Originally created 01/23/04

To the extreme: Winter X going prime time



DENVER -- Snowboarders will slide off rails, motorcyclists will flip over a 70-foot gap, and snowmobilers will trade paint on Aspen's slopes.

Tattooed teens will cheer every McTwist in a mosh-pit atmosphere, and all the action will be under the lights, live on prime-time TV.

The Winter X Games are going to be rad, dude!

"Everyone knows what the X Games are, and everyone's always excited to watch and know everything they can about it, so to have it live is such an awesome step," said Gretchen Bleiler, last year's super pipe gold medalist.

The Winter X Games were created in 1997 as a way to tap into the younger generation's interest in pushing the limits of traditional skiing.

This year's event, Saturday through Tuesday, will feature 250 athletes from around the world competing in 10 events. Those include skiers and snowboarders in the super pipe and doing tricks off rails and kickers; Moto X best trick, a dangerous combination of motorcycles and a snow-covered ramp; and snowmobile racers banging machines on uphill and oval courses.

And for the first time in their eight-year history, the Winter X Games will be aired live.

"Simply put, it was time," ESPN's Melissa Gullotti said. "It's a testament to action sports and action sports athletes that they are seen on the same level as mainstream sports."

Action sports certainly had a role in revitalizing the ski industry, which hit a lull in the early 1990s.

Aging baby boomers, who fueled skiing's popularity for decades, were staying off the slopes, and the younger generation seemed more interested in skating like Tony Hawk than hitting the hills.

Then came snowboarding.

By stripping the wheels off skateboards and adding some bindings, the ski industry found a new vehicle to help carry it into the future.

In 1992-93, snowboarders represented about 8 percent of skier visits nationwide, with 4.4 million riders. By 2002-03, the numbers climbed to 17 million riders and accounted for 29 percent of the market, turning snowboarding into a $168 million industry.

Snowboarding has even helped rekindle interest in skiing.

Telemark and free skiing quickly became popular, and advancements in equipment made it easier for newcomers to take up the sport. Skiers also found new terrain by tackling some of the tabletops and rails built for snowboarders.

Skier visits in the United States reached highs two of the past three seasons, with a record 57.6 million in 2002-03.

"There's a new energy and excitement in the sport," said Rob Perlman, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA. "Snowboarding has really transformed the industry into a new growth aspect."

Shops that once carried only skis are loaded with snowboarding gear. Shelves once filled with turtlenecks and bibs now carry the wild colors and styles preferred by X-Gamers.

Ski areas also adapted, with 21 of Colorado's 24 resorts featuring areas for snowboarders.

And there are plenty of marketing opportunities.

Snowboarding (87 percent) and skateboarding (55 percent) had the biggest increases in participation from 1997-02, according to a National Sporting Goods Association survey.

Action sports athletes have taken advantage of the popularity by traveling the world to compete in pro events. The Winter X Games draw hundreds of competitors, thousands of fans to the slopes of Aspen and millions more on television.

Sponsors have certainly noticed.

In the early years of the event, most sponsors had ties to the sports or products geared to a Gen-X crowd. Now mainstream companies like Taco Bell, Sony and Jeep are hitching on for the wild ride action sports provide.

"It's about the lifestyle, it's about the entertainment value the X Games offer to the demographic that we both go after," Sony's Amy Blair said. "It gives us an opportunity to fuse ourselves with a very action-packed entertainment vehicle."

The first games drew 38,000 fans to Big Bear Lake, Calif., and an average of 214,000 television viewers watched the tape-delay broadcasts. For this year's Winter X, the third straight in Aspen, ESPN and ABC are projecting 110 million viewers in 128 countries, with 45,000 fans expected at Buttermilk Mountain.

"When there's more pressure, it gets us a little more excited so maybe it'll push the riding a little bit," said snowboarder Kelly Clark, a gold medalist at the 2002 Winter Olympics. "It should be a lot of fun."

On the Net:

Winter X Games: www.expn.com

Colorado Ski Country USA: www.coloradoski.com