Skateboarders are warming up to the X-Games.

The X-Games are a tweaked circus, albeit a bleached version: all the elephant crap is cleaned out of the ring before the fans enter, and all the clowns smoke behind the tent, out of sight. But we all love a circus, at least we did as children, and skateboarding is barely in its infancy when it comes to being exposed through the mass media. So the circus looks pretty fun – and being invited to participate is even better. Although skaters seem to be relaxing a bit more, there is still a bit of hesitation, that same feeling a kid learning to swim gets right before his dad throws him in the lake. Skateboarding is being taken to the next level, and everyone involved is trying to beat the butterflies down and decide what’s the best way to take it there.

Both ESPN and the skate industry seem to be keeping the butterflies at bay and appear comfortable with the fact that we’re using each other to our own benefit. Nobody is fooling anybody here with altruistic visions. Skating gives the X-Games a legitimate “extreme sport” that excites the viewer, and in turn, ESPN puts skating on the largest stage in its underground history. But it does more than just push the athletes in front of the cameras – it showcases the personality of the sport, establishes respectability from non-skaters, and creates celebrities. ESPN legitimizes the sport to people who would never be exposed to it other than kicking skaters off their property.

On the other hand, the X-Games is not an accurate portrayal (that’s where the smoking clowns and crapping elephants come in). Any serious skater watching the contests on TV has to cringe as they listen to that nasal announcer. He is the worst, he mispronounces trick names, misnames tricks, and comes up with the most idiotic explanations of what a skater must do to place better. He is the epitome of a poseur – a square trying to be a hep cat. And unfortunately, he and the X-Games represent skateboarding to the general public, who assume we think like that. And that hurts.

The street course is retarded. It is foul. If you’re a real street skater, skating this huge rampscape is similar to having a cavity search performed by a guy who can palm a basketball. Eric Koston? Chad Muska? Steve Berra? Where are these guys? Unfortunately, with roughly half a dozen X-Trials qualifying contests a year (with identical big ramps), this style of course is becoming the norm, and a lot of skaters don’t even complain anymore – most of the elite just don’t bother going. The lack of concern from ESPN in representing street as it truly is – like MTV did for their contest in Austin, Texas last year – is disturbing.

Speaking of give and take between skating and ESPN, no one is more familiar with that tug of war than Tony Hawk. ESPN has pumped him up like no other skater – he’s a TV star. But sometimes he feels that there’s an unbalanced amount of attention placed on him. “ESPN has said specifically that they need to focus on a few key athletes so viewers won’t get confused,” he says. “I guess they think that they need to tell people who to watch.” The reason ESPN focuses so much attention on Hawk is fairly obvious: he’s arguably the best skater ever, looks good on TV, and can talk like he actually graduated from high school – he’s the Michael Jordan of the sport for more reasons than merely winning.

Jack Weinert, the man who puts the X-Games together, feels that the relationship between the skaters and ESPN grows stronger each year. He attributes this growth to the fact that both sides have worked together and trust each other. Skaters appreciate that Weinert hasn’t strayed from his original goal. “My vision was to give non-traditional sports a vehicle to expand awareness through the world,” he says.

Never being exposed to athletes of this nature, Weinert was educated as he went. “Oh, I learned quickly,” he says. “In Rhode Island, at our first Games, I put the Rollerbladers and the skaters in the same dorm.” At that first contest ESPN provided room and board for the athletes.

Part of his adaptability in working with both ESPN ($) and the skaters (talent) is that he immediately recognized the intrinsic wariness of skateboarders toward outside exploitation. He says he measures the overall success of his role by the reception of the athletes. “I think it X-Games has earned respect with people in the industry,” he adds.

Respect with people in the industry? Maybe … insiders appreciate the X-Games, but from a distance. “The grotesque thing about the X-Games is that it doesn’t matter if we have riders in it,” says Frank Messman, CEO of World Industries. “The kids see skating and go buy our boards. If we thought it would help our sales, we would be there.” None of the major companies I talked with noted a specific increase in sales after the X-Games aired, but they all commented that they thought it increased interest in skateboarding.

Shops, on the other hand, notice an increase. Steven Adkins, who runs Faith skate shop in Birmingham, Alabama says: “Kids and parents come in and ask me if I’ve met Tony Hawk, or if I’ve been to the X-Games, so it helps out a lot. Sometimes the parents will ask for Tony’s board specifically. A lot of parents ask me stuff about skating, which is good.”

One thing that is noticeably absent from the background of the Games is a direct skateboarding sponsorship. This isn’t because of any conscious boycott, it’s because the starting price is out of reach of any skateboard company. No X-Games officials would give an exact price, but I’ve heard numbers ranging from 2.5-million to five-million dollars. That’s probably one of the reasons specific board sales don’t shoot up after the event. “Kids can’t tell who rides for who,” Tod Swank, the man behind Tum Yeto, says. “They just flash the skater’s sponsors at the bottom of the screen for a second. Wait – do they even show who his sponsors are?”

Adidas took over the title sponsorship this year from Nike, who entered the extreme-sports category with a big marketing push a few years ago, but failed to produce any groundbreaking products. Adidas learned from Nike and noted the backlash they received from the skating population. “Nike’s big mistake was cramming their image down everyone’s throat with no product to back it up,” Julee Bean of Adidas says. “That’s one of the reasons you didn’t see Adidas banners plastered all over the X-Games – we didn’t want that overkill that Nike had.” Adidas has sponsored top BMXers and skaters for years, so sponsoring the X-Games was an easy fit. “As far as exposure goes, there isn’t a better way,” she says. “It helps the overall identity of Adidas. We were more established with BMX, and next year we’ll probably be at the skating events a little more when our team is established.”

Since 1995, when the X-Games (originally called the Extreme Games) were first introduced, everyone involved has exhaled a little bit and seems more at ease with the Games’ growing popularity. “For the knowledgeable skating public, it’s kind of a novelty because they can see skating on TV and the announcers don’t say the tricks right, and they know how it really is,” says Hawk. “But they’re happy to have it seen by so many people and gain respect.”

There are still some problems to be ironed out: the street course, the annoying announcer should be replaced with a skater who can talk to broadcast audiences, and they must cut down on the overload X-Trial contests. Weinert says those contests help ESPN stay in touch, and in turn help legitimize the X-Games by providing qualifying events. So it’s still a circus, but it’s one that a hell of a lot of people watch and enjoy, one that skaters could never create on their own, and the skaters are showcased as the trapeze act rather than the clowns – which is the role the mainstream media has traditionally cast them in.