Q and A: Why would X Games just up and leave L.A.? Not because the surfing is better in Austin, says ESPN exec

Andy Buckworth performs during the GoPro BMX Big Air Final at Irwindale Speedway on Friday in Irwindale. Morgan Wade won the gold medal. (Keith Birmingham/Pasadena Star-News)

Andy Buckworth performs during the GoPro BMX Big Air Final at Irwindale Speedway on Friday in Irwindale. Morgan Wade won the gold medal. (Keith Birmingham/Pasadena Star-News)

Scott Guglielmino, the senior vice president of programming for the X Games, has no need for coffee, a shot of 5-Hour Energy or that new Carl’s Jr. ice cream scoop smashed between two Pop Tarts to get him amped up.
Guglielmino_Scott“I’m resigned to a Diet Coke in the morning,” he said this morning as he continued cruising around the ESPN-created festival that has ramped up again through downtown L.A. and beyond.
“I just need a couple of those and my natural endorphins kick in.”
It’s a natural, too, that Los Angeles has been the X Games’ longtime summer home, having hosted the last 11 years in and around Staples Center, the Coliseum, Irwindale and Carson.
But a few months ago, Guglielmino’s team announced it decided to move everything next May to Austin, Texas, and continue to rotate cities as it did in its formative years.
What’s the X-factor there?
The loyal So Cal supporters may be miffed by the move, but maybe Guglielmino can explain better what’s involved in pushing the franchise to even higher heights, and how things could always circle back to L.A. somewhere down the road:

Mitchell Kent takes a spill in the Red Bull Phenom BMX Street competition on Friday.  (Michael Owen Baker/L.A. Daily News)

Mitchell Kent takes a spill in the Red Bull Phenom BMX Street competition on Friday. (Michael Owen Baker/L.A. Daily News)

QUESTION: The vibe is that L.A. has really taken some ownership of the X Games over the last decade plus. The perfect climate, it’s well attended, the extreme sports companies thrive here. I don’t want to make this confrontational, but what was so wrong about having L.A. as the permanent place for the X Games, not just the past 11 years, but maybe 111 years moving forward?
XGames_LA_2013_536x352_jpgANSWER: That’s a good question. You know what, it’s definitely not confrontational. The reality of it, I’m sure you’re well aware, is that Southern California is the home of the action sports culture. It’s the original home of board sports, for sure. There’s been a very unique relationship with the X Games and Southern California, and even then, we’ve done X Games in San Diego and San Francisco, appropriately so. We’ve had a terrific partnership with AEG here, too.
But really, if there were two catalysts in moving. One of them was a footprint issue. Over time, we’ve grown as far as our aspirations for the event. A few years ago, we worked with the city to shut down Figueroa Blvd., when he brought Rally Cars through the streets – that was terrific. But we wanted to expand the size of the course. And this year, we wanted to introduce Gymkhana (staged at Irwindale), so that created a need to expand the footprint.
The other thing, in regards to moving to Austin, was just to keep the event fresh, switching things up a little bit, move it into more of what we’re calling a festival feel, which takes another huge footprint. Austin has a great city, a good fit with action sports. So really that’s what’s driving us.

Q: So it didn’t really outgrow L.A., the city kind of did what it could for now and maybe after some time, L.A. could be back in the picture?
A: I’d be shocked if we didn’t have an X Games presence in Southern California somewhere down the road.

Rony Gomes practices before competing in the Skateboard Vert Elimination at the X Game near L.A. Live in downtown. (Michael Owen Baker/L.A. Daily News)

Rony Gomes practices before competing in the Skateboard Vert Elimination at the X Game near L.A. Live in downtown. (Michael Owen Baker/L.A. Daily News)

Q: Did you consider having maybe a couple events in L.A. while moving others to another city – maybe keep the outdoor skating here, but go indoors with other things elsewhere, a multi-city festival?
A: We considered it, but there are a bunch of issues there. One thing intriguing to us is the on-sight experience. The X Games are always a mult-sport event and if we divide it up, there’s concern it becomes ‘just another event.’ We like the idea of bringing together the different fans and cultures of all the sports, including the athletes. That’s what makes the X Games unique.

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Q: You’ve got a lot of use out of many L.A. facilities over the years. Was there any place in Southern California you wanted to stage something but just couldn’t pull it off – maybe build a skate board ramp over the Hollywood sign?
A: Yeah, we actually had a couple of concepts early on, but the reality is, all the great venues here worked out really well for us. From a site perspective, there was a lot of versatility there — the Rally Cars going in and out of the Coliseum was something to see. AEG and the city has also been really good in letting us take some chances and do some things. When you see the X Games footage going out around the world, it’s another unique positioning of Los Angeles among all the video that’s shot here, whether it’s the Lakers or Hollywood or all the different events.

47152_x1Q: Did you ever consider trying to do more at Venice Beach, Santa Monica, other Southern California landmarks that would show off the city with that kind of backdrop, where a lot of people and visitors were already anyway?
A: We played around with a Mega-ramp there at one time, but the major concern was the wind. That’s an event very sensitive to the wind, so we had to shuttle that. And we had a project with Red Bull where we actually considered jumping the Santa Monica pier at one point, but for various reasons we couldn’t go down that path. We’ve dreamed up some interesting things with partners. One year in San Diego, we had a snowboard jump on the inlet there, and many years ago, I was in another capacity with the X Games, and I found myself with a bunch of colleagues at 2 a.m. shoveling ice just to get that up and running.

skedQ: If you’re looking bigger picture, the X Games this year was a far more global tour, ending in L.A.. How did get so many of the top athletes on board with this concept of all this travel?
A: We believe in the X Games as a concept not just inside but also outside the U.S. and the reality is these athletes are opinion leaders in a lot of cases. They make social currency by their athletic prowess and creativity, and that makes them relevant around the world in what others look, what they wear, where they go – all those things matter. We felt like it was the right time to stage some X Games outside the U.S. because we had support to do it. The athletes see it as a huge platform for doing what they love to do and make a good living at it, and that’s a win-win.

Elliot Sloan competes in the Skateboard Vert Elimination round at the X Games Friday. (Michael Owen Baker/L.A. Daily News)

Elliot Sloan competes in the Skateboard Vert Elimination round at the X Games Friday. (Michael Owen Baker/L.A. Daily News)

Q: Another way to sell it is to see how snowboarding evolved from Winter X Games into a Winter Olympic event by going more global. What X Games Summer events do you see getting enough traction to be considered for the Summer Olympics?
A: I often get asked if whether all the snowboard events is good to have crossed over into the Olympics, and I do think it’s great for everyone evolved and testament to the relevance of the athletes and the sports themselves. I’m not an insider on how the IOC decides things, but I have heard they’re trying to get some kind of skateboarding in there, one of several disciplines. If they’re trying to connect with the youth, that would seem to be smart. In London (during the 2012 Summer Olympics) they got some BMX in there. I’d be shocked if the IOC didn’t find itself going further down that path.

Q: When the IOC recently decided to eliminate wrestling and baseball and softball, and then make them reapply, it seemed to have created a short list of other sports that could be included in the mix, such as wake boarding and karate and something they called vaguely “roller sports.”
A: I’m not sure what that reference was, but I gotta assume they were talking about skateboarding. It could also be something to do with razor scooters, or inline skating.
Q: What about shopping carts? Like what Johnny Knoxville did during the movie “Jackass” – throw a bunch of guys into a shopping cart and send them down a hill.
A: You never know. That’s one way to get relevant. Just another form of street luge.
jackass-the-movie

Q: On the TV schedule just this weekend, NBC has Sal Masakela hosting some Red Bull event from Tennessee. You see the Dew Tour pop up all the time on other channels. Extreme sports don’t be that difficult to find any more as a TV program. Is there a pro and con to that?
A: At the end of the day, we’ve spent so much time focusing on how the X Games lives up to the expectations of the fans and the athletes. As a more general overview, there’s no shortage of outlets for the media. There are a lot of different players out there for action sports and my sense is we’re at some level of appropriate saturation at this point, and then the issue becomes who are the best athletes in the world and what are their schedules. We’re probably right about there.

Grant Germain competes in the Red Bull Phenom BMX Street on Friday  (Michael Owen Baker/L.A. Daily News)

Grant Germain competes in the Red Bull Phenom BMX Street on Friday (Michael Owen Baker/L.A. Daily News)

Q: Another interesting way to gauge acceptance and saturation is how the media covers it. With ESPN, you’ve obviously got the built-in coverage on many platforms. But then look how it’s been covered on a more traditional platform like the sports section of the newspaper – the stories telling readers what happened, along with the photos are past the curiosity factor and more into chronicling it as a sporting event sharing space with baseball and football. Today’s newspaper reader may not even be close to the demographic you have in mind for extreme sports coverage, but since it is consumed on iPads and iPhones, there’s legitimacy given to the events and access to many age groups. How do you see the media coverage evolving over the years affecting the competition and growth of the X Games?
A: I’d agree, from a trending perspective, the consumption of media from all different sources as the availability of sports information is out there. Action sports skyrockets as people can access it in so many ways. It’s heartening to see more coverage outside of ESPN or Red Bull or other vested partners, to see more athletes getting out there.
I also think it’s a generational thing happening, especially in Southern California with the board sports. There are 30- and 40-year-olds who now grew up watching X Games or participating, they’re having kids, and there’s no disconnect with all of this. When I grew up on the East Coast — I’m 45 now — I can assure you my parents were not into skateboarding like I was. We didn’t share that kind of thing. But I see people here my age who appreciate the skateboarding pursuit still. I also see that a lot in soccer. That’s a sign of the times.

Q: As a parent, it’s great to have that kind of bond over a sport – baseball or skateboarding. It makes you feel young. But as a parent, it can also make you feel nervous and be on edge watching your own kids try to push the limits, no matter what’s at stake. Action athletes often talk about the progression of the sport as it evolves, and one way to measure that at the X Games was through the Moto X “Best Trick” competition, where you’d see 360s and double backflips set the bar higher and higher. That event was not included this time – perhaps in light of what happened at the Winter Games in Aspen recently where an athlete died during the snowmobile competition. How do you feel like you’re acting as a parent during the growth as the X Games in that you’re constantly drawing a line to define what the competition is all about as opposed to opening things up to athletes who pushing the limits too far? Does eliminating “Best Trick” stifle the progression of the X Games?

Snowmobiler Caleb Moore died in January  as a result of injuries he suffered in a crash in the X Games snowmobile best trip competition in Aspen. Colo. He was 25. (AP file photo)

Snowmobiler Caleb Moore died in January as a result of injuries he suffered in a crash in the X Games snowmobile best trip competition in Aspen. Colo. He was 25. (AP file photo)

A: I don’t think it will. The reality of it, in a freestyle event, there’s plenty of room for progression as far as tricks. When we look at “Best Trick” competition, we’re speaking to athletes all the time about all this, and our decision to go away from “Best Trick” – there were some safety issues there, and there’s a delicate balance between progression and going outside the envelope. As you know, these athletes train all the time, often in foam pits and other ways to help them limit injury as much as possible. I don’t see the progression being hampered by our decision not to have a “Best Trick” competition. You’ll see progression outside the X Games, things that aren’t necessarily competition, and that’s no problem for us. But when we stage a world-class competition where we have a sizable field of professional athletes, that’s where we need to make sure it’s a real competition, not just someone trying to do a trick that’s never been done and there’s a potential for real danger existing. That’s not within the confines of a competition.
Q: You don’t want someone to go out there and try to be a hero.
A: The X Games are not a ‘stunt fest,’ it’s a legitimate competition.
Q: Surely, the athletes understand they’re at risk when they’re competing as well as performing at these events. Maybe this circles back to how NASCAR and the NFL does more to put in preventative measures to preserve the well-being of the athletes and the future and integrity of the sport. You must feel some responsibility as well to keep them from going over a line and establish a framework so everyone’s on the same playing field.

A: No question. Safety is at the heart of what we’re trying to get done here. We want a world-class environment and safety is square one. So many times we hear it from the athletes, they’re comfortable being here and they know they’re going to be in good hands. We have courses built where the athletes can pre-run them and they give us feedback on how to make adjustments. At the end of the day, the relevance of the X Games and the leadership position it maintains over the course of time is based on safety and athletes feeling comfortable to come here and progress their sports. That’s the secret sauce that’s not really secret. It takes time and resources and that’s the company’s long-term view on how to do this correctly.

Q: Possibly there’s a comparison here to mixed martial arts, when it first arrived and fans thought it was just crazy, but it had to fit within a competitive format and rules, otherwise there’s backlash to how it’s run. If you want a sport to be accepted as generational, there must be some acceptance from not just the athletes, but the parents who let their kids try this in their backyard, or at skate parks now that keep coming up.
A: No question, safety in sport overall is leagues and governing bodies deal with. There’s always a concern for safety and longevity.
Q: Do you, in turn, become your own governing body for the sport?
A: The key constituents here for us are our group for the X Games, we also have particular sport organizers and we have the athlete input. With those three, it’s all about legitimate competition as safe as possible and we’ve taken care of as many aspects as possible. Course designers and builders are also part of this.
Q: But when you have other competitions outside the X Games – Dew Tours, etc. – do they have a governing body to answer to for rules and regulations? Could one of these off-shoot groups try to take things too far, or there enough cohesiveness with the athletes who compete in these different events?
A: I can’t really speak too much for Dew Tour and Red Bull, but when it comes to our events here, there are organizations such as Rally Car, which is an actual circuit that we have a programming deal with outside the X Games as well. Global Rally Cross institutes the rules and run the race itself here at X Games. We agree to their rules. They’re the race experts. That’s how that piece works. But then there are things more organic, like Vert Skating, with a judging system and an apparatus that’s been honed over time between all the key stakeholders. They’re on the other end of the spectrum. We also have Street League Skateboarding, developed by Rob Dyrek, and they develop all that’s involved with staging and putting that on, as well as with us as well.

Q: So after all these years, what’s been your favorite X Games event to watch purely as a spectator?
A: Probably the skate park. To me, it’s just the fluidity of it. It reminds me of surfing. Curren Caples is someone who’s just tremendous. Rune Glifberg, Pedro Barros . . . they’re a lot of fun to watch.
Q: Well, if it’s a lot like surfing, why isn’t surfing part of X Games anymore? Is that really why you’re moving to Austin, to bring back surfing?
A: (Laughing) It’s such a difficult thing to set up, with a four-day window, all beholden to Mother Nature. We’d love to be able to integrate it back into X Games on a regular basis. We also can’t jam it into X Games if we don’t see it as a legit world class competition. We try to be cognizant of a competition. If it’s a Sunday afternoon, we could be sending guys out on waves that are just awful.
kellyslaterwaveco3Q: Why hasn’t ESPN created some kind of giant, man-made surfing pool. Kelly Slater has a whole water park dedicated to surfing on the perfect wave with this huge wave machine.
A: We’re very aware of that technology and have thought about it. It’s just one of those things, surfing is so unique you have to wait for the optimal course, so to speak. We’re huge fans. It’s the mother of all board sports, but it’s an example of, if it’s not something we can do the way we want to do it, and the athletes want to do it, then we’ll move on. There’s also a way to do it through video called Real Surf, where athletes submit their video and it’s judged on as an elimination tournament. We do include that in the X Games.
spongebob_surf_and_skate_rawQ: Maybe just have everyone compete on a video game console.
A: There you go. Maybe we get everyone on an X box.

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