Fabiola da Silva is the leading female medal-winner in X Games history, a seven-time in-line skating gold medalist, but she won’t even be in California when the games are contested today through Sunday at Staples Center and the Home Depot Center.
Dallas Friday won her fourth gold medal in wakeboarding last year, then talked about catching BMX rider Dave Mirra, who leads all X Games contestants with 14 gold medals.
But Friday’s dream will remain in dry dock because wakeboarding was eliminated from the X Games lineup this year for budgetary concerns -- it has cost more than $500,000 to stage the event in the Long Beach Marine Stadium.
And women’s in-line skating was dropped two years ago after organizers said the sport was no longer popular enough to be included.
Da Silva and Friday aren’t the only women who have had their sports cut from the X Games in recent years. When the games debuted in 1995, six of 29 events were specifically designed for women and another, the Eco Challenge, paired a man and woman. Of this year’s 16 events, there are only two -- skateboard vert and skateboard street -- for women.
It’s a disturbing enough trend that the Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing women’s sports, has become involved.
And it’s enough of a concern that female skateboarders, in part because they fear for their future at the X Games, have formed the Action Sports Alliance in an effort to gain more exposure for women’s action sports.
“I really don’t understand why they don’t have more women’s sports at the X Games,” Da Silva said. “It’s really a bummer. They have the opportunity to help women, but it seems like they just keep cutting us off.”
ESPN, owner of the X Games, is not ignoring the issue. John Skipper, the network’s executive vice president of content, met with leaders of the Action Sports Alliance on Wednesday evening to discuss larger prize purses and more television exposure for women’s action sports, among other issues.
“We’re committed to having women at the X Games in a meaningful way,” Skipper said. “By no means do we have a gender-driven agenda here. I think we just hit a little bit of a blip, but it is our intention to have more events with women in the coming years.”
Cara Beth Burnside can only hope. The leader of the Action Sports Alliance and the defending X Games gold medalist in the skateboard vert, Burnside had been waiting more than a year to have a sit-down meeting with ESPN executives.
Last year, the alliance threatened a boycott of the vert event because their complaints about low prize money -- women earned $2,000 for first place while men earned $50,000 -- were largely ignored.
The boycott was called off at the 11th hour when ESPN executives agreed to meet with Burnside and other alliance members. She said Wednesday that the wait was worth it, though she had agreed with Skipper not to discuss any details about the changes.
The parties are scheduled to meet again today.
“The meeting was very positive for the future of skateboarding and other women’s action sports,” Burnside said. “There will be some changes for this year and some major changes for next year.” Major issues for the alliance were increased prize money and television air time for women’s events.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, ESPN had raised the total prize money in women’s skateboarding to $28,000 -- with a first-place prize of $5,000 -- but that’s still paltry when compared with the men’s $225,000 total purse.
“We’re not asking for what the guys are getting,” said Burnside, 39. “But $5,000 for being the best in the world doesn’t seem fair. It’s good money for a teenager, but a lot of us are out here trying to make a living.”
More important than the money, Burnside said, is the exposure. Women’s action sports could grow rapidly, she said, if they were shown on ESPN during the X Games, but before Wednesday’s meeting there were no plans to televise any of the women’s events this year. Details of TV coverage could be worked out today.
The added exposure also helps attract sponsors and keep them happy, something Burnside said is vital to the survival of her sport because sponsors help pay travel costs and contest entry fees.
“We just want a validation for our sport,” Burnside said. “A little coverage on ESPN -- maybe a 10-minute highlight package and some interviews -- could go a long way toward growing the sport.”
Drew Mearns, a Virginia lawyer who helped organize the Action Sports Alliance and attended the meeting Wednesday with Burnside and Skipper, said he is confident that the major issues would be resolved.
“It’s clear that ESPN is going to make a commitment to do the right thing,” he said. “The proof will be in the action, but it’s clear that both are going in the right direction.”
ESPN isn’t the only one missing the boat with women. The Dew Action Sports Tour does not have any events for women and the LG Action Sports World Tour has women’s in-line skating only at its European stops.
Still, even staunch supporters acknowledge the difficulties of marketing women’s sports. Mainstream women’s sports, such as soccer and basketball, have struggled. Skateboarding and other action sports would be even more difficult to market.
“Action sports are a niche,” said Terry Dorner, vice president of World Sports and Marketing, the sport organizer for wakeboarding. “And women’s sports are a niche. When you niche a niche, it becomes an even tougher sell.”
The X Games adds and removes sports from its roster for a variety of reasons. Popularity of the sport and its ability to draw good television ratings among its 12- to 24-year-old male target audience are among them, but the ability of a sport to progress is the most important, according to Ron Semiao, senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment and the creator of the X Games.
“There is no list that defines what is an action sport, just like there is no list that defines what is an Olympic sport,” Semiao said. “At the beginning there was a lot of trial and error. Street luge was really cool to watch and the crashes were cool, but there was a real lack of progression with the sport.”
So the sport was trimmed from the 2001 lineup, joining a long list of sports that included bungee jumping, sky surfing and kite skiing that had been trimmed in previous years.
Perhaps their biggest flaw was that they didn’t use a motorized vehicle.
Since the debut of motorcycles at the 1999 X Games, the number of motorized-vehicle events has climbed from one to five, while skateboarding, BMX and surfing are the only remaining sports that do not use engine power.
Rally car racing makes its debut this year -- “It involves dirt and sliding and jumping,” said Ken Block, a lifelong skateboarder who has become a motor-sport convert and will compete in the new event. “There are usually some pretty good crashes. All that combined makes it a good fit” -- and, according to ESPN executives, is in keeping with the X Games’ growth.
“Everyone on Earth loves a motor,” Semiao said. “And our research has shown that is what our viewer is interested in.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that BMX and skateboarding are going to be eliminated. They are the exceptions to the motor-sports trend because they continue to evolve and remain popular among viewers, Semiao said
“You look at skateboarding and BMX and you see an incredible progression,” he said. “Runs and tricks that won in the early years wouldn’t be close to a medal now.
“Those events are the heart and soul of the X Games. They don’t have anything to worry about.”
The only non-motorized sport added since 1999 is men’s surfing, which debuted in 2003. Skipper said women’s surfing is among the sports being considered for future games.
But even though there is a women’s motocross racing tour, no women have been invited to compete in the X Games’ moto X freestyle, best trick, step up or supermoto events, or any other motorized sports event.
There will be a wakeboarding demonstration in a man-made pool at the Home Depot Center this week, but it will include only male competitors. It’s a concern for Dorner, the wakeboarding executive, but losing status at the X Games is an even bigger concern.
“What we have to do is reinvent our sport for the X Games,” he said.
The Action Sports Alliance is hoping to reinvent the way women athletes are treated at the X Games. It has already made headway with skateboarding. For example, last year there were only five female skaters in the vert competition. This year, eight have been invited.
Also, Burnside and Jen O’Brien, a co-founder of the alliance, have been added to the athlete selection committee. Previously, the women’s skaters had been selected by an all-male board.
Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said an improved selection process is an important first step.
“I don’t think there has been any methodical act of discrimination against women by ESPN,” she said. “The X Games just developed in an uncontrollable way. They assumed these third-party selection committees were knowledgeable about women’s sports, but they weren’t. There have been shortcomings in the selection process.”
There is a risk in speaking up, Burnside said. Women’s skateboarding could conceivably go the way of wakeboarding and in-line skating. But risk-taking is part of what being a pioneer is all about.
“Sure, you worry about that, but the other choice is to sit back and do nothing and just accept what they give you,” Burnside said. “My goal is not to bad-mouth anyone, my goal is just to be heard.”
For now, Burnside said the main focus of the alliance is skateboarding, but the long-term goal is to help all female action sports athletes.
It might be too late for such popular X Games athletes as Da Silva, who said she will miss being at the games this year but is thankful that in-line skating is still a part of other events.
This weekend, she will participate in Mat Hoffman’s “Crazy Freakin Stunt Show” in St. Louis.
“I will miss the X Games for sure,” she said. “But there’s nothing I can do about it right now, so I’m not going to stress about it.”
Though she’ll be unable to add to her medal count, Da Silva will be skating in front of an audience. And she said it would be worth missing all the X Games in the world if only one little girl wants to give the sport a try after seeing her compete.
“If I can’t skate at the X Games, at least I can skate somewhere,” she said. “And if just one person sees me and likes it, then that’s helping the sport.”
* When: Today through Sunday.
* Where: Staples Center and Home Depot Center.