Hell Hath No Fury Like A Vert Skater Scorned – But Does ESPN Care?

By Sean Mortimer

According to attendees, there have been some rowdy ESPN X Games athlete meetings as of late. One might automatically blame street skaters jacked up on Red Bull, but the elder vert shredders are the ones heating up the meeting rooms. That’s what happens when you corral the world’s elite vert skaters and inform them that you're canceling the most important vert contest of the year. Yeah, that vert contest, you know, the one that’s been there from the start, back in 1995. The same event where Tony Hawk stomped a 9 and shot skateboarding (and the renamed X Games) into the mainstream sports arena. The mere suggestion that a vert ramp would be scraped for a skatepark course on steroids lit the skaters’ fuses.

“It sounds like a novelty,” says Tony Hawk. “If you're going to highlight a superpark, the gnar guys who ride pools or parks aren’t going to hit a fourteen foot vert section.” Since its inception, Hawk has won 16 gold medals from the X Games.

ESPN officially announced “The Death of Vert” Thursday, April 3, according to a story posted that evening at EXPN.com.

“The only reason I can think of for this change is that because they’re ESPN they want to be ahead of the curve,” says Andy Macdonald, who also has sixteen X Games medals. What seems to be sticking in the skaters’ craw is that ESPN appears to be merely asking the vert skaters for some sort of limp sign-off rather than direct input.

In an email, Chris Stiepock, an OG X Games executive, wrote: “We have been communicating with the skaters steadily for the last two weeks … some of them for the last month. As you can imagine they haven’t been shy with their input.”

Macdonald assumes that the X Games’ vert ratings have slid downhill over the years, but blames the constipated format. Skater takes his run. Waits for score. Another skater waits for run. Skates. Waits for score. It’s part doctor’s waiting room, part contest. In the 1980s, contests were vert jams with a lot of frenzied energy—thirty minutes of skaters dropping in one after another, going for broke. Bringing back that jam format could arguably energize, and essentially create, a whole new vert event.

2005-06 X Games. Photo: Kristina Ackerman

But we may never know. Stiepock describes the potential new event as “changing the ‘course’ [Stiepock’s quotes] from a halfpipe to more of a run of vert-and-tranny feature.” Burnquist, a skater who could murder a course like that, was not impressed. He reportedly replied that yeah, ESPN could invite him, but as a vert skater, he just wasn’t sure if he’d show up for a vert contest that, well, wasn’t a vert contest.

But when has ESPN ever pretended to be the bastion of skate culture or even interested in it except as a condiment to spice up skate shows? It’s simple broadcasting math: skating = ratings. (For now, at least.) ESPN is merely the most successful packager of skate contests for the mainstream. Macdonald understands that ESPN is naturally trying to increase ratings each year and that doesn’t always align with what skaters think is best for skating. “It’s trying to one-up itself each year, but how do you one up Jake almost killing himself?”

The vert skaters I spoke with assumed that ESPN’s decision was already a done deal. The open question is how the riders will react. It seems that ESPN feels it’s holding the pat hand with exposure and prize money, but these are the same skaters who almost boycotted the 2001 X Games over signing away their image rights for a Disney IMAX film. Disney, which owns ESPN, tried to play hardball but conceded at the 11th hour.

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