The World: ESPN goes to the X-treme for a global presence

X Games is paving the way for ESPN to become a global media player, and not just in the television arena, Ian Darby writes.

X Games, the live event created by the sports broadcaster ESPN 13 years ago, is unlike any other in the world. For a start, a crash, a spectacular bone-crunching failure, is more likely to become a talking point than a perfectly executed manoeuvre.

This year, all the buzz surrounded a jaw-dropping fall from 45 feet by the skateboarder Jake Brown in the Skateboard Big Air Final. Somehow, he scraped himself off the ramp with little more than a broken collarbone (enter "Jake Brown" on YouTube to see the clip), but the incident is still a big talking point.

However, X Games, the showcase for extreme sports (skateboarding, BMX, Moto X and Rally Car-racing), hasn't become one of the world's largest and most prestigious examples of branded content just by providing examples of magnificent "stunts gone bad".

It has evolved into a top-class sporting event in its own right, attracting the leading participants in each sport to compete for medals and prize money in an event that ranks only second to the Olympics for a majority of the participants.

And for those going along to watch the Games (this year's were staged a fortnight ago across two sites in Los Angeles), they offer a scintillating live experience. ESPN says that the event captures an enviable young male demographic, and that its US TV audience figures grew impressively this year.

Its three live shows on ESPN saw a 35 per cent increase in impacts among the male 12- to 17-year-old audience, and its Friday-night show delivered a total of 1.2 million household impacts, its highest rating for five years. ESPN executives claim that up to 267 million viewers worldwide will have viewed the X Games in one form or another.

X Games kicks off at the Staples Centre, the auditorium in LA more used to hosting rock giants such as The Rolling Stones and the WWE wrestling extravaganzas. And on finals night it's packed full of kids in caps worn backwards worshipping their skateboarding heroes.

The audience on the other side of the auditorium, in close proximity to the Moto X final (a kind of motorbike high jump), is perhaps less alluring for advertisers, but, in general, the package fits the promise. But it's at the out-of-town Home Depot Centre (where David Beckham is set to play out his career with Los Angeles Galaxy) where the X Games really come alive as an event.

On the Saturday of the Games, thousands converge on the centre for the BMX and Moto X finals. It's a festival atmosphere that's heavily branded with activity from sponsors that include Sony PlayStation, Taco Bell, New Balance and Subaru.

The emphasis is on a family day out, and the atmosphere resembles something close to a mixture of a rock festival combined with WWE wrestling, with the parents as excited as their children as they get up close and personal to heroes such as the skateboarder Tony Hawk and the BMX legend Dave Mirra.

As a live event, it ticks the boxes for the fans, but then that's preaching to the converted. The aim for X Games is that it will become one of the spearheads to push the globalisation of the ESPN brand.

ESPN launched in 1979 and was then acquired by the ABC network in 1984 (it is now part of Disney through the ABC ownership), and is now trying to grow its presence outside of the US via its own branded channels or licenses programming. It has partial or whole ownership of 32 networks outside of the US.

And the evolution of X Games over its 13-year history shows where the priorities for the main brand might be. X Games events have already been held in Thailand, Dubai, Shanghai and, starting next month, Mexico. Discussions are underway to take it to Australia and South Africa, where the buzz can only help both the ESPN and X Games brands.

ESPN has faced criticism that it doesn't yet have a strong foothold in Europe (although it has launched ESPN Classic and shows US sport via its NASN channel in the UK), but this is changing through acquisitions as well as channel launches. Purchasing the cricket site Cricinfo was the latest deal to be concluded.

In total, both programming and branded products, such as X Games, reach viewers in more than 190 markets globally. Russell Wolff, the executive vice-president and managing director of ESPN International, is confident about the global growth of the games and the main ESPN brand. He says of X Games: "You can't find another sporting event that has evolved so much. It's now global in nature. It's also aspirational, and for sponsors, it hits a demographic that's hard to reach."

As a major media owner, as well as owner of the X Games, ESPN has been working hard to reach this audience through multiple channels. Wolff and his team say that this year's X Games was viewed across 19 different platforms, with TV being the obvious main channel.

For the first time, large selections of live action were made available via, and ESPN signed a mobile content deal with Flo TV in the US, which provided live X Games action on mobile phones.

Now the ESPN team are grappling with the implications of this cross-platform offering in terms of justifying the value of their global audience to advertisers. It's not just about TV ratings, and the lessons learned from X Games should help ESPN develop a system to monetise media beyond TV. With this knowledge behind it, and a band of young, loyal viewers, it's unlikely to come crashing down to earth in the multi-platform age.