Date: Summer, 2008.
Location: Los Angeles, California.
Moment: After five years of moderate success, surfing is dropped from the X-Games.
“If they had a million bucks up for the winning team, the best guys in the world would be all, ‘sign me up.'”-Brad Gerlach X-Games Organizer 2003-2007
Every board sport in existence today owes a great deal to surfing. In fact, skateboarding and snowboarding originally took on a portion of their parent sport’s name—sidewalk surfing and skurfing—until they eventually outgrew them. But in 2008, the X-Games decided to no longer sponsor a surfing component after two attempts to run a contest at Huntington Beach, followed by three years of much-improved conditions at Puerto Escondido, Mexico. The result? A disconnect between competitive surfing and an extremely successful extreme sports franchise in the U.S.
Launched in 1995 in Newport, Rhode Island, the X-Games represented, among other things, an opportunity for ESPN to capture the attention of generation X-ers that couldn’t relate to typical football/basketball/baseball-oriented programming. In its inaugural year, 500,000 spectators were in attendance, silencing skeptics and shattering expectations.
The X-Games solidified its importance in the world of action sports as athletes continued to push the boundaries of their sports. In 1999, Tony Hawk landed the 900 in Skateboard Vert, and Dave Mirra landed a double backflip in the BMX Park event the following year. At the same time, while most companies were merely scratching the surface when it came to the capacities of the Internet, the X-Games became the first professional sporting event broadcast live on the web.
By establishing itself as the most significant sporting event in youth culture and action sports throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, it seemed only fitting the X-Games would decide to add surfing to the mix at X-Games Nine in Los Angeles in 2003. Instead of electing to run the contest in the typical winner-take-all, two-man, three-man, or even four-man heat, organizers chose to take things in a more innovative direction by adopting a format developed by Brad Gerlach called “The Game.” The premise is that surfers are members of a team, and by the end of the contest, a team wins instead of an individual surfer. For the inaugural X-Games surf contest, world tour level pros were organized into Team West Coast versus Team East Coast, and competed at Huntington Beach Pier—just a short drive from Los Angeles—in less than stellar surf. Although there was a significant turn out, many athletes felt that the waves didn’t do the extreme potential of surfing justice, nor meet the expectations of the X-Games.
The following year was a similar story in Huntington Beach, with top-billed pros and small waves. In response, the event was moved in 2005 to Puerto Escondido, Mexico, in hopes of better conditions while the rest of the show still went on in Los Angeles. In hindsight, this was perhaps one of the earliest indications of surfing’s disconnect from the rest of the X-Games. Ignoring the fact that the event was called X-Games 11 Los Angeles, yet Puerto Escondido is nearly 2,500 miles away from L.A., it’s necessary to point out that, by this time, surfing was primarily relegated to online or TV viewing only, whereas fans of other sports were more able to see their favorite athletes in person.
Kelly Slater’s late withdrawal from the 2005 event should also have served as an early warning sign of the decline of surfing in the X-Games. In a last minute turn of events, Kelly was a no show, leaving his lesser-known teammates to pick up the tab. In its third year, the X-Games was already having trouble attracting world tour surfers. In a later interview, Brad Gerlach explained, “the reality of the situation is that those guys are really, really busy and make all kinds of money… they’re not going to get those guys unless they’re willing to put a lot more money into either promotion within the surf world and/or more prize money.”
While the Mexican Pipeline delivered on all three occasions that the surf event was held, it wasn’t enough to salvage X-Games surfing, and in 2008 the X-Games decided to drop surfing from its list of events.
In 2013, surfing made a resurgence in a new “real surf” format which pitted surfers’ short video clips against one another, whilst having fans vote online for their favorites, but “real surf” hardly compares to an actual contest. It also remains to be seen if “real surf” will even return in 2014.
Either way, the lack of truly live surfing in the X-Games illustrates the disconnect between mainstream sports networks and the surfing populace in the United States. There’s no doubt that surfing is as much an “extreme sport” as skateboarding, wakeboarding, or BMX, and as such would fit in seamlessly alongside them if done properly.
The X-Games made no real indication as to why surfing was dropped in 2008, but in all likelihood, it was due to a variety of reasons. Brad Gerlach touched on one such reason when he mentioned ESPN’s unwillingness to increase prize money to draw big names, but having to compete with ASP’s World Championship Tour, and an inability to build hype–in the surf world or otherwise–made surfing not viable.
For surf fans everywhere, it invokes a feeling that surfing doesn’t belong in the X-Games, or that it cannot exist among other extreme sports. What’s more, it indicates the inability of mainstream networks in the United States to market competitive surfing in the proper way. As a sport that requires a certain amount of patience and maybe even luck in order for conditions to cooperate, when the X-Games dropped surfing, they showed how marketing surfing to the masses can be more trouble than it’s worth.