Disney World, their ability to properly convey the tone, history and ethics of the anti-establishment-leaning action-sports world initially seemed like a truly dubious proposition. Many athletes and core brands within skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing asked — and rightfully so — “What does Mickey Mouse know about board sports?”
Today, that’s all changed. More than 35 million viewers watch the X Games on ESPN. Indeed, with roughly 200,000 annual attendees, the games have become so popular they can no longer fit under one roof; events are now hosted at two locations — downtown’s Staples Center and the Home Depot Center in Carson — through 2016.
I made the Saturday pilgrimage to Carson for Day Three of the four-day X Games circus. Approaching the stadium, now best known as the place where Beckham has yet to bend it, the sights ranged from miles of idyllic mobile-home parks with bizarrely manicured lawns to sticker-emblazoned monster trucks navigated by tattooed dudes in big shorts, backward baseball hats, oversize T-shirts and flashy sunglasses. Just parking took more than an hour. Not cool.
Aside from the thousands of hoochies running around in Frankenflops and the aforementioned OC elite with their hats and asshole glasses, the games were surprisingly boring in person. This is an entirely made-for-television event. There were too many lulls between heats, too many “punk” bands playing painfully bland sets to thin crowds of genuinely unimpressed and overheated patrons, too many long lines, too many cranky ushers, too many inane sportscasters conducting unintelligible interviews with marble-mouthed moto-dudes over the JumboTron every three minutes, to say nothing of the in-house announcer’s near-constant bellowing of “People, make some noise!” Even the Porta Pottis sported official “X Games RESTROOMS” banners. The whole thing was just dumb and kinda creepy. Yet, despite it being generally weird and more than a bit discomfiting, I somehow came away feeling “extremely” happy to have attended and not entirely sure why. Kind of like a trip to Disneyland.
The spectacle begs the question — how in the hell did we get here?
Throughout the history of X Games programming, board sports have at various times been pitched under the same umbrella as snowmobiling, motocross, rally-car racing, wakeboarding, ice climbing, sky surfing, street luge, bungee jumping, and the oxymoronically named “aggressive” inline skating. Basically, any activity where there’s a good chance someone might wipe out badly, suffer paralysis or die spectacularly has always been fair game for X Games coverage, subtleties of soul and style be damned. Nevertheless, ESPN and its parent company have prevailed largely and lucratively by recasting action sports in their own fist-pumping, stadium-size self-image. And why not? It is, after all, not so much about the athletes or the games themselves as it is about the X-brand franchise.
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And yet, along the way the X Games have almost single-handedly reshaped what it means to be a professional athlete in the tight-knit world of action sports. Fifteen years ago, a professional skateboarder was incredibly lucky to afford a down payment on a new car; today, X Games podium placers routinely live well from sponsorship contracts and product endorsements. Several of these athletes now can afford to have families, some have parlayed their successful X Games careers into other pursuits (book and film deals, reality TV shows, video games, restaurants, etc.), and there are the odd super-rich superstars like Tony Hawk and Shaun White.
Many of the 30-million-plus mainstream viewers who feverishly tuned in last Thursday night to watch Australian vert skater Jake Brown receive severe whiplash, a fractured wrist and a bruised lung and liver when bailing from a 40-foot air, and who cheered on pro skater/snowboarder Shaun White as he triumphantly took first place in the Men’s Vert Final on Sunday, are the very same sort of people who would’ve jeeringly called them “skater fags” in the not-too-distant past.
Such is the power of the X Games, and of television in general. In a profoundly weird 19th-century carnival barkers–meets–gladiators in the Roman Coliseum–meets–the ghost of the USFL sort of way, it’s made “getting awesome” an entirely reasonable career pursuit. More importantly, it’s made watching getting awesome fashionable.
Used to be action-sports fans arrived at events on skateboards, or BMX bikes or with surfboards strapped to their cars. As I exited the stadium I didn’t spot a single kid doing so much as a bunny hop on his bike. The parking lot looked like what you’d expect at an Angels game.