ESPN’s X-Games aren’t about you.

Ever since ESPN launched its Extreme Games alternative-sports tournament in 1995, the network has been the subject of controversy and ridicule throughout the skateboard industry. The event juxtaposed several seemingly unrelated sports and pseudo sports under one big top, and while the skateboarding competitions were legit in their own right, the resulting broadcasts fragmented the coverage between segments of in-line skating and sky surfing. Skateboarding purists would have none of that.

Even after changing the event’s name to the X-Games in 1996, skateboarding insiders were quick to write off the annual made-for-television event as an unwelcome intrusion by corporate outsiders. But ultimately, the skaters showed up year after year to compete for what was the highest-paying purse.

As skateboarding has grown over the past few years, so has the X-Games, being shown during more prominent air times year after year. In addition to the X-Trials and B-3 qualifying contests that lead up to the Summer X-Games, a number of spin-off programs have emerged in the last couple years, using extra and reedited X-Games footage, and assuming an increasing amount of ESPN and espn2 air time.

Skateboarding has figured prominently in the network’s alternative-sports programming. Tony Hawk’s 900, captured by ESPN cameras at last summer’s X-Games and featured on all major sports networks as a legitimate athletic feat, became a crowning achievement not only for Hawk, but for ESPN who literally set the stage for it to happen.

As the mainstream sports world begins to accept the X-Games as more than a circus sideshow, and ESPN begins to see a return on its investment, many skateboarders and the skateboard industry still have trouble accepting the X-Games as an indigenous, genuine skateboard event. After five long years of competitions, riders meetings, and dialogue, many basic questions were left unanswered. What are the X-Games? And why was it created in the first place? Are skaters getting paid enough to compete? And what future role might the X-Games play in promoting skateboarding?

To shed some light on the Games and ESPN’s role in skateboarding’s growth, SKATE Biz spoke to X-Games Co-Creator and ESPN President of Programming Ron Semiao. What follows is what we learned.

The Games were launched in 1995 in Rhode Island. How much planning was involved before that?

The idea came up in the fall of 1993. There was a lot of conceptualizing that went on at that time to put together this Olympic-style event. Olympic-style is probably the best way to describe it. We decided internally March first of ’94, when we got the green light from the president of ESPN, to go forward with the very first Extreme Games in the latter part of June 1995.

It seems that the lineup of the sports has changed a little over the years.

Absolutely they’ve changed.One thing I hope that we, ESPN, can do is be able to admit mistakes. We have done some dumb shit, quite frankly, that hasn’t worked. Bungie jumping was a mistake to put in, but you learn from mistakes. Everything that we have ever done with the X-Games we’ve done with the best of intents. We’ve never done anything with malice toward any individual, sport, athlete, or anything. We were just trying to do what we thought would be best for our viewers. Bungie didn’t work out.

The skateboard events themselves are great as far as the actual ramps, the energy, and the judging. I think when most people express criticism about the Games it’s because of the context in which the contest falls; it’s like the contest is one little section around which there is a festival and other stuff going on that people find distracting and uncomfortable.

The majority of our skeboarding programming are shows about skateboarding only. In the X-Games coverage, you get that Olympic-style presentation where you get a variety of sports in a telecast X-Games that’s the minority of our programming overall. It probably doesn’t seem that way just because the X-Games tends to get more publicity and more promotional time, and just more overall attention.

If you look at the X-Trials events–we have three sports there, but the programming are shows on each sport. The B3 events are treated the same way. Our other skateboard programming comes from the Vans Triple Crown series. We air all the Vans Triple Crown events, in all the sports skateboarding, snowboarding, and wakeboarding, but we air them as events of that sport. We don’t take the Vans Triple Crown of Skateboarding and edit it together with the Vans Triple Crown of Snowboarding and Triple Crown of Wakeboarding. We air a one-hour show on each of the Vans Triple Crown of Skateboarding events, and then do a half-hour compilation show, which is sort of highlights from each of the three skateboarding events.

That’s the majority of our skateboarding programming. Then you have the X-Games, which are the Olympic-style presentation in which you see a variety of sports. The feedback that we get from the people who have a strong passion for skateboarding is, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to watch skateboarding. I really don’t want to go from watching skateboarding vert to sport climbing. I just don’t think there is any relationship between skateboarding and sport climbing.”

In and of itself, that’s true. The only relationship is that you just have people of pretty good athletic ability who are competing because of the love they have for their sport. And the feedback that we get from people who have a passion for their particular sport is the same feedback that a network who televises the Olympics gets from the people who have a passion for those particular sports.

The majority of overall sports viewers don’t have a special passion, they like a variety of sports. It’s sort of like in skateboarding–if you put the whole universe of skateboarders together, the extreme majority of them would be street skaters, then you have a minority who are vert skaters. If you take that same correlation, the amount of sports viewers who are more entertained and more interested in seeing an event which has a variety of sports is like the number of street skaters, and the number of viewers who only have a passion for a particular sport is like the number of vert skaters.

What we hear from people like yourself and others in the skateboarding industry, we hear from the wakeboarding industry, BMX, and other sports. It’s very common.

Initially we had the wrong people commentating on skateboarding–absolutely the wrong people. I think that we’ve gotten better in bringing in Chris Miller, Sal Masekela, and Jason Ellis. That’s been a long time in coming. I think what’s important is the fact that ESPN has listened.

In talking about things, I try to be as candid as possible to let you know where I think the problems are.

We’re trying to go in the right direction, and we need to hear it–it should never be taken in a negative context. We need the feedback, so one thing we started three years ago is an athletes-advisory council for the X-Games, in which two people from each sport are selected by the athletes, and we have meetings twice a year. As a matter of fact, we just had one last week. Unfortunately, the skateboard representatives could not make it schedule-wise. In the past, Tony Hawk and Bob Burnquist have been on that.

These meetings are really designed to hear from the athletes, but we need feedback from people who have an incredible passion for their sport, to try and guide us on what the right thing to do is. Because at the end of the day, we cover a whole bunch of sports on our network. You’re in a tough position because you can’t be the master of one sport, you kind of have to know something about all of them. And what that ends up resulting in is some mistakes along the way.

You were talking about some of the different things you’ve been changing over the years. One of the things I try to express to people is that, as the Games improve from our perspective as the “’core audience,” they’re really not produced for us. It’s almost a conduit for skateboarding to be filtered and displayed to the non-skateboarding population. Some people don’t look at it that way, and they compare it to a ’core video or a ’core type of production. I think that’s taking the Games out of context.

I would say you’re right in that the majority of the people who watch our network are people who have a casual interest in skateboarding, at best. But one of the things we have done from a research standpoint is to find out that people who are a little older now accept skateboarders, accept the athletes from these sports overall, and understand a little better why their kids are into skateboarding or BMX.

I firmly believe that the X-Games have helped to sell more skateboards to people who may not have been in the market to buy one before, not because we’ve done anything more than expose the sport and expose the athletes. If a kid in Rhode Island, San Diego, or San Francisco, who came down to the X-Games with his friends, and after watching Tony Hawk, Andy Macdonald, or Bob Burnquist, decided he wanted to go out and buy a skateboard and learn how to ride, I think that’s good.

The benefits of having something like the X-Games on air are undeniable. I see it every day when I’m wearing a skateboarding T-shirt and someone at the supermarket checkout counter says, “I saw the X-Games,” or whatever. ESPN is something the general population really respects for its sports coverage in all the different genres. So when ESPN embraces something like skateboarding, it’s almost like giving it approval.

Then there’s other questions about skateboard sales and the current popularity of the sport, which I think are a little more intangible. We’re in that period right now where skateboarding’s in its natural up cycle. It’s hard to say what different components are contributing to that.

I think what’s going to be interesting is to watch how long the cycle stays up. I hope it doesn’t go back down.

My picture of a healthy future for skateboarding is a much more diverse sport, where you can participate in many different ways, and where there is a lot more TV programming, videos, video games, and peripheral items like fingerboards to keep people interested in the sport in different ways. And certainly the TV events are part of that.

There is often a misconception that something as broadly broadcast as the X-Games is produced specifically for the ’core audience. You almost have to watch it in that way, though I think some of the criticism maybe legit in that, the way the contests are edited, you only see certain parts of runs.

Yes, there’s no question that the criticism from people who have an incredible passion for the sport, and really only care about the skateboarding as opposed to the other sports at the X-Games, the X-Games telecast is not really for them. They’re absolutely right. It’s interesting that TransWorld SKATEboarding General Manager Fran Richards mentioned that the show on the Richmond X-Trials was the best televised skateboarding show he had ever seen. That was a show only on skateboarding.

I’d love to hear some honest feedback as to–put the X-Games aside–shohat the right thing to do is. Because at the end of the day, we cover a whole bunch of sports on our network. You’re in a tough position because you can’t be the master of one sport, you kind of have to know something about all of them. And what that ends up resulting in is some mistakes along the way.

You were talking about some of the different things you’ve been changing over the years. One of the things I try to express to people is that, as the Games improve from our perspective as the “’core audience,” they’re really not produced for us. It’s almost a conduit for skateboarding to be filtered and displayed to the non-skateboarding population. Some people don’t look at it that way, and they compare it to a ’core video or a ’core type of production. I think that’s taking the Games out of context.

I would say you’re right in that the majority of the people who watch our network are people who have a casual interest in skateboarding, at best. But one of the things we have done from a research standpoint is to find out that people who are a little older now accept skateboarders, accept the athletes from these sports overall, and understand a little better why their kids are into skateboarding or BMX.

I firmly believe that the X-Games have helped to sell more skateboards to people who may not have been in the market to buy one before, not because we’ve done anything more than expose the sport and expose the athletes. If a kid in Rhode Island, San Diego, or San Francisco, who came down to the X-Games with his friends, and after watching Tony Hawk, Andy Macdonald, or Bob Burnquist, decided he wanted to go out and buy a skateboard and learn how to ride, I think that’s good.

The benefits of having something like the X-Games on air are undeniable. I see it every day when I’m wearing a skateboarding T-shirt and someone at the supermarket checkout counter says, “I saw the X-Games,” or whatever. ESPN is something the general population really respects for its sports coverage in all the different genres. So when ESPN embraces something like skateboarding, it’s almost like giving it approval.

Then there’s other questions about skateboard sales and the current popularity of the sport, which I think are a little more intangible. We’re in that period right now where skateboarding’s in its natural up cycle. It’s hard to say what different components are contributing to that.

I think what’s going to be interesting is to watch how long the cycle stays up. I hope it doesn’t go back down.

My picture of a healthy future for skateboarding is a much more diverse sport, where you can participate in many different ways, and where there is a lot more TV programming, videos, video games, and peripheral items like fingerboards to keep people interested in the sport in different ways. And certainly the TV events are part of that.

There is often a misconception that something as broadly broadcast as the X-Games is produced specifically for the ’core audience. You almost have to watch it in that way, though I think some of the criticism maybe legit in that, the way the contests are edited, you only see certain parts of runs.

Yes, there’s no question that the criticism from people who have an incredible passion for the sport, and really only care about the skateboarding as opposed to the other sports at the X-Games, the X-Games telecast is not really for them. They’re absolutely right. It’s interesting that TransWorld SKATEboarding General Manager Fran Richards mentioned that the show on the Richmond X-Trials was the best televised skateboarding show he had ever seen. That was a show only on skateboarding.

I’d love to hear some honest feedback as to–put the X-Games aside–shows like X-Trials, where it’s only on skateboarding, or the Vans Triple Crown, which is only on skateboarding, or the B3 stops, which are only on skateboarding. Tell us how that is in terms of what you are looking for in show on skateboarding. We always want to get feedback.

In years past, the in-line, the skateboarding, and some of the other sports were interspersed, where you have a few minutes of each. Is that something you plan to continue? Or is it going to be a little more segregated?

The first couple years we changed sports in every segment. You watched a six-minute segment on one sport, went to commercial, came back from commercial, and got another sport. And you would watch X amount of minutes on that sport, go to commercial, come back, and it would be a different sport. It was a real revolving door.

Feedback we got from our viewers was that that was too much bouncing around. So now we consciously do at least two segments on a sport, back to back–do a segment on a sport, go to commercial, and come back from commercial with that same sport so the viewer gets to follow the story a little better. The criticism from the viewers was, “Just as I’m starting to get into something, you go to something else.”

If we can take that a step further, I think it’s something worth looking at, but the story and the quality of the content have to be there, as opposed to, “Well, let’s just stay with this sport just to stay with it.” I think what we’ve done over time, and the direction we are heading, is doing less. We’re cutting down on some of the disciplines to allow us to spend a greater period of time on the sports that attract interest.

After doing this for five years, we’ve gotten pretty good feedback from our viewers–which sports they like and which sports they just sort of like. That’s why you’ve seen some sports get dropped, so to speak. We do an extensive amount of research before, during, and after the Games–what people watching at home planned on watching and did watch it. And skateboarding is always the second most popular sport. Bike stunt is first, but skateboarding is second, and that has held steady. The most popular athlete was Tony Hawk.

Interesting, now that he won’t be competing anymore. Obviously, in skateboarding, there are plenty of other guys.

Tony, obviously, has given the X-Games its most memorable moments from the 900 last summer to 1997 when he had what other people in skateboarding call a perfect run. And in 1997 we also started doing vert doubles, which is cool. The skaters enjoy it, there’s not a lot of pressure on it, the spectators certainly like it, and so do the viewers at home, because it’s cool.

It’s also a chance for the skaters who are competing against each other to actually skate together for a change, which I think they prefer to do. But what’s ESPN’s long-term interest in skateboarding? Is it primarily to attract a younger audience to the network?

That’s a part of it. The overall concept in creating the X-Games was that, looking at a collection of sports that has very enthusiastic participants and fan base, and people of clearly good athletic ability, these sports weren’t getting enough exposure. There were a lot of viewers out there who weren’t being served, because not enough people were televising any of these sports. That’s where we stepped in. We also felt that the athletes deserve greater recognition for their abilities.

Obviously, we’re in this business to serve our viewers–that’s our number one. Knowing these sports appeal to a younger demographic–that plays into it, just like soccer appeals to a younger demographic and a more ethnic viewing base. We pride ourselves on being the worldwide leader in sports because we feel that over the course of 365 days a year, if you’re a sports fan, you will see every sport on the ESPN network. So whether you’re an auto-racing fan, or a motorcycle-racing fan, or a football fan, you can get anything you want on ESPN. But our long-term goal for skateboarding is to continue to program.

I was told that this was the first year the Games actually finished financially in the black. Is that correct?

The financials on the X-Games has, over time, moved in the right direction. We’ve done five Summer X-Games, and moved into the black with the ’99 X-Games. We have not recovered the red ink from ’95, ’96, and ’97. But we’re going in the right direction, which is good because we’re going to keep doing it. I mean, if we were going in the wrong directio