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Volume 22 No. 23

Champions

Ron Semiao seemed right at home among the graffiti-strewn walls and palm trees of Venice Beach, Calif., legendary ground zero for skateboarding. It was only when a photographer tried to coax him to pose near the beach’s famous skatepark that he hesitated.

Ron Semiao pushed action sports into the mainstream during the mid-1990s.
Photo: tony florez photography

Wearing a leather jacket and shades while chain-smoking cigarettes, Semiao appeared to fit the skateboard culture as well as anybody from his generation could expect. But he instinctively knew that skateboarders would not react well to anyone getting in their way for a photo shoot, particularly a guy in his 60s.  

“I know how they are,” he said, punctuating the statement with his trademark booming laugh. 

There’s a reason why Semiao is so attuned to the skater culture. Widely credited for coming up with the idea for the X Games, Semiao is one of the people responsible for helping the sport gain mainstream popularity in the 1990s.

“I think Ron’s one of the most creative executives in all of television, not just sports television,” said Steve Bornstein, who was ESPN’s CEO when the X Games launched in 1995. “I give him full credit for coming up with the idea of doing the Olympics of extreme sports.” 

“Ron is a natural-born leader,” added former ESPN President George Bodenheimer, who ran the company’s affiliate group in ’95. “He was the undisputed founder and leader of the X Games. You can’t overstate his personal imprint on an event that is still going strong a quarter century later.”  

Getting it off the ground, of course, wasn’t easy. That’s where Semiao’s enthusiasm and unwavering commitment to making the idea work came into play, said Matt Murphy, an executive with ESPN’s affiliate group.

“He dove in head first,” Murphy said. “That took a lot of chutzpah. He sold it internally and saw it through.”

The Idea

How Semiao shepherded the X Games from a pie-in-the-sky idea to a programming franchise that will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year is an unlikely story.

ESPN hired him as an accountant in the mid-1980s. After a few years, Semiao moved over to the programming department. By 1993, he was a self-described “foot soldier” working out of a cubicle in Bristol. That was the environment where he developed the idea for the X Games. 

At the time, ESPN was preparing to launch ESPN2, and company executives were trying to come up with new programming that would give the channel its own identity. The main ESPN was known as a stick-and-ball network — heavy on football, basketball and baseball. Its executives envisioned ESPN2 as a hipper version that would appeal to younger viewers.

Champions: 2019

This is the fifth installment in the series of profiles for the 2019 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. This year’s honorees and the issues in which they will be featured are:

 

Feb. 11 — Kevin Warren
Feb. 18 — Earl Santee
Feb. 25 — Bob Kain
March 4 — Debbie Yow
March 11 — Ron Semiao 
March 18 — Buffy Filippell

Semiao felt right at home with ESPN’s traditional sports bent. Growing up in East Hartford, Conn., just 20 miles from ESPN’s Bristol campus, he played baseball through college at the University of Bridgeport. He knew virtually nothing about extreme sports, or what would become action sports. Realizing that these alternative activities could find a home on the new channel, he began studying them. Semiao visited a Barnes & Noble in West Hartford, Conn., and bought every skateboarding and BMX magazine that it sold, spending hours poring over them.

“The thing that hit me was that skateboarding and snowboarding and BMX and surfing — these weren’t just activities to these people,” he said. “The thing that really caught me is that there were people in these sports that were clearly head and shoulders above the participatory base. … To a young person the best skateboarder in the world deserved the same respect as the best football player in the world.”

At first, Semiao thought he could program the sports separately. The more he looked into them, though, the more he saw similarities with their bases. A lot of the athletes considered themselves outsiders who identified with an extreme sports culture by the way they dressed and the music they liked.

Patterning an idea after the Olympics, Semiao thought ESPN could bring the different sports together into one big event rather than programming them separately. By Semiao’s reasoning, that would attract more advertisers and a bigger TV audience.

I think Ron’s one of the most creative executives in all of television, not just sports television.
Steve Bornstein

His idea eventually caught on. Semiao and his boss, David Zucker, traveled to ESPN’s Manhattan office to pitch Bornstein on the idea in late 1993. To launch an event in 1995, Zucker and Semiao told Bornstein that he would need to make a decision by March 1994.

“One of Steve’s philosophies is don’t make a decision until you have to,” Semiao said, “but when you have to, don’t hesitate and make it.”

Even though the concept had some detractors, Bornstein said it was the fastest greenlight he ever gave a project. He committed $12 million to it. At the time, Capital Cities owned ESPN and had given Bornstein the autonomy to make that kind of decision without approval.

“As long as you made honest mistakes in Cap Cities and hit your numbers, they trusted you,” Bornstein said. “It was a ballsy call. We’ve bought more expensive rights at ESPN, but we’d never commissioned anything like this.”

Working Together

The element of the pitch that resonated most with Bornstein was the idea of having ESPN own the event. Like other networks, ESPN primarily is in the business of buying rights from leagues and conferences. Every time those contracts end, ESPN has to pay more or risk losing the rights to competitors. Owning and operating a property like the X Games takes away that uncertainty. Nobody could take these rights away.

“It was such a brilliant idea to own our own intellectual property,” Bornstein said. “The X Games probably was the first owned sports content for ESPN, and it was brilliant.”

The X Games really galvanized all our departments to work together. That helped us build the kind of culture we wanted at ESPN.
George Bodenheimer

Bodenheimer credited the X Games with shaping ESPN’s culture through the turn of the century. That’s because all of ESPN’s different divisions worked together to launch the event: marketing, sales, affiliates, programming and production.

Bodenheimer pointed to one discussion when the company needed to decide how to position the event to various constituents: the athletes, advertisers, cable operators. Would it be a party or a competition? Ultimately, all the groups decided that it would be a competition.

“The X Games really galvanized all our departments to work together,” Bodenheimer said. “That helped us build the kind of culture we wanted at ESPN. So often, companies work in silos and read reports about how other groups are doing. We couldn’t afford to do that at ESPN.”

Semiao fits in comfortably at the Venice Skatepark, the epicenter of the skater culture that he helped introduce to much of America during his three decades at ESPN.
Photo: tony florez photography

Big national advertisers salivated at the thought of reaching such a young audience, and Miller Lite, Nike and Mountain Dew climbed on board as initial sponsors.

The X Games also helped ESPN’s affiliate group make sure that cable operators carried ESPN2. Murphy, who handled affiliate deals in New England at the time, said the fact that Rhode Island hosted the first X Games helped convince cable operators like Cox to carry the new network. He entertained clients during the X Games and said most were blown away by what they were seeing.

“The crowds were massive, and they were all going nuts,” said Murphy, who’s now general manager of NBC Sports Bay Area. “If you were a general manager of a local cable system in that area and saw the enthusiasm in those crowds, you had to pick up the channel.”

Semiao had a similar feeling, particularly during time trials for a street luge event that was set up in downtown Providence.

“We’re walking down the street in Providence, getting towards the venue and we come to where the finish line is and we turn and look up and they are four to five deep on each side all the way up the street of the course to watch practice,” Semiao said.

A few years later, Semiao found himself with ESPN’s top affiliate executive Sean Bratches in Philadelphia. They were sitting in a conference room at the headquarters of the country’s largest cable operator, Comcast, listening to one of its top executives, Steve Burke, talk about how much he wanted Philly to host the X Games.

Burke’s message was simple: The mayor wanted the X Games in Philadelphia, and so did Comcast. Philadelphia ended up hosting the Summer X Games in 2001 and 2002.

His Legacy

Last month’s photo shoot had ended, and Semiao stood in a Venice Beach parking lot and spoke of how the sports that make up the X Games have hit mainstream culture. He spoke of seeing 13 different commercials the previous week that featured action sports — from Old Spice and AT&T to Mountain Dew and, even, Ricoh copiers.

“All these major companies are investing money and marketing their product utilizing images of these sports,” he said. “That means there’s a financial viability to this.”

Semiao is proud that the X Games helped a generation be understood.
Photo: tony florez photography

Semiao also pointed out all the sports that are now Olympic sports, including freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Before the X Games launched, the Olympics likely would never have considered such sports. Aspen, which has hosted the Winter X Games every year since 2002, did not even allow snowboarders before the X Games got there, Semiao said.

“Those are all disciplines that were in the Winter X Games before they were in the Olympics,” he said. “The first Winter X Games was in 1997. The first Winter Olympics that had snowboarding halfpipe was Nagano in 1998.”

With the wind whipping off the ocean, Semiao, 62, took a final puff of his cigarette and looked off in the distance. He thought about how action sports have grown in the 24 years since he launched the X Games.

“I am so proud of this and so proud of the people that made it happen,” he said. “If the X Games could maybe give older people a little bit of a hint as to maybe why their son or daughter would rather skateboard down the rails than play soccer or something else … it’s just more about understanding. There became skatepark moms where the moms would put all the kids in the van and take them to the skatepark. Skateparks as the ball fields of the 21st century — it’s pretty interesting.”

For every X Games hit, there was an equal number of misses along the way.
Photo: tony florez photography

One of the biggest challenges Ron Semiao faced in getting the X Games up and running was convincing skateboarders and snowboarders that ESPN would treat their sports with respect.

“Some people I called rejected it immediately because the idea of a national TV network running an extreme sports event sounded way too corporate for them,” Semiao said.

Before the X Games’ 1995 launch in Newport, R.I., Semiao was giving a tour of the venue to Kevin Thatcher, one of the guys who launched Thrasher magazine. Semiao was trying to get some of the press outlets that covered extreme sports to buy into the X Games concept.

“While our backs were turned, all of a sudden he just left,” Semiao said with a laugh.

Semiao also whiffed on some sports. Here are four events that were part of the early X Games that no longer are around:

Kite Skiing

Semiao saw a story in Details magazine on people who kite-skied. They had skis on in the water with a metal harness that was attached to a kite. Semiao called the person featured in the story and asked if he could get the 10 best kite skiers in the world to travel to Newport for the first X Games. The guy said he would.

“What he didn’t tell me is that the only two people who knew how to kite ski were him and his brother,” Semiao said. “We had that sport in the first X Games and guys are getting blown all around. One guy was blown so far down the shore that when he made land somewhere, he took a cab back to the venue. He puts his kite ski in the trunk of the cab. That was one of the misses.”

Bungee Jumping

Semiao called a guy in New Zealand who claimed to be a bungee expert and asked him to bring the best bungee jumpers in the world to Newport. The bungee expert asked how much prize money was available, suggesting that the world’s best bungee jumpers would only travel to Newport for a big enough purse. Semiao assured him that the amount would be worth his while — the total purse was $40,000.

“He took us to the cleaners — there was never a prize purse for bungee jumping anywhere else in the world,” Semiao said. “It’s an amusement-park ride. It’s not a sport. We put it in a category called freestyle. We had guys going off the tower in Elvis costumes. One guy was literally strapped to a toilet seat with a newspaper.”

Street Luge

“I didn’t realize it was illegal,” Semiao said. “People would go and bomb the hills late at night until they got chased away by the cops. For one week a year, we took something that was illegal and made it legal. The street lugers are all good people, but they are kind of hard core.”

Super Modified Shovel Racing

Remember the scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the Bailey boys slide down a snowy hill on a shovel? Super Modified Shovel Racing was like that … just more dangerous. People would make contraptions that looked like spaceships. They were legal as long as they had a shovel that touched the snow.

Racers would compete side-by-side. The first one down the hill would win and advance. Semiao OK’d the event for the first Winter X Games. The U.S. Navy was a sponsor and it let ESPN use one of its aircraft carrier catch nets at the bottom of the hill to catch the shovel racers.

“This thing wasn’t really developed too well,” Semiao admitted. “There were some crashes that just went cartwheeling. It was unbelievable. …

“There’s this big red contraption that literally looked like a rocket ship. The racers are up at the top of the hill and are waiting to go. One racer asked his partner, ‘Did you put the brake fluid in?’ The other guy said, ‘Uh.’ And boom! This thing went flying. At the bottom of the hill before the catch net we placed all these big bags with Styrofoam peanuts. This rocket ship flies through the bags like a hot knife through butter. All you can see from the point-of-view camera on their vehicle was Styrofoam peanuts. It flies into the aircraft carrier catch net, which stops jets. The net stopped it. But we had a volunteer who was there to make sure pedestrian traffic didn’t go through when the vehicle comes down. He’s standing there and the net stretches and almost hits him. He just picks up his bag and leaves. He’s done.”

Semiao “retired” to California in 2013, only to find the perfect role at NFL Network.
Photo: tony florez photography

After close to 30 years at ESPN, Ron Semiao retired from the company in the spring of 2013, and he and his wife relocated to Los Angeles for personal reasons.

When Semiao became available he was quickly snatched up by two of his old ESPN colleagues who worked at the NFL: Steve Bornstein, who ran media for the league, and Mark Quenzel, who was a senior vice president of programming and production for the league.

Semiao and Quenzel, in particular, had been close friends during their run at ESPN. Semiao first met Quenzel when he was working at the Boston-based regional sports network NESN, and in the 1980s suggested that former ESPN programming executive John Wildhack hire him in Bristol.

For Bornstein and Quenzel, Semiao’s background with running the X Games made him a natural fit for the new job they were creating at the league, which involved helping to stage some of the league’s bigger events, in addition to working in NFL Network’s programming department.

“At the NFL, we were getting much bigger into this event production business,” Bornstein said. “Previous to 2004, the NFL basically delegated the halftime and pregame ceremonies to the network that was producing the Super Bowl. Subsequent to the Janet Jackson controversy, Commissioner [Roger] Goodell wanted us to be responsible for what we’re putting on television and asked me to head up a team to internalize what had previously been an external operation. Originally, I hired a bunch of independent contractors to help me do it. Then, we subsequently brought it in-house, and that’s where Ron provided a real skill.”

When Semiao moved to L.A., he figured he would pick up freelance work. But when Quenzel asked him to run NFL Network’s programming department, plus work on things like the halftime show and NFL Honors, Semiao jumped at the chance.

“I’ll always be indebted to Steve and Mark for making it a very soft landing,” Semiao said.