With the conclusion of the X-Games 15 on Sunday, it feels like extreme sports have reached their peak as far as a national audience goes. The X-games are the most popular nationally recognized event for the action sports industry, but it doesn’t seem to be growing or competing with America’s sports (baseball, basketball or football). It’s fun to watch these individuals go all out throwing their bodies around to pull out some amazing tricks, but I always wonder why it never quite catches on the way our “national” sports have. There are a few factors keep these sports under the radar compared to the team sports that everybody watches. It’s tough for a sport that is ultimately about style and individuality to compete with the mainstream sports. Since it is so subjective in judging, there is a feeling after many contests that there could have been a different winner. When compared to the individual sports of the Olympics, tennis, and golf, it’s easy to see why they aren’t as popular on the national level, since it’s much harder to sustain an audience that cares about all the athletes involved. Most of these action sports are played on a fun/recreational level by just as many people as team sports, so why aren’t they as popular?
Is it individual sport versus a team sport? This has to be part of it. Just like golf has Tiger and the swimming has Michael Phelps the extreme sports world has their own mainstays in the upper echelon like skateboarders Danny Way and Tony Hawk, Dirt bike and Rally car driver Travis Pastrana and Rickey Carmichael, surfing’s Kelly Slater, and BMX riders Dave Mirra and Matt Hoffman. Most casual fans that follow any of these sports can tell you how good those top three or four guys are or who the Michael Jordan of that sport is, but if probed further they probably couldn’t tell you much of anything about the rest of the field. For a team sport, you most likely know the key guys on your team, and follow them throughout a season learning more about the “new guys” as you go. It naturally makes you feel closer to a given player when you see them on a regular basis, and can get behind them on a (us vs. the league basis). There’s also the feeling of representing your city or nearby city. In the action sports industry, the only time you would hear about most of the participants in the X-Games is in videos sold at board shops, magazines, or on Fuel TV. There isn’t as much of a city affiliation except their favorite spots to rip, unless that athlete happens to come from your area. The accessibility to the action sports athletes is far less, which makes it harder for the general population to get behind these athletes since they don’t feel as connected to them. It’s just like golf, as you watch a tournament and don’t see Tiger or Phil at the top of the leader board, then you probably won’t be as interested in watching the rest of the event. Same thing goes for some of the X-Games events as the general public rarely knows any of the contestants are so why would they keep watching after they’ve seen a few of them do the most difficult new tricks already.
The clarity of an obvious winner and loser are easy in the timed events, but the scoring by judges it often turns into a popularity contest. In the X-Games new skateboarding contest this year, “The Rail Jam”, Danny Way did a switch 50-50 across the rail, and emerged as the champion. I’m not discounting anything he did, but I can’t help but think that the judges gave him that win because he had an injured knee and ankle that caused him to hobble through the contest. There were a couple of other tricks that I (a former skateboarder) personally deemed much more difficult than Way’s trick. It didn’t feel like there was a clear cut winner or loser in a bunch events, which made it hard for me to feel satisfied at the end of a contest. In the end, it truly feels like these guys aren’t really trying to win. They do want to land the tricks that they are trying, but they are doing it more just to progress the sport. This is the aspect I’m most confused on. The action sports industry is all about learing the moves, and creating your own style through those moves, so a lot of the events are more of a specticle than a contest. I’m definately not saying that they should be a show like Disney on Ice, but most of these sports are an art, and like most art forms we may never truly understand them! This is why it will never be as popular as our national team sports.