Concrete still was drying in the quarterpipes while Rich Bigge, ESPN’s X Games operations manager, briefly turned his mind to an upcoming meeting about the games’ Year 3 in Minneapolis. This weekend’s X Games had yet to begin, but initial thoughts stewed for what awaits action sports’ marquee summer event in 2019.
This weekend’s changes to the X Games proved fruitful for organizers, athletes and the 119,000 announced fans in attendance. The highest-paying spectators enjoyed a new viewing deck above the street and park courses. Spectators noted shorter lines as concession stands were better timed around premier events. This time, every event from BMX bikes to “Hooligan Racing” on Harley Davidsons happened in one location at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We had to do a little rain dance on Thursday night,” said Tim Reed, ESPN’s director of X Games events and content. “Once we got through that, it was just tons of action all weekend long.”
Still, the “progression” — an action sports buzzword — is a continued pursuit for organizers as well as athletes. While announced attendance increased from 2017 to 2018 in Minneapolis by an estimated 14,000, organizers are sent into an offseason of pondering new course designs, different schedules and bigger crowds.
“I’ve got some ideas,” Bigge said.
X Games trying to continue to build awareness
ESPN’s full-court press in Minneapolis started about a month before last week’s opening events. The media giant put on about “38 promotions in 30 days,” Reed said, as a sort of X Games bat signal to the Twin Cities.
There’s a reason local stars such as Stillwater’s Nicole Hause move to California as soon as they are able to fully pursue a career on a skateboard or BMX bike. There’s an inherent struggle for action sports in a region where snow and ice dominate the landscape for half the year.
That’s why Mykel Larrin, a BMX bronze medalist in the X Games from Racine, Wis., does high school tours with stops in the Midwest.
He touted Minneapolis as a host necessary to spread BMX love around the region. There’s still room to grow on the marketing front, according to Reed.
“That’s one of the bigger learnings is how to build more awareness in the Minneapolis region,” Reed said. “That we’re here.”
Regardless of location, X Games attendance has been finicky since peaking with announced crowds of more than 200,000 during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It’s largely a made-for-TV event, with 19 hours aired from Minneapolis this weekend on ESPN and ABC channels.
“There’s clearly a big audience all around,” Reed said. “How do we get out and expose the brand and event to as many people as possible?”
Athletes say they love X Games being here
One demographic that seems to have consensus approval is the athletes. Minneapolis is the first city to host the X Games in an NFL stadium, and there are few more accommodating than the Vikings’ shiny new home.
James Foster, who won a second BMX Big Air gold medal in as many years, lauded the MegaRamp’s placement between sections 103 and 116 in the stadium’s lower bowl. Risk lessens on the eight-story tall ramp when you don’t have to worry about weather conditions. That was the issue in Austin from 2014 to ’16, when both Big Air competitions were canceled in 2016 because of wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour.
“In Austin, it was brutal,” said Nate Adams, the X Games’ most decorated motocross athlete. “There was no shade. It was spread out on that huge F1 track. It just wasn’t an ideal setting.”
Months of practice boil down to a few runs. So athletes such as Foster appreciate “more consistent runs” outside of the elements. Other factors swayed him, too.
“Purple is my favorite color,” Foster said. “So riding in a sea of purple is kind of cool.”
Toying with ideas to make things even better
The X Games is scheduled to be in Minneapolis through 2020. A four-year stay allows organizers to sufficiently analyze what works, what doesn’t and attempts to build a better experience. ESPN moved the athlete’s lounge to the second-level Hyundai Club, giving their crews a better setup to enjoy the action during downtime.
In a couple OF weeks, ESPN and SMG, the stadium’s management group, will meet to evaluate this weekend’s X Games and what they can improve upon for 2019 and 2020.
“The setup on the field, it’s a real clean, efficient setup this year,” said Patrick Talty, general manager of SMG, the stadium’s management group. “They were able to trim some things up. This year we’ve seen more kids and families come to the event, which was a little bit of a change.”
There were no new disciplines this weekend. Some athlete purists said that was a good thing, having grown tired of attempts to spice up the games with gimmicks. The games have previously entertained eSports, hosting a Major League Gaming invitational in Austin 2014 for “Call of Duty” players. That has not been brought back. Former disciplines, such as street luge, were disbanded long ago because of a lack of progression.
With the Mississippi River so close to the stadium site, X Games organizers have kicked around the idea of reintroducing some water sports to the 2019 games. But a path to the river requires a new set of hoops for ESPN to jump through.
“Part of it is business reasons because from a location standpoint, you get efficiency from doing everything in one location,” Reed said. “So that’s a big part of it, too. Scheduling, things like that. We’re definitely looking at it.”