ESPN sold its majority stake in the X and Winter X Games on Wednesday, marking the end of a nearly three-decade chapter during which the network helped propel snowboarding, skateboarding and other action sports out of the fringe and into the mainstream.
Terms of the sale to MSP Sports Capital, a sports-focused private equity firm that also has stakes in McLaren Racing and a handful of European soccer teams, were not released. ESPN will remain a minority partner in the events and will continue to televise them.
This season’s Winter X Games are scheduled for Jan. 27-29 in Aspen, Colorado.
Created during an era when ESPN still craved programming of all sorts (ESPN2 was originally designed specifically to appeal to a younger audience) the Winter X Games have long been a trendsetter in snowboarding. It carries a reputation for building the best halfpipes and slopestyle courses and finding new events (think, snowmobiling) and niches ( think, Knuckle Huck ) to keep action sports on the cutting edge.
Next to his three Olympic titles, Shaun White’s 15 wins and 23 overall medals at the X and Winter X Games are his top sports achievement. Virtually all of the sport’s biggest names — Chloe Kim, Jamie Anderson, Danny Davis, Marc McMorris and more — have won multiple titles in Aspen. Even in an era in which the Olympics overshadows most everything, hardly anyone argues that a great snowboarder’s resume isn’t complete without some kind of victory in Aspen.
The first X Games were held in 1995 — a summertime affair known as the “Extreme Games” that focused on skateboarding. Tony Hawk was among the gold medalists at the inaugural gathering. ESPN added a winter version in 1997 that eventually overshadowed its summer cousin in many ways, in large part thanks to snowboarding’s inclusion in the Olympic program a year later.
Building courses, finding judges, dealing with athlete health and safety and scheduling concerts that, increasingly, became a major draw to the events takes a staff of more than 1,000. By selling the majority stake while remaining invested in the enterprise, ESPN will step away from that part of the endeavor but will still focus on its core mission — televising sports.
“We’re proud of what we’ve created with our employees and the athletes over nearly 30 years of world-class X Games events and content,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and Sports Content.
Stepping in will be MSP, which will take over the production of the contests, and is expected to reshape the digital offerings for an event that skews to a younger, content-craving audience.
“Our vision for the X Games tomorrow, next year and a decade from now is simple — we want to create a global action sports community of athletes and fans where we push the limits of competition and entertainment,” said Steve Flisler, who becomes the new CEO of the X Games.
Flisler has been an executive at Twitch, a streaming service that is best know for its live streaming of video games, and also was in leadership positions at NBCUniversal.
He said the mission at the X Games is to create “a content engine that gives fans more ways to interact and get hooked to athlete stories.”
“X Games athletes are competitors first but increasingly will become some of the most influential content creators across the globe,” Flisler said.