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Commercialized Extreme Sports for the Masses

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ESPN X Games: Commercialized Extreme Sports for the Masses

Paul M. Pedersen & Matthew L. Kelly

The Florida State University


For years, extreme sports had little to nothing in common with each other except for high risk, and an appeal to women and men from the ages of 12 to 34. Entertainment Sports Programming Network (ESPN), realizing this age group was a prime viewing audience, brought together several extreme sports and created yet another commercialized sporting spectacle. Since 1995, this television network has produced the Summer X Games. After these summer productions proved to be successful television and live spectator events, ESPN expanded into the winter extreme sports. The Winter X Games have been produced since 1997. This paper, which commences with the rise of extreme sports, is an historical and sociological analysis of the creation and growth of the ESPN X Games. While these commercialized adventure and extreme sporting events have had some obvious growing pains, both the Summer and Winter X Games have grown into events which annually attract thousands of spectators and viewers while offering fame and a few dollars to their participants.


One need only take a quick glance at the daily news to discover that society in general is still in a state of constant change (Leonard, 1993). In the United States, this is especially true as the baby boomers begin to age and the new generation comes of age. In particular, social scientists define the emerging generation of youth, which has been labeled the X Generation, as extremists who at times defy both logic and protocol (Terrazas, 1998). Popular culture is a reflection of these attitudes, from the music of Marilyn Manson to the newly released video, There's Something about Mary. Furthermore, this new generation, and its followers - Generation Y (or Generation Next), supports the postulation that sport is a microcosm of a incessantly changing society. The X Generation, considered by some as less mainstream than preceding generations of youth, has been swept away with a relatively new type of non-traditional sporting activity that is referred to as "extreme sports" (Reitman, 1999). This is a high thrills, dare devil, real life sporting activity for enthusiasts who are willing to go to the "edge" of athletic participation and sometimes beyond.

The creation and evolution of the X Games were a carefully orchestrated chain of events. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the conditions involved in the formation and growth of the X Games. The major factors that have contributed to the biannual successes of the X Games have been the close connection of ESPN with the X Games, the involvement of corporate sponsorship, and the site choices and intense bidding by cities to serve as host sites. This article includes both key factor analyses and a historiographic examination of this extreme sporting phenomenon.


The Summer and Winter ESPN X Games are a commercialization of these extreme sports. With the X Games, "ESPN had assessed what it took to be persona of Generation X and assembled a scaffolding of 'events' that made it all marketable" (White, 1997)1. As one journalist noted, "the X Games present a sporting event for a post-punk audience raised on MTV and moshing...This wide world of sports represents a complete inversion of the old order in which team sports and team ideals were the standards that jocks lived by" (Maurstad, 1998). The X Games, the originator of which was the Director of Programming at ESPN2 Ron Semiao, are not the only alternative sports that have survived recently as a commercialized endeavor. Other similar adventure activities have increased in popularity. They have taken a variety of forms such as vacations known as the "thrillseeker," the "whiz" sports in France, and "panic" sports (Rinehart, 1998). Therefore, extreme sports and the X Games are the newest phenomenon in an already existing and ever-expanding alternative sports genre.

The term "extreme sports" was coined around the early 1990's on the West Coast of the United States (Booker, 1998). Something that is extreme, according to Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary (1993), is defined as "going to great or exaggerated lengths; exceeding the ordinary, usual, or expected" (p. 332). Extreme was used in the context of sports to describe any sporting activity that was taken to the edge. According to Booker (1998), extreme sports are "far beyond the bounds of moderation; exceeding what is considered reasonable; radical" (p. 20). Yet another applicable definition is, "situated at the farthest limit; outermost" (Booker, 1998, p. 23). The term "extreme sport" describes a variety of sporting activities that have almost nothing in common except for high risk and an appeal to men and women from the ages of 12-to-34. This age group is a prime viewing audience for television and a prime target for most advertisers (Pitts & Stotlar, 1996). It must be remembered that commercialism is an integral aspect of the X Games ("For love or money," 1995).

Entertainment, on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster's (1993) as "something diverting or engaging such as a public performance" (p. 313). The combination of extreme sports and the X Games provides the perfect illustration of what it means to be extreme and to entertain. Through the production of the ESPN X Games, extreme sports, which consist of death defying trickery, have caught the attention of television viewers, spectators, and the general public (Reitman, 1999). To state it in its simplest form, the X Games are commercialized extreme entertainment.


The X Games were created in 1995 by the Entertainment Sports Broadcasting Network (ESPN). The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) which is owned by the Walt Disney Group owns this television network. The X Games were created to provide a new high thrills, cutting edge, and dangerous sporting activity for both on-site spectators, television viewers, and participants (Booker, 1998). The primary objective in the creation of this event was for profit (and entertainment) in the form of



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