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No Small Change

8/4/2009
Anthony Napolitano's double front: progress in motion. Chris Tedesco/ESPN Action Sports

Sunday afternoon at the Home Depot Center, the vast, billowy, kinetic action sports circus that is X Games officially closed shop for the 15th time. Fifteen years, reaching back to the days when cell phones were still the size of a frying pan, cameras had film and Apple was dead in the water.

Much has changed (not the least of which is that many of you are reading this on your iPhone), but one constant has been the tension in the marriage between a corporate behemoth and a collection of sports with a historic inclination to stick it to "The Man." 15 years in, that union has evolved, but not without someone occasionally sleeping on the couch.

"It was kind of crazy at first, when they had extreme bungee kayaking or whatever. I don't miss that at all," says Bucky Lasek, who started competing at X in 1997, when the event was still very much in its infancy. Technically, it was "interpretive bungee" and it—along with 10 other disciplines contested at the original Games—is no longer on the roster. The two that remain? Skateboarding and BMX.

The direct effect the Games have had on these sports (and Moto X and Rally) is undeniable. "We used to have flairs as a final trick," says four-time BMX medalist Chad Kagy. "'Oh my gosh! You did a backflip on a vert ramp!' Now we're rolling into a flair. Inside flairs in the middle of our runs, double flairs going down. The evolution of our sport has been unbelievable."

The problem, at least for some, is that the progression of the sports is not just for progression's sake. As Bob Burnquist, who competed in the first-ever Skateboard Vert in 1995, points out: "It doesn't really matter if I think skateboarding is the coolest thing. If people aren't watching it, [ESPN is] dropping it. So we as skateboarders have to make sure we bring exciting things, and keep it progressing."

No question, X Games requires good TV, and the sponsorship money good TV provides is at the heart of how many of these guys make a living. "When you have an X Games gold medal at the end of the year," Kagy says, "that's your negotiating power."

Money, it's said, corrupts all things good. There's artistry in these sports (even the loud ones) that shouldn't be killed for the pursuit of a nickel, but on the other hand ... dude's gotta eat. There's a reason the world has so few poets.

"It goes both ways," Lasek says. "When the first two X Games came around, I was working in a body shop, skating on weekends. For them to get this on TV, I was able to get sponsors again, and move to California. To make a better living to support my family, so that I can go out there and skate every day. Which makes me a better skater."

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There's artistry in these sports (even the loud ones) that shouldn't be killed for the pursuit of a nickel, but on the other hand ... dude's gotta eat. There's a reason the world has so few poets.

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Money allows guys like Danny Way to conceive, then build, a Mega Ramp. It gives Travis Pastrana the ability to build a foam pit in his yard and work endlessly to perfect the double backflip. TV puts these sports out in front of audiences, particularly young ones, that might otherwise miss them entirely. That exposure fuels gear sales, which fuel a sponsor's ability to fuel the athletes who fuel X Games. And that deepens the pool of future action sports stars. Ryan Sheckler and Shaun White, products of the X Games for sure, aren't just some of the most successful athletes in action sports. They also inspire legions of kids to hit the park and pipe (one of the best bargains in youth sports).

There have always been purists—athletes who see the exposure X Games provides as a deal with the devil that compromises their credibility with the aforementioned "Stick It To The Man" community that forms their sport's grassroots. But there are signs the wall between purist and profiteer is breaking down. The roster for this year's street skate event included names like Tony Trujillo, Nick Dompierre and Terry Kennedy—guys who have traditionally skipped out on the comp scene.

Prize money is obviously a draw, but it wasn't the only one. Our own Chris Nieratko asked Trujillo if he was here for the chance to grab a big check. "The money had nothing to do with it. I just want to skate," he said.

Nieratko wondered if Trujillo, and a few others who expressed similar views, were less than candid about the role cash plays. But things like a progressive format for the Street competitions and a true concrete venue for the Park competitions were no doubt draws as well. Which gets to the significant responsibility "The Man" has to stay responsive and respectful of what makes these guys who they are if the next 15 years are going to be as fruitful as the first.

"These guys don't have a league, or a players' union, or whatever. I really don't think these athletes want it. All they really want to do is get up and ride and create," says Chris Steipock, ESPN's general manager and vice president of the X franchise, who like a lot of the athletes here grew up at the X Games—he started as the event's original PR guy. Steipock says the X franchise puts an enormous value on listening to the athletes it features. The outcome of those conversations may not always be what the athletes want to hear, but it's impossible to please everyone in anything. Whether in the events on the docket, the names invited, or the formats under which people compete, the product must always evolve to best feature what the athletes can do.

"I think we've come up with a really good formula and sports mix that stays true to the lifestyle and the specific demographic that is action sports," he says. "If we lose that ability to quickly change, we're going to grow stale, and we're not going to be able to keep up with what these guys are doing. I don't take that for granted at all."

The days of an either/or proposition with the line in the sand are past. The relationship between corporate interests and action sports—a name at which some athletes still cringe—is never likely to be perfect, but the genie is out of the bottle, and she's not going back in.

And that means this imperfect marriage will have another 15 years to build a more perfect union.