August 02, 2008

X Games: ESPN giveth and ESPN taketh away

I'm reading an intensely interesting book right now, "The New Media Monopoly" by Ben Bagdikian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who also happens to be dean emeritus of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. In one chapter, Bagdikian describes the power plays implemented by the huge Gannett media conglomerate in the late '70's, when they were attempting to merge with another large media company, the Combined Communications Corporation (catchy name, huh?). Bagdikian wrote, "At the time, it was the biggest media merger in the country."

However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was reluctant to approve the merger for numerous reasons, not the least of which was the fact that outside groups were complaining about Gannett's record on hiring women and minorities. The author goes on to describe how Gannett went into action, making highly visible (yet still profitable to the company) moves to show the public it was positively responding to the charges. The FCC approved the merger, and one would think all was right with the world. But Bagdikian presents evidence that the merger only served to strengthen Gannett's media monopolies in a growing number of markets in America.


This year, ESPN (or EXPN, whatever), for the first time in 14 years, has opened up the X Games to professional female motocross racers. Personally, I find this amazing... amazing that it has taken this long, and amazing that it is happening at all. But the people behind the X Games went even further in this sudden inclusiveness and created an event for physically-challenged motorcycle racers. Yes, the motorcycle portion (called "Moto X" in their lingo) of the X Games now specifically includes women and minorities. Well, a very special, very small minority. The message to the world is very clear: the X Games are good.

Which makes their "Darkmane" ad campaign even more infuriating to me. But I'll get into that later.

Now, I don't mean to imply that the X Games ever intentionally EXCLUDED women and any minorities in any of their previous broadcasts. The fact is, I have no idea how they decided who to invite to their games, or how they decided which sports would be included. It is obvious, though, that ESPN has fully embraced showcasing the dirtbike aspect of X, to the point where they now realistically compete with the traditional supercross and motocross promoters for the top talent in racing. Moto X World Championships, anyone?

And that is the point. Racers have made it no secret that the X Games people treat them like the superstars they truly are (or think they are), as opposed to the treatment they usually get from the promoters of the sports in which they make their livelihood. Maybe it's not obvious to most, but ESPN is definitely making a move on the most important part of professional motocross in America, and I'm not talking about the stadiums or the tracks.

Explain how the AMA can ban Jason Lawrence from professional competition, yet he is welcomed to compete in supercross at the X Games? Explain why Ricky Carmichael and Jeremy McGrath, both AMA legends and both permanently retired from AMA competition, choose to risk injury to compete for X Games medals (and cash)?

Did anyone say "live television coverage on a major cable channel and broadcast network?" Well, yeah, that's a major part of it, too.

So, back to the original point, does anyone wonder why ESPN decided to include women and the physically-challenged in the X Games lineup? I would like to believe they did it because it's the right thing to do. But my business sense (and the Gannett story) lead me to think that they did so for other reasons, ones that directly or indirectly affect their bottom line. Let's not be childish about this, we're talking about a company owned by Disney, which is, like Gannett, one of the world's largest media conglomerates.

Still, the X Games has got it going on, just admit it Pdub and stop being a hater, some might say to me. Look, I'm fine with most of what the X Games is about. I really like the skating and BMX portions, I'm over the freestyle stuff, I won't get drawn into the manufactured "step up" dramas, I think they finally have figured out how to do supermoto well, I'm glad they have finally embraced real supercross, and I respect them for experimenting with "Moto X Adaptive" for the physically-challenged riders. But the ad campaign this year rubs me the wrong way.

Admittedly, I may be hyper-sensitive, given the increased focus on racism in America due to this historic Presidential election cycle... all that Pennsylvania Primary stuff was nuts!... so when I see ESPN create a supposedly non-racial (he's wearing a mask!) character called "Dark"-something who "hates" X Games athletes and wants to enlist my help in "destroying" the X Games... it just pisses me off that someone confuses that with "creative" and then uses it to promote something that involves the sport I love, motocross.

Yes, what I want is the X Games to get it right, all the way, all the time, in my eyes. Yes, I may be asking too much, but that's only because I set my standards high. We can have great competition shown live on television, events that treat the athletes with respect and advertising that doesn't subversively manipulate the fans. That is not too much to ask.

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