Sunday, February 6th, 2000
I swear, it was an accident—the television just happened to be on Sunday afternoon when ABC’s coverage of their self-created Winter X Games splattered slush onto my television screen. Usually, my instincts have been better—I’ve been able to see this kind of self-created event coming and tune the other way.
But I had my hands full yanking out cables and installing my DVD player, so I left it on a while.
The X Games. Created by ESPN (which is to say Disney.) Promoted. Sponsored. Commercial. Say it with me.
Oh, yeah, sure it looks like a couple of hours of x-er rebellion, where the cool snowboarders have taken control of a big network’s cameras. We’re treated to edgy music, wild camera angles, and announcers who make 99X’s Axel sound like Alistair Cooke. We’re shown competitors and commentators who are, like, staggeringly inarticulate. In fact, it’s, like, awesome how inarticulate these folks are. I saw this one, like, dude, on there who was talking, like, you know, about ah, forget it.
Yeah, I know. These games aren’t about words. There’s no real story here to tell, except for the athletes quest for their own world recognition and (they freely admit in interviews) those big bucks that come from endorsement deals. And even more than your typical pro athlete, these folks are willing to risk their literal necks doing it.
And pay no attention to the grownups in suits behind the scenes. For them, it’s all about the brand they’re building, nurturing. It’s about making big money off of the attention of young people with way too much disposable income. If you’re a Disney stockholder, this is certainly good news, but if you’re a kid who thinks "geez, these guys are doing this all for me," well, it’s more like they’re doing it all to reach out and touch you right where you keep your wallet.
And this past weekend’s Winter X Games are bringing ESPN, ESPN2 and the co-owned mothership, ABC big handfuls of those desirable demos. Kids. Extreme kids. Extremely bored kids.
And those selfsame audiences are convinced these games are important. A smug press release from the X Games site says it all: "According to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive, ESPN’s X Games is the second most appealing sporting event to kids aged 6 to 17." Ah, read on. Someone named Artie Bulgrin, ESPN vice president, research and sales development said "Over the past five years, the X Games have evolved into more than just the preeminent extreme sports event; but in the minds of kids and teens, the X Games are perceived to be as important as any major sporting event." Yow.
Once again, I’m tempted to hold Ted Turner responsible for this, if a bit indirectly. Back in the early days of cable, when TBS couldn’t get the rights to real sports programs, he encouraged his producers to come up with events that they would, by definition, have exclusive rights to. The Goodwill Games were born in this environment. Heck, Georgia Championship Wrestling epitomizes this concept. But ABC and its siblings have had many years of this make-it-up-than-cover-it approach to sports.
Ah, you have to hand it to the Disney’s marketeers. They’ve locked on to a trend—extreme sports—and made it what every corporation covets these days, a compelling, familiar, well-known brand that may have more power one day than the network that spawned it. As one ESPN marketing weasel said. "The X Games has become a stronger brand. It’s a year-round extravaganza which integrates several growing ESPN platforms."
Translation: You’re going to see this X-stuff all over the place, more often throughout the year, with a heck of a lot more cross-promotion and every other trick in the marketing book thrown at it.
And that means, by the way: say hello to EXPN.
No, that’s not a typo. And it’s not quite a new cable network—yet. It’s just Disney/ABC/ESPN’s attempt to create a powerful new brand name on the shoulders of their previous efforts. Check out the oh-so-flashy expn.com website. Touch and feel the touchyfeely logo. Groove on the holy trinity of "STR/H2O/SNO"—that would be Street, Water, and Snow—three cubbyholes into which all extreme sports apparently fit, neatly.
And get set for a future where the idea of covering an already-existing sporting event will seem quaint, artificial, and a thing of the past.