The Olympic slopestyle brouhaha and the consistent dissing the ASP has been getting in recent weeks, among other things, has got us thinking about the future for competitive freesports here at ACM Towers. Namely, how is that future going to unfold?
Clearly, our sports are massive like never before. But a fundamental problem must be solved if they are ever going to make the leap across the remaining chasm between core and mainstream: how to tweak formats in a way that all camps – athletes, core spectators and mainstream onlookers, who will only ever turn on a couple of times a year – will understand and appreciate?
The cry from the core camp is always the same. ‘Why should I care? It won’t change the way I enjoy skating/snowboarding/surfing’. Very true – and not just for this sport. After all, if video goal line technology is introduced in football to tweak the format of the professional game, it will have very little effect on how things go down at my weekly Wednesday five-a-side. But change happens anyway. And our sports are no different.
One key difference between football and, say, snowboarding, is the difference in how easy both sports are to understand. Point a camera at a football pitch, or show somebody the highlight of a game like the Germany v Italy semi final at the World Cup in 2006, and it’s fair to say that someone who had never seen the sport before could get caught up in the drama and sporting theatre. That’s not quite the case with action sports, the intricacies of which can take years to understand and appreciate. Hell, even seasoned observers get the trick names wrong.
And that’s one of the major obstacles action sports face before they can achieve true mainstream acceptance. Witness the half pipe at the last Winter Olympics. Much of the hype around that event, particularly in the media, centred around personalities, and pundits repeatedly telling the uninitiated how hard and dangerous tricks like double corks are. And it worked, in a way. Even my Mum had an opinion on the double cork by the time Shaun White stepped onto the podium. But as a means of maintaining interest in the sport, is it not particularly sustainable. At some point, punters are going to have to get what is going on if they are ever going to turn on their TVs in large numbers.
So what’s the solution? It’s a debate that is being played out right now across action sports, as event organisers experiment with formats and judging to try and achieve this delicate balance. TV is certainly the main driving force behind this effort. Rumours have been swirling for months that the only reason slopestyle has been fast tracked into Sochi 2014 is at the behest of NBC, the TV company that control the rights to the Winter Olympics. It also explains the success of the X-Games, at an event that has clearly been designed to look good on TV first and foremost. Incidentally, I also heard an interesting anecdote from Ed Leigh recently about how the only snowboarding event the BBC will touch for Ski Sunday is the Air and Style – purely because they feel it’s the only event where the production levels are high enough. Take a look at the footage above to see what you think.
Looked at from this perspective, the IOC’s preference to work with FIS on snowboarding makes a kind of sense. FIS might not have been running snowboarding contests very long, but they have certainly been running large scale, TV-friendly ski comps for a very long time indeed.
So what all that in mind, it’s interesting to speculate how things will turn out. In snowboarding, all eyes will understandably be on the World Snowboarding Championships in Oslo next February. Run by the people behind the TTR, who have been protesting the most loudly against the FIS monopoly on snowboarding at the Olympics, it is surely going to be a competition that reflects their vision of how such events should be run. In surfing, the Quik Pro in New York is surely another effort to take the sport to the masses. After all that town has waves, but it would’t be for first choice to run a contest if waves were the sole priority.
And what about skateboarding? it might not be an Olympic sport yet (or ever, to the relief of most skaters), but events like the Street League and the recent Maloof Money Cup (above) are probably the most innovative examples of yet of an action sport attempting to package their complex offering for both audiences.
In truth, we’ve got no idea how this will turn out. It’s a story that will run as long as these sports exist. One thing is for sure: better this evolution is in the hands of those with the knowledge and expertise to truly do justice to their passions, than those solely attracted by the cash and opportunities suddenly on offer. Need a reason why you should care? There’s one.