SBJ/June 16-22, 2014/Events and Attractions

Austin delivers crowds to X Games; TV mixed

ESPN’s decision to take Summer X Games to Austin, Texas, for the first time helped energize event attendance and sponsorship but delivered mixed results on TV.

The inaugural X Games Austin attracted 160,000 spectators over four days, making it the most attended X Games since 2004 (see chart). ESPN held Summer X in Los Angeles for 11 years, from 2003 to 2013, and averaged 134,404 spectators per year. Last year, it drew 92,000 spectators in Los Angeles.

Austin was the most attended X Games since 2004.
Photo by: EDDIE PERLAS / ESPN IMAGES

But though event attendance was up and sponsors were pleased with their experience on-site, the TV results were mixed. ESPN had to move the event from its traditional time of late July to early June to avoid Austin’s scorching summer temperatures, a move that put the event in the middle of a crowded sports calendar highlighted by the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Final.

Average viewership for four telecasts on ESPN dipped by
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
31 percent from last year to 450,000 viewers, according to Nielsen overnight ratings. (Final ratings were not available at press time.) The event performed better on ABC, where it earned a 0.7 overnight rating for four hours of coverage on Saturday and a 0.8 overnight rating for four hours on Sunday, which marked an improvement from the 0.5 overnight rating it earned both those days last year.

In addition to benefiting from being in the Austin market for the first time, ESPN executives said X Games benefited from efforts to turn what historically had been a sports event into more of a multiday festival. It had 39 musical acts perform over the four days, including Kanye West, The Flaming Lips and Pretty Lights, a popular DJ. It also had festival village areas spread throughout the Circuit of the Americas venue, so that attendees could ride go-karts, slide on zip lines and do other activities.

Tickets ranged in price from $39 for single-day access to the X Games to $165 for a three-day ticket that included access to the amphitheater pit for concerts.

“We took a new approach to the event and provided a much broader offering for the audience and fans,” said Tim Reed, X Games senior director of events and content. “Austin clearly embraced it. It was refreshing and there was a lot of good energy around the venue.”

ESPN managed to sign seven exclusive sponsors for the event, including top-tier sponsors Ford, GoPro, Monster Energy and the U.S. Navy, as well as new exclusive sponsors Dos Equis, Dr Pepper and Harley-Davidson.

Ford Racing Director Jamie Allison said attendance at the event exceeded expectations, helping boost the company’s on-site ride-and-drive program. The company also benefited from increased social media interactions with Ford athletes such as Brian Deegan and Ken Block.

“X Games continues to work for us as an effective platform, and COTA was a success based on measurements,” Allison said.

The event ran into a few issues on the ground in Austin. Wind gusts on June 7 forced ESPN to delay its BMX Big Air and freestyle motocross competitions by more than an hour. Both events were slated to be featured during that day’s live broadcast.

Spectators also complained that some general-admission areas, which were filled on a first-come-first-serve basis, were crowded and too full for them to see some competitions.

Reed said that ESPN will address those issues and others that arose when X Games returns to Austin next year. ESPN signed a four-year deal with Austin and COTA that runs through 2017.

“It’s great to be in a place where they love the culture and the sports,” Reed said. “We’re excited for three more years here.”

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