X Marks the Sport

X Marks the Spot “WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, every kid played on a team,” says Chris Stiepock ’87, former varsity basketball captain at Wesleyan and now vice president and general manager of ESPN’s Global X Games franchise.

“Last year, more skateboards were sold than baseball gloves.”

In 1994, ESPN hosted the first X Games, the Olympic-style competition for “Extreme” sports—like skateboarding and BMX bike-racing—in Rhode Island. Stiepock, fresh out of graduate school at the University of Rhode Island, signed on for a one-year gig promoting the athletes and the event. The single year turned into two, then three, with a change of venue to California and later a short stint in Philadelphia.

Now 14 years later, Stiepock managed this summer’s X Games in Los Angeles, and additionally oversees X Games events in Shanghai, São Paolo, Mexico City, Dubai, Canada, Argentina, and Europe. In California alone, he says, the events welcomed 200 athletes from 20 countries and 110,000 fans. Millions more, from 126 countries, tuned in to TV broadcasts.

This year, 20 athletes each completed a brand-new maneuver, earning the right to name that gyration. Each one of these takes the sports to a higher, more complex level—“progression,” in X Game parlance. “And progression,” says Stiepock, is “the holy grail of action sports.”

While Stiepock remembers skateboarders from his high school years as a crowd with a bad-boy image—Ozzy Osbourne T-shirts and cigarettes—he notes that nowadays, even the captain of the football team is likely to go to practice on a board. Stiepock is at least partially responsible for that change.

With its early and committed coverage, ESPN has brought extreme sports into the mainstream as a legitimate athletic endeavor for youth and hurtled the sport beyond the wildest dreams of its earlier athletes.

In these 14 years, former varsity captain Stiepock has found a lot to relish about the sports he promotes and even more to admire in the athletes. He sounds a bit wistful when he says, “Back when I was a kid, if I’d been presented with an option that was a legitimate athletic endeavor, in which I could follow my own learning curve, practice when I wanted, listen to music, wear what I wanted—shorts and a T-shirt—and I could do this with my good, good buddies, I think I would have gravitated toward it.”

For him—and for so many other youth—legitimacy is key to participation, and television has helped provide it. Parents, teachers, and coaches can tune in and see smiling athletes doing tremendous tricks, and watch an interview with a friendly X-Gamer talking about goals and fun. 

But the X Games became a phenomenon because they filled a gap, Stiepock maintains. They came out “right about the time there were more and more dual income families, and kids were left on their own after school.”  Since parental oversight of organized leagues had become more intense, the environment was ripe for an alternative sport, one that celebrated individuality, as well.

The change of venue was also key to X-Game success. What had been a curiosity in Rhode Island was at the center of its fan base in California. “All of a sudden, we had a knowledgeable crowd that knew when to clap, when not to clap, and not only were they trying to get Tony Hawk’s autograph, but I’m standing there looking at 15 or 20 people crowded around the guy who finished eighth. And it dawned on me: These athletes already had an underground popularity; all we had to do was bring it to the rest of the country.”

After a few years in California, ESPN moved the X Games to a traditional indoor athletic arena in Philadelphia, a city, Stiepock points out, that is less than a four-hour drive for one-quarter of the U.S. population. “The very first day of our event, I’m there at the venue at 6:30 in the morning, and there’s already more than a thousand people waiting to get in. That’s another moment I realized: This is incredible.”

As he watched the public celebrate these new games, it was actually the athleticism that pulled Stiepock into the culture. Initially worried that he’d have little in common with these competitors in outsized clothing, he soon found the point of connection.

“The key, for me, since I was a team sports guy, was to have a foundation of respect for them as athletes first,” he says. “I could see that to do what they were doing required incredible agility, balance, and vision.”

The athletes, in turn, saw that the network was utterly serious about this new X-Game project, using top talent and devoting huge resources to it. The result: a burgeoning relationship between athletes and network.

Communication was essential to nourish the partnership, Stiepock recalls, for the network to learn “what was acceptable to them and what was not.” First—the preferred term is “action” not “extreme” sports—although the name stuck. The athletes don’t consider their sports “extreme,” he points out.

Second: “We learned that courses are sacred: They have to be built to exact specifications. We had to hire people they knew to be good builders and creative builders.

 “Unique and creative courses are paramount to the X Games,” says Stiepock. “We want the top athletes in the world to have to come to our event and figure things out. It involves a lot of communication with the top athletes and then with the top builders. Whether it’s a motorcycle course, where you see humongous dirt jumps, or whether it is the big air jump inside the Staples Center, there’s an exact science to it—take-off angles, landing angles. A lot of our resources, time, and attention go to courses.”

While other networks have offered similar competitions, Stiepock maintains that their premier courses maintain X Games supremacy: “We serve as a dream fulfillment agency for these athletes. We ask, ‘What is it that you would like to do and how can we help you do it?’ Our ability to chronicle that new maneuver on TV is our success.

“Travis Pastrana recently completed a double-backflip on a motorcycle,” says Stiepock. “At first, no one thought a single backflip was possible, but they started doing those in 2001. Before that, no one ever thought that you could take something so heavy and rotate yourself backwards on it and land successfully, never mind rotate twice.”

To the criticism that ESPN, through chronicling these sports, has changed their nature, pushing athletes beyond their limits, Steipock politely disagrees. The athletes, he points out, continue to pursue their sport, cameras aimed at them or not. However, the fact of sponsorship—which comes with network television—has enabled the athletes to spike their sport’s progression by quitting their “day jobs” and devoting themselves to their passion. Additionally, the athletes with sponsors are able to purchase more extensive training equipment.

For instance, Pastrana first practiced the flip into a foam pit—a glorified dumpster filled with the soft stuff—“hundreds and hundreds of times to make sure he got everything dialed in and ready before he tried it on dirt,” says Stiepock

If you wonder who would sponsor such daredevil antics, look no further than any company or organization that wants to hit “a market bull’s-eye on male teens, the demographic that takes the most risk with their bodies,” says Stiepock, and rattles off a list of X-Game sponsors that includes Jeep, X-Box, energy drinks, and the U.S. Navy.

While the military might seem antithetical to a free-wheeling X-Gamer lifestyle, Stiepock points out that risk and punishing physical endeavors lie at the core of each. Furthermore, the ESPN audience contains a segment of male teens who don’t actually do those sports but wish they could. For these viewers, perhaps the Navy will provide the physical challenge they crave.

Action sports all have one similar attribute, Stiepock says, which is one of the points he finds attractive: “The learning curve is yours and yours alone. This means that you can get as good as you want—as long as you want to keep picking yourself up off the pavement, up off the dirt, up off the snow. The way you get better is to fall.”

As a result of this, the players also get better at falling and learn how to mitigate injury. In the summer 2007 X Games Australian Jake Brown fell 45 feet on the big-air skateboarding course when he lost contact with his skateboard at the apex of a jump. The video of the event, still on the ESPN Web site, shows Brown kicking his legs and twisting around in the air, preparing for the inevitable collision with the ground below. He lands on his feet, quickly falls to his back, bounces the full length of his body and lies motionless. Three people rush over, and then, amazingly, Brown stands and, with help, walks off the course, albeit with numerous injuries.

This video underscores a key element of the games: In all 14 years, not a single athlete has died or been paralyzed at the events. Certainly that is partly due to the athlete’s ability to fall well, although Stiepock knows the X Games are not immune; tragedy can happen anywhere, but the network tries to maintain a safe environment.

“People might think, ‘What are you talking about? The athletes go 90 miles an hour around a turn and then have to jump 400 feet: This isn’t safe!’ But they sign a waiver that if they see anything wrong with the course—a run-out area isn’t long enough, a bleacher is infringing on the course—they have to tell us right away and we’ll fix it.”

This was key to establishing legitimacy: “In those first years, if we were chronicling ambulance rides to the hospital constantly, we wouldn’t have gained any credibility. People would have pooh-poohed the games as thrill-seekers trying to kill themselves.”

Stiepock recalls a journalist from the early years who dubbed them “The Plasma Olympics.” The X Game PR division responded. “We peppered him with statistics, which still hold true: Over the week of X Game competition, we have fewer injuries than your average basketball camp.” Different kinds of injuries, admittedly, he adds. “But because you can’t pursue your passion if you are injured, you learn to fall without getting injured—calculated risk management.”

Nonetheless, athletes who push themselves to the limit are vulnerable to serious injury, and those in extreme sports are no exception. Fractures, sprains, bruises, and lacerations are common. BMX master Mat Hoffman had 16 major surgeries in his 16 years of competition and exhibition and once nearly lost his life. In a world where parents do everything they can to ensure the safety of their children, risk is undeniably part of the appeal of extreme sports.

In a WESeminar at Homecoming last year, Professor of Psychology Emeritus Karl Scheibe joined Stiepock to examine this appeal.

What young people want is an escape from tedium, he said. It is in confronting risks that people find tests of character. As fields in which to test the self, he noted “a certain affinity” between the appeal of the X Games, war, and gambling: danger, with no certain outcome. All can provide the elements that define a thrill in psychological terms: “You engage in an activity willingly. It must carry the element of danger. However, the possibility of survival is high.”

Stiepock has come to admire the character—the spirit, grit, and determination—the X-Gamers exhibit in their chosen field. He has used these observations as the basis for an upcoming book, The X Factor: Competing in the Extreme Business World, examining principles that X-Gamers are bringing to their workplaces: vision, creativity, risk-assessment, confidence, and communication.

Stiepock envisions freedom and hard work coexisting in the workplace—just as they do in action sports—with technology often the enabler. He offers an example: “We had a conference call with a bunch of snowboarders and eight to 10 executives from the snowboarding world. The task was to come up with a working list of the top snowboarders in the world to invite to the next event. In the middle of the call, one of the guys who runs a very successful snowboarding business said, ‘Hey, guys, do you want to hear what it sounds like for a snowboard to hit a rail?’ And he puts his phone right near his snowboard and grinds on a rail [These are metal rails used as elements for competition in a snowboard park]. Everyone else is like, ‘Oh, that’s great; where are you?’ ‘I’m in Park City; it’s dumping!’ Unbelievable! There’s a new businessperson emerging who can get things done yet still not feel cheated out of life.”

Clearly, Stiepock has come to admire the X-Gamer’s culture and even sees a team spirit among the individuals others might dismiss as “hotdoggers.” Watch the competitions and you’ll see the athlete who has just been edged out of a gold medal hugging and clapping the athlete who won it. “The camaraderie of action sports is like none other,” he says. “They do belong to a team: it’s called ‘Action Sports.’ The goal is a team win:  progression of the sport.”

Recent handheld technology, also, has aided this progression: “If five kids are skateboarding together, chances are, one will have a videocam,” says Stiepock. “A kid in Montana accomplishes a new move and in no time, the video is circulating the globe. A 13-year-old in Australia can download it for new tips.”

This generosity of spirit, this willingness to mentor, is in sharp contrast to what you’ll find in many other individual sports, he notes. “During X Game practice, you’ll see a lot of athletes working together on something. Put that up against another individual sport, like figure skating, where each athlete works only with his own coach. With action sports, everyone is pulling for each other.”

And you’ll see this same generosity if you are a fan, Stiepock promises. “It’s not like Dodger Stadium, where the teams are sequestered in the locker rooms. At the X Games, everything is wide out in the open. The most revered athlete in any particular sport is walking through the venue, signing autographs on the way to his competition. It’s very refreshing. We hear from parents, ‘Man, that was just the coolest for my kid to be able to sit down and watch the competition right next to the athlete.’

While Stiepock sees no end to the growth of these sports—and, in fact, notes that many municipalities “are turning tennis courts that have weeds growing on them into skate parks,” he does understand that some audiences may not appreciate the qualities that he has come to admire in the athletes and their sports. “It’s something different; it’s not for everyone,” he shrugs.

But for those eager to give these sports a try at home, he offers this advice: “You have to understand: you need to have on hand a little antibiotic ointment and a lot of band-aids.”

Download a PDF of the complete article HERE

Download a PDF of the complete article HERE