This just in: The X-Games, ESPN's annual salute to counterculture sports, baggy shorts and high insurance premiums, are now rated PG. Parental guidance is mandatory, as comedian Andy Dick, who hosted the six-day event's Kickoff Bash on Pier 30-32 in San Francisco last Thursday, discovered. Shortly after performing before a dyed and pierced audience, Dick went from manic to panic. The problem: His 11-year-old son, Lucas, was nowhere to be found. "He went off ice skating a few hours ago," Dick's assistant said, "and he hasn't come back. Andy's worried."
Like Dick, whose son was located in short order, the X-Games skysurf a fine line between maintaining their alternative appeal and playing the role of responsible legal guardian. For example, a new event, the freestyle moto-x step up, is basically a high jump competition for motocross riders, which led comedian Adam Carolla of Comedy Central's The, Man Show to say, "The X-Games are mainly dedicated to destroying the male scrotum area." On the other hand the X-Games are family-friendly. Admission is free, smoking and alcohol are forbidden. "Everything we do," says ESPN vice president of programming Ron Semiao, "is concerned with safety."
Tell that to the X-Games' street lugers, bicycle stunt riders and in-line skaters. "The other night a few of us found some flower boxes that had wheels on the bottom," said street luger Daryl Thompson, a hulking 6'6" guy who answers to the apt moniker of Lugenstein, "and we went flower-box racing on the streets. I don't know why we didn't get arrested."
Six years ago Semiao, at the time a programmer for ESPN2, approached then- ESPN-president Steve Bornstein with the X-Games concept. "I was immersing myself in learning alternative sports," Semiao says. "I thought that by creating our own event, we would, among other advantages, never have to worry about being outbid for it." Six years and as many Emmys later the X-Games maintain their appeal—and their steady if unspectacular Nielsen ratings—by creating television that is true to their hardcore niche audience. "The secret to the success of these games is not faking it," said Lugenstein, who would finish seventh in his event. "Kids can smell the stench of phoniness a mile away."