The Winter X Games will host its second Norwegian edition in 2017, after celebrating two decades in the US last year. With a captive young audience and any amount of social media-friendly content, its organisers believe the event can lead the way in a new digital-first world.
By Adam Nelson
The sun glares low over the icy Norwegian sky. In the foreground, zooming into shot down the big air slope, is Japanese snowboarder Yuki Kadono. Once airborne, he twists and turns, seeming to defy gravity, landing a perfect backside triple cork 1620. Kadono is on his way to gold at the 2016 Winter X Games in Oslo but, more than that, he is on his way to social media notoriety. Among winter and extreme sports enthusiasts, the video of his winning jump is shared, and shared, and shared.
The Winter X Games celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, having kicked off in Big Bear Lake, California two years after its summer counterpart. Though in some ways it still bears the hallmarks of its 1990s roots – the name itself with its ‘Generation X’ connotations, the games redolent with the Bart Simpson image of edgy late-millennium cool – the Winter X Games is in many ways only now truly coming into its own, in the age of Twitter and Instagram, GoPro and virtual reality.
While the X Games in both its summer and winter formats has been a success on its own terms – no unsuccessful sporting event could run for over two decades – it has arguably struggled to achieve true crossover success, remaining the preserve of its dedicated core fanbase. In recent years, the advent of social media and of ubiquitous cameras has helped to bring a whole new audience to an event whose prize asset is its outstanding visuals.
The X Games has always been, to some extent, a media product first and foremost. Its US-based editions are controlled and operated by American sports broadcasting giant ESPN in a rare foray into running, as well as covering, sports events. And as Tim Reed, senior director of X Games content strategy at ESPN, points out, “action sports in general are historically based on visual arts, whether that’s photography or video, that’s always been the basis for the sport”.
Last year’s inaugural showcase in Norway was the first east of the Atlantic since 2013, when the Alpine resort of Tignes, France hosted the final of four consecutive Winter X Games Europe events. Run by ESPN in conjunction with the country’s largest commercial broadcaster TV 2 and local events organiser SAHR Concepts, the X Games Norway 2016 relaunched the series in Europe in style, constructing the big air jump in downtown Oslo, taking over the city centre for the weekend.
The 2017 edition, taking place from 8th to 11th March in the ski resort of Hafjell, represents a move back towards the Winter X Games’ traditional roots – the US edition has been held in the winter sports haven of Aspen, Colorado since 2002 – but should offer an event no less spectacular than its urban predecessor.
“It’s tough to call right now what the major differences are going to be,” says Reed. “Obviously, being in the city centre, you’ve got a bigger population to work with, but we’re excited to see the crowds that are going to come out this year and we’d hope people are checking in with more awareness of the event and more awareness for what we’re doing in general, that will drive engagement for all the things that we’re doing.”
One of the immediate and expected consequences of the move away from that is that the audience capacity will be reduced – 15,000 paying spectators are expected over the weekend, contrasted with the 35,000 who attended in Oslo – but the organisers do not believe the drop in ticket sales will negatively impact the event. Hafjell has a winter sports pedigree of its own – it held the slalom and giant slalom alpine skiing events when nearby Lillehammer hosted the 1994 Winter Olympic Games and the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics – and there is an ever-receptive audience for action events in a country like Norway.
“Last year’s games were a great success, it was really beyond our expectations,” says Henning Andersen, chief executive of SAHR Concepts. “Obviously in Norway there is a lot of interest in action sports; not just interest but participation as well. We asked in surveys before the event how many people actually went skiing or snowboarding on a regular basis and it was, like, 20 per cent of the population. So there was a huge welcoming for it, there has been a lot of snowboarding events in Norway but not an action sports event on that level so I think it was highly anticipated, and we have already had equal anticipation for Hafjell.
“It’s a couple of hours’ drive from Oslo, so it will be a different event; it’s a bit more complicated because you have to go by train and stay overnight, it’s more of an effort than just buying a ticket and jumping on the bus. We were more limited in terms of our course in Oslo because you have to build everything, but here you have the advantages of the natural environment which is fantastic; it’s going to be a great arena. Also, there are more participation opportunities for people coming who want to snowboard or ski.”
The big air jump in the centre of Oslo had a number of ticketed seats, but Andersen estimates that over 6,000 people crowded into the city’s University Botanical Garden to get a view of the action. Aside from this audience being keen winter and action sports fans, he says, a crucial element is that they are young, digital natives, who are sharing images, videos and other content from the event – which benefits both the X Games organisers and, as importantly, the sponsors.
“We have actually quadrupled our sponsors despite the lower ticket sales,” he explains. “And that’s because the event last year was such a success, not only in terms of spectators but television-wise and digitally. We reached 500 million people who actively logged in and interacted with the X Games Norway content.”
Andersen describes the previous process of measuring the success of an event by its TV ratings as “the old world”, claiming that it is increasingly losing relevance for the X Games brand and its audience. New methods, which take into account the “sum of everything that is exposed and engaged with”, including in-venue, on TV broadcasts and across digital and social media, offer a much more salient set of measurements.
The benefit of the event’s rights holder also being the host broadcaster – and ESPN, as Reed points out, airs the X Games Norway in “over 190 countries, giving almost half a billion people globally access” through its own channels and broadcast partners – is that it can share as much or as little as it likes of the content digitally, without running into any licensing restrictions. Part of the X Games’ social strategy has been, in Andersen’s words “to invite the fans and the athletes and the media and the partners into the conversation, so they’re all taking part in creating that user-generated content”.
“We have to be much more open, we have to let people use our content in a much freer way,” he says. “The athletes who came to X Games Norway last year had 31 million followers between them across social media. That’s an enormous figure; it rivals what the Olympics has. If you’re telling people, ‘No, you can’t use this, you can’t use that,’ you’re deliberately limiting the audience who will see your content and therefore limiting the exposure for yourself and for your content.”
Andersen points to the likes of American skateboarder Nyjah Huston and Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris as popular athletes competing at the X Games who “have huge apparatus around them, their sponsors and partners who are really getting advanced and really involved” in the production of content, something other rights holders – he names no names – may have attempted to shut down, but which ESPN and TV 2 are more than happy to allow.
“Red Bull Media House, for instance – how clever they have become in creating high-quality content, using GoPros and such things, and they have a much bigger distribution than even most TV networks in the world,” he adds. “That’s the new way for us to work. Before you’d have to say, ‘This is exclusive and it’s only for this TV channel.’ Now it has to be an exclusive on television, but you invite everybody else to join the conversation.”
The question, he says, then becomes: “‘How do you document and measure that and expand your income through that open-source strategy?’
“And I think we have succeeded with doing that,” he concludes. “We can see it in the pricing of the Norwegian sponsorships, that they are not only paying to reach the TV viewers but the friends of the friends who attend the event. As long as we can document it and it’s hooked into the hashtag and our own handles, we can leverage that. Even if maybe 80 per cent of the investment of sponsors is in television because it has to have this infrastructure, the 20 per cent that you invest in social media is what is creating the hype. I’m sure that in the years to come that we will go to more like a 50/50 investment split, or maybe we don’t even separate them.”
Andersen stresses the continued importance of delivering “a world class TV production” noting that it is the event’s roots and remains “the main, iconic product that everyone refers to”. Though combined viewing figures for the Summer and Winter X Games in the US in 2016 continued their downward trend from a peak of 17 million in 2014, they remained at a healthy 14 million, and the TV product will continue to drive the digital side.
The X Games itself has recently struck a deal of its own with GoPro, something Reed says they are still working out how exactly to integrate into the broadcast product, but which will certainly enhance the immersion levels and lead to new kinds of imagery that can be shared, “being able to follow athletes off jumps”.
“The first-person perspectives,” he says, “are awesome.”
Those cameras debuted at the X Games Aspen in January, just over a month before the Norway edition takes place, and Andersen confesses that SAHR continues “to learn a lot” from its more established American counterpart. Reed is confident, however, that the presence of the Aspen event will provide a boost to Hafjell’s visibility, with the relationship being mutually beneficial.
“As part of our Aspen broadcast and coverage, of course the fact that Norway is happening will come up, so there’s a natural connection between the two that helps give some continuity,” says Reed. “And then it kinda flips at Norway, where there’ll be a lot of looking back to Aspen and reflecting on athlete performance.”
With the Olympics in PyeongChang looming – the first Winter Games to come at the peak of Instagram-mania – that visibility and continuity for winter and action sports is only going to increase. And, as the inclusion of skateboarding on the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020 has shown, the extreme sports audience is one the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is intent on capturing. A greater mainstream presence for the X Games may be on the horizon.