Los Angeles. The 16th X Games started in Los Angeles on Thursday and the latest incarnation of the four-day gathering will once again feature athletes who have forged a lucrative career out of alternative street sports.
Rather than the brash teenagers often associated with BMX riding and skateboarding, full-time professionals will compete across four disciplines, hoping to retain an essential element of youth that has turned the games into a successful franchise.
Veteran BMX rider and commentator Dennis McCoy regards those associated with the X Games as “Lifers,” while 38-year-old Mat Hoffman maintains he is still a boy at heart.
“I like to go high,” the freestyle BMX pioneer told a news conference on Wednesday. “I like to build ramps and hit ‘em fast and see what I can do.”
The X Games have successfully fused BMX and skateboarding with their motorized cousins motocross and rallycross into an industry that has grown from $5 billion a year in 2002 to $11 billion this year, according to USA Today.
Put another way, one of the most recognizable athletes for male American consumers aged 12-17 is not LeBron James, Derek Jeter or Tiger Woods but a retired skateboarder.
Tony Hawk could easily pass as the 42-year-old father of four that he is, but the Californian amassed nine X Games golds in his career to become an action sports mogul with his name emblazoned on apparel, theme park rides and video games.
Some of that market represented actual involvement in these sports but at least as much was simple identification with a perceived lifestyle, according to sports business analyst Dmitri Kopylovsky of market researchers IBISWorld.
“Mainstream sports don’t give them the intensity and danger,” Kopylovsky said of the action sports audience.
“It’s really something that many of us don’t have the guts to try, not that we don’t have the ability or the training, which is the main appeal of it.
“From that [you get] the apparel and fashion, and general style and scene.”
The X Games began life in the American summer of 1995 as a compendium of events like bungee jumping, in-line skating, street luge and sport-climbing, devised by cable sports network ESPN as a way to provide programming during a quiet schedule.
Skateboarding and BMX are the survivors from the early editions, along with enduring names like Hoffman, McCoy and Danish skater Rune Glifberg, who believes their continued exposure has led to prosperity.
“Action sports in general, and especially skateboarding, is definitely the sport of the future,” Glifberg said. “Kids these days are into stuff that’s more exciting and fast and dangerous.”
The traditional measurement of a sport that has “arrived” and should be taken seriously is inclusion in the Olympic Games as happened with extreme sports like snowboarding in 2002 and BMX racing in 2008.
Glifberg, who describes skateboarding as “as much an art form as it is a sport,” believes it already transcends that definition.
“As people have said in the past, the Olympics needs skateboarding much more than skateboarding needs the Olympics.”
Another definition is that professionals like the 35-year-old Glifberg, who has two young daughters, can make a viable career of it.
That both he and his board were mainstream did not change the essence of the sport, which was closer to basketball, he said, than BMX.
“You’re always going to see skateboarding on these different levels, different tiers,” Glifberg explained.
“You’ll have the top level professional athletes and then semi-pro and little leagues and then the kids that don’t really care about joining a club or a team or getting sponsored.
“They’ll just be on the corner and doing their sport, just like basketball, where you have the NBA and all these other tiers, college basketball and all the way down to people just playing in the street with one hoop.”