Doing X With ESPN

This is what Billy thinks. What do you think?

Let’s channel Winter X-Games radness. Though a successful producer once warned me, “In TV there’s almost a bias against writing,” that won’t stop me from divining some pumped-up snow jock spirit to this space. So shotgun a couple cans of Surge, stuff your ears with Limp Bizkit and drop in. Like them, we are not afraid.

Focus past the side-long ads from all the usual market targeters who don’t need further plugs. Waft the contents of your skull with the smell of burning sno-mo oil and a world of outdoor winter athletes enjoying themselves.

This is for every “Working Class Hero,” of John Lennon’s-asses in easy chairs. Laying on the hard wood realigning your spine after years of sideways abuse. We can’t jet-set off and join the faithful but they make us wish we could. They’ve got us glued to the idiot box just to see what happens next. And who will win.

The Winter X-Games debuted to skeptics. “The Worldwide Leader In Sports” pimping super-extreme funny car shovel racing?

But just channel surf to their wave now: Except for a halfpipe Terje and TR opted out of at showtime, the courses looked like large miracles performed with the Butte’s minimal snowpack. The sweaters are better than ever-the sets (an informal, apt cyber cafe), the graphics, competitors and attitudes. Maybe it was the souped-up camera angles and spiffy editing (events were broadcast with a day delay). The special appearance of a TV star hit like a slap in the face. Not just snowboarders-this is a banquet of action sports superheroes, perfectly palatable for consumption. Compelling to view, like we always knew.

In 1988-“back in the day” if you need to skip this part-Crested Butte hosted the US National Snowboarding Championships just as pro snowboarding coalesced. There, the sight of Kevin Delaney throwing tele-helis (360 on telemark skis) out of the halfpipe bowl was ahead of its time. In another flash forward, multi-sport hero X Palmer table-topped methods nine feet out; completely tweaking his board around to where Tom Sims waited on the next knoll to nab a photo. It became a memorable mag back cover-if you have one of the issues, that’s me and my buddy Mike standing on the lip, freezing, agog, just before exploding in disbelief at what could be done on a snowboard-no way!

Those moments made us lifelong fans. Now, the sport gets the ESPN treatment, and to their cable giant-sized credit, they’ve done homework. Overall, segments come with 30 percent less cheese and heavy on the pure rush of camera courage. The network has got their appropriate slack on but good. Making it look easy-letting each sport’s culture unfold and represent itself, for better or worse. Silly as it wanna be.

For snow sliders at Mt. Hood Meadows suffering from unbelievable snow accumulation, there wasn’t much concern over shredding on a few lumps of groomed manmade. An informal chair lift poll (low-budge version of “Chair Chat”) found twenty who had heard of the X-Games, seen some and approved. They could remember favorite moments and only a couple became salty at the topic. Not bad for sports with somewhat of an “anti” ethos.

But what’s not to like? There’s riders supremely ruling. Genuine star qualities, interesting as any professional athlete. There’s G.T., Jaymo and Selema-The Three Bros. Breaking it down, loosening up proceedings well past the tolerance of old school broadcasting and jockeying for face time. Sportscenter anchor Dan Patrick said in an Esquire profile his profession’s worst insult is to be called a “Talking Hairdo”-no such risk here, more like Rambling Beanies. Adhering to the tried and true home office format, but making it up as they go, like riders. “Snowboard-y,” Jaymo called it. Even spraying recycled Caddyshack at the expense of English.

And the Bristol bullies have nabbed the hole shot with Palmer in another legendary performance. Another Tony Hawk-like star shining bright in the TV night. Another piece of the marketing puzzle that is young hearts, minds and attention spans. To the casual observer-a world many times the size of the world of actual riders-this is snowboarding.

But to the culture, is it the tail wagging the dog? Jamie Meiselman, former TransWorld Snowboarding Managing Editor now doing footwork for Burton, rightly predicted what people would remember about the Olympics-officially, snowboarding’s mainstream debut-would be what they saw on TV. A processed version of the real thing.

Now who needs tight-ass Olympic rings? Why wait four years, submit to a drug test, spend the costly bribe money-once a year cable gives snowboarding its own sitcom! Sampling the standard set by John Cameron Swayze and Jim McKay-a human interest focus and plenty of competition, thrills and spills-ESPN has literally stolen the IOC show.

TransWorld Snowboarding’s Founding Editor Kevin Kinnear mused of snowboarding’s core, “No one talks to each other. That’s what happens-you get this distance and the people who started the sport and used to ride together don’t even know each other anymore.”

Snowboarding’s “crown jewel” X-Games status serves both blessing and burden: If there exists any upside to watching more TV, maybe it’s action sports exposure, inspiring others to go out and try their luck. At least go outdoors. The downside is another small-screen video game experience that keeps you from the thrill first-hand. At the ’88 Nationals a relatively small number of riders stylishly pushed the limits of what can be done on a snowboard. Contributing to the culture in real time-that’s the big picture. Words don’t do it justice.

Yet the viewers at home just want a great, big broadcast! During the umpteenth commercial I call Marty to go riding the following day, he’s watching The Big Lebowski for the millionth time. I ask why he isn’t taking X with the rest of us fans, since I know he’s one, too. They don’t have cable where he lives close to the mountain, he says. Then he asks what competitive sports teaches us we always need to know-“Who’s winning?”

From the looks of things I say, “Everyone.”