"Our Customers Can Sniff Through Any Kind of Hard Sell. And When They Do, They're Gone."ESPN Takes Retailing to the Extreme
The arena pulses with teen adrenaline. Zitty-faced skater kids zip down the half pipe, wide-eyed with arms flailing, launching themselves high over the lip in a mad grab for phat air and a dervishy display of kick flips and McTwists. The sound system cranks out Black Uhuru as a dred street skater, his baggy DKNYs riding at half-mast, attempts a crooked grind down a handrail and crashes on his cakes. A gaggle of ramp heads screech encouragement, urging him to try again. He does — and this time, he sticks it. The scruffy bystanders erupt in cheers, and one kid shrieks the ultimate compliment: "THAT WAS SICK!"
Welcome to ESPN's Extreme Games. Or rather, welcome to ESPN's grassroots version of the X Games: a pickup amateur competition at the X Games skate park in Philadelphia's sprawling Franklin Mills mall. Two years ago, ESPN teamed up with the Mills Corp., a big-league shopping-center developer, to bring the X Games to the mall in the form of state-of-the-art stunt biking, in-line skating, and skateboarding facilities. ESPN and Mills have debuted four parks so far — in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Denver, and Dallas — in what amounts to a bold bid by ESPN to break the X brand out of the TV box.
For ESPN, the stakes couldn't be higher. Skateboarding is the fastest-growing sport in the country. While the number of kids playing organized football and baseball dropped by nearly 10% from 1995 to 2000, skateboarding surged by an astounding 102%. That five-year period coincides with the birth of the X Games in 1995, which capitalized on kids' growing fascination with on-the-edge sports by televising out-of-control risk taking in a controlled environment. But to keep pace with such hypergrowth, the X Games must build its next generation of viewers — starting now.
Despite its all-sports, all-the-time formula, a media giant such as ESPN can't connect directly with what it euphemistically calls its "customers." That's why it's heading for the mall. By building a big retail presence, the sports network hopes to get up close and personal with an elusive audience: testosterone-fueled half-pipe urchins and the true-believing posers (male and female alike) who hang with them.
"I've always said that skate parks are the ball fields of the 21st century," says Ron Semiao, who helped create the X Games and who now heads up its programming. "We're trying to bring the X Games to our customers in a way that touches their everyday lives. By giving this next generation a quality opportunity to do the sports, hopefully they will watch the sports on ESPN."
ESPN is hardly the first company to turn its brand into a destination. Disney, Nike, Warner Brothers — more than a decade ago, these and many other established companies rolled out multistoried showplaces across the country and filled them with their plunder. But the Disney Stores of the world are more about selling Winnie the Pooh underwear than about reaching customers in a genuinely new way. ESPN seems to understand that if it's not delivering a real, interactive experience — if it's not sincere — it will not succeed. "Our customers can sniff through any kind of hard sell," says Semiao. "And when they do, they're gone."
That's why if you walk into the X Games skate park at the Franklin Mills mall, you'll find that there's 30,000 square feet of rollable terrain — a baroque installation of half pipes, jumps, ramps, and rail slides — and just 10,000 square feet of space for selling stuff. The "pro shop," as it's called, is stocked with merchandise from the big names of the skate world: Birdhouse, DC, Etnies, Globe, plus one lone rack of X Games caps and T-shirts. Apparently, ESPN is not putting a lot of marketing muscle into selling X Games paraphernalia. "Parents mostly buy that stuff, trying to prove to their kids that they're hip," says Mike Hathcote, regional manager of ESPN's skate parks.
ESPN's parks have far more value as learning labs than as retail outlets. And 13-year-old Kyle Knoblauch is their version of a guinea pig. Decked out in a Seed beanie and a black Circa T-shirt emblazoned with a hot-white skull, Knoblauch is adept at kicking ollies over three-foot barriers. X Games marketers want to know all about this diminutive acolyte of stunts and amplitude — and thousands more just like him. What's he wearing? What's he listening to? What new tricks is he into? "Staying on top of the latest trends is a huge priority for us," says Scott Guglielmino, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. "These parks allow a massive television company to be in touch with our core group 365 days a year and potentially jump on the next trend before we read about it in a newspaper."
Ron Pompei, the design architect who helped pioneer the brand-destination concept a decade ago when he launched the Lab, a southern California "antimall" designed as a hangout for 18-to-25-year-olds, believes that a brand can no longer simply put out a message — it must now deliver an experience. "Skate parks personalize the X Games brand in a way that advertising never could, because they let kids live the product. And if it's a good experience, the kids will be grateful to ESPN for creating it. They'll look at the brand as a benevolent force in their lives."
What do the grommets of the skating world think of ESPN's bid to immerse them in the X Games brand? A thoroughly unscientific polling at the Franklin Mills mall tapped a consensus that's best summed up by Ki Realer, a 22-year-old who has been riding for nine years: "They'll use skateboarding to market anything — we understand that. The big thing is, they're giving us something back. They're giving us all of this." And with that, he kicks his board to the lip of the half pipe and drops in.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.