SBJ/February 5 - 11, 2007/This Weeks News

Olympic glory helps Winter X fly higher

A line of 40 people waiting for snowboarder Kelly Clark’s autograph at the X Games on Jan. 26 shrank slowly. With several minutes of signing time remaining, the MC tried to stimulate new interest.

“How often do you get to meet an Olympic gold medalist?” he asked.

Heads turned, and the line surged. Watching it reminded Clark’s agent, Octagon’s Bob Klein, of the sway that the Olympics carry over the public.

The attention snowboarding received in 2006
helped carry the X Games to new heights.

“Clearly, that’s the real stage,” Klein said later. “That’s something we’re totally aware of.”

Having joined the Olympics in 1998, snowboarding gradually expanded its awareness among the general public before capturing top billing at last year’s Torino Games. Suddenly, the sport’s stars graced the cover of numerous magazines and made the talk-show rounds, leaving many in the action sports world wondering how it would affect the first mainstream event to showcase the sport, ESPN’s Winter X Games.

But rather than overshadowing Winter X Games 11 in Aspen, Colo., last month, the Olympic glory that snowboarding achieved in 2006 helped bring the event to new heights. A crowd of 76,150 people came out for the four-day event, setting a record since Winter X came to Aspen in 2002 and topping last year’s attendance by 6,500.

On TV, it did similarly well. ESPN averaged 733,597 households in prime time, setting a prime-time record for Winter X. Ratings were flat on ESPN over the weekend with a 0.8, but there was a 53 percent increase among men ages 18 to 24. Ratings for ABC were not available at press time.

While the on-site success can be attributed to many factors, including good weather and the longevity of the event in vacation friendly Aspen, there’s no doubt that the high profile snowboarding achieved in 2006 was instrumental.

“For all intents and purposes, we’re still a niche event,” said Chris Stiepock, X Games general manager, “but a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Woody Thompson, executive vice president of consulting at Octagon, said the Olympics has delivered the X Games a more mainstream audience. “There’s no doubt the people the Olympics reach follow the athletes to the X Games,” he said.

Ralph Santana, vice president of sports marketing and media at PepsiCo, whose Mountain Dew brand sponsors Winter X, compared the impact of the Olympics on Winter X to the impact of the World Cup on U.S. soccer. “It only elevates the sport,” Santana said.

ESPN’s ability to capitalize on that can be traced back to the way it has positioned itself in relation to the Olympics since ’98. At that time, the X Games billed itself as a more authentic, core event. In a sense, the X Games existed for underground stars such as Terje Haakonsen, the Michael Jordan of snowboarding in the 1990s who blew off the Olympics in ’98 but competed in Winter X a year later.

Shaun White was one of 25 Torino
Olympians at the Winter X Games.

But not long after the success of Ross Powers, who won Olympic bronze in 1998, ESPN seemed to alter its strategy and began promoting Olympians more, according to marketers and agents. Powers was celebrated as an Olympian when he was asked to appear on the ESPN Action Sports Awards show in 2001.

Such promotion has expanded along with snowboarding’s rising profile at the Olympics. This year, Winter X highlighted the participation of 25 Torino Olympians and 45 past Olympians.

Winter X also benefited from increased interest in those athletes as a result of their Olympic success. A front-page sports story on 2006 gold medalist Hannah Teeter ran in the Los Angeles Times, and Torino golden boy Shaun White appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last month as part of the lead-up to Winter X Games 11.

“The X Games doesn’t need the Olympics,” said Issa Sawabini of Fuse Marketing, which works on Mountain Dew’s X Games account, “but hey, they’ll take the extra kick.”

That might be true, but athletes and their agents increasingly see the Olympics as the place where careers are made and sponsorships are earned. In the beverage category alone, endorsements have grown from $10,000 for a top deal in 2000 to between $50,000 and $100,000 today, according to agents, who point to the Olympics as critical to that growth.

“They will do more for you than any other action sports event out there, times eight,” said Amen Teeter, who represents his sister Hannah.

But the four-year international event hasn’t reduced the X Games’ annual significance for athletes, say agents and athletes. Because of the X Games’ high profile on ESPN, agents say athletes’ annual incentives from sponsors are heavily tied to performance at the event. An X Games gold in snowboard halfpipe can deliver top athletes $50,000 to $100,000 in incentives, more than 50 percent more than any other annual event, agents say.

“In an Olympic year, it’s obviously the second-biggest event,” said Octagon’s Peter Carlisle, who represents Powers. “But it’s live TV. There are a bunch of ads and promos and people are tripping over themselves to get involved.”

If anything, the success of snowboarding at the Olympics has distinguished the X Games as more of a celebration of the sport, Thompson said, making it even more relevant for the brands and athletes who are involved.

“The Olympics are the Olympics,” Thompson said, “but the X Games are a happening.”

Growing that experience from winter sports enthusiasts to the general population is the next step in the evolution of the X Games, said Jason Michelotti, manager of growth and development at The Marketing Arm.

“The Olympics was a great launching point,” he said, “but they need a tipping point. General consumers don’t go to Sundance to watch the movies. They go for the experience. The X Games needs to become the same.”

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