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X marks the spot: Austin awarded Summer X Games from 2014-17

By John Maher - American-Statesman Staff



Austin, and Circuit of the Americas, have landed another major sporting event with an international profile.

The city will be host to the 2014-17 Summer X Games , ESPN officials announced Wednesday. In an attempt to avoid Austin’s sizzling summer heat, the games will be staged next year from May 15-18.

The competition will fall at the same time as graduation at the University of Texas, but Mayor Lee Leffingwell and a UT spokeswoman said that confluence wouldn’t create any insurmountable problems.

At a news conference at the circuit in Southeast Austin, Leffingwell was bullish on the games. “We’re going to have a lot of folks focused on Austin, even more than they are now,” he said.

The X Games are something of the Olympics for edgy action sports such as skateboarding, RallyCross and MotoCross. The ESPN creation, which made its debut as the Extreme Games in 1995, appeals to younger viewers.

X Games athlete Heath Voss, who lives in Mico, spoke by phone, while crop-dusting from a helicopter in Iowa, about Austin landing the games. “It kicks ass.” he said. “It’s good for Texas, good for the kids. It gives kids dreams to see that going on. …

“Austin is a go-to place in motor sports now, and the F1 track is awesome. Some people I’ve talked to said it was so smooth, it was like playing a video game.”

The X Games aren’t an international showcase on par with Formula One. Motor racing’s pinnacle held its first Grand Prix in Austin last year, and the event yielded a three-day attendance total of more than 265,000.

The X Games, however, might displace MotoGP as the second-biggest event at the young circuit, ahead of the Australian V8 Supercars and the American Le Mans Series and World Endurance Championships that will come to the track this fall.

Last year, the four-day attendance total for the Los Angeles X Games was 144,700, and the games are now televised in 182 countries outside the United States. A study of the 2010 Los Angeles games by Micronomics, a California company, pegged their economic impact at $50 million, including $20 million worth of media exposure.

This year, the X Games expanded to an international series with six stops, including Barcelona and Madrid. Since Circuit of the Americas came on line last year, that’s become the kind of international company Austin keeps.

“Austin has proven to be a very good big-event market,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice presidentof programming and X Games. “Certainly, it’s a city on the rise.”

At the end of an eight-month bidding process, ESPN picked Austin over three other finalists — Chicago, Detroit and Charlotte, N.C.

“I think it was close. It was very close,” circuit Chairman Bobby Epstein told the American-Statesman. “I’m very proud of the thousands of people who showed up when the committee was here. That had a huge impact. … It impressed me. That told me we were on the right track.”

A June street party near the Capitol and a vigorous Facebook campaign were just part of Austin’s winning effort. ESPN officials said it also proved to be an advantage for the 1,500-acre racing complex to have the Austin360 Amphitheater, which can hold 14,000 concert-goers.

“That’s going to be something we’re going to utilize quite a bit,” Guglielmino said. “We want to create a festival feel.”

The circuit also has an international media center and suites that can be used by corporations.

“Ultimately, the combination of resources, support and fit brought us to Austin, and we couldn’t be happier,” Guglielmino said.

ESPN’s decision hit hard in Detroit, where a grass-roots effort to attract the games had been embraced by young people intent on revitalizing that city.

“The X Games in Detroit would have been monumental for the brand, for the broader action sports industry and for our city,” the “unofficial official” Facebook page of the Detroit organizers mourned. The group vowed to fight on and possibly create their own version of the X Games.

In Chicago, the effort to land the games appeared, well, almost effortless as the city didn’t bother with Twitter and barely had a presence on Facebook.

Still, the Chicago Tribune compared the loss to that of 2009, when after spending $76 million and having President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey as advocates, Chicago finished last in a four-way competition that saw Rio de Janeiro awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Part of Circuit of the Americas’ formula for attracting international events has been the ability to tap event trust funds managed by the state comptroller. The Formula One race received $29.3 million from the state’s Major Events Trust Fund, and circuit spokeswoman Julie Loignon said the track anticipated that the X Games would qualify for reimbursement from the Events Trust Fund but had yet to confirm that with state officials.

“The Circuit Events Local Organizing Committee would request and provide an economic-impact study for the Austin games as part of an ETF application to the state of Texas. We will have a better estimate on the economic impact when that study has been completed,” Loignon said in an email.

As part of the circuit’s bid, the city agreed in May to waive $150,000 in fees, including police officers to provide security. The City Council will still have to give final approval.

“The city is in the planning stages for this event, and no final decisions have been made in terms of large-scale infrastructure improvements or locations for outside events away from the site,” city spokesman Kyle Carvell said.

Skeeter Miller, co-owner of The County Line restaurant chain and president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, said most of the apprehension that preceded the F1 race hasn’t been apparent in the association’s limited talks about the X Games.

“There was tension (before F1) because people didn’t know how many visitors wouldn’t speak English or if they wouldn’t tip or if there would be smoking issues,” Miller said. “And I don’t think we saw any of those things becoming problems. Now we’re all just excited to see things like (the X Games) come here.”

Bill Aleshire, a former county judge and frequent critic of city subsidies, said, “Who can object to having people come here, spend money and leave? If that’s all it is, great. But there are lots of small businesses that generate sales taxes without getting our precious, stretched public dollars. I don’t think we’ve dealt with the issue of government picking winners and losers.”

“Maybe,” Aleshire added, “if they would let the public pick their least favorite politicians and make them compete in every event, it would assuage some of the concerns.”

Although the bulk of the competition will be held at the circuit, a competition or some promotional events likely will be staged in downtown Austin.

Epstein said as part of the bidding process, ESPN personnel mapped out how the circuit could be used for various sports.

“They brought in a huge design team,” Epstein said. “They’re spending well into the eight figures on construction.”

The May date will conflict with commencement at UT, but university spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said it wasn’t a major concern: “As Austin continues to grow and become even more of a destination for out-of-town guests and popular events, there will be inevitable conflicts on the city’s event calendar. We anticipate that families and other guests will come to commencement next spring, as they always have, to celebrate the achievement of our graduates.”

Leffingwell said, “The X Games celebrate fitness, courage and individuality — traits greatly valued by our community — and we look forward to showing the world all of the wonderful things Austin has to offer.”

Additional material from Statesman staff writer Marty Toohey.


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