X Games are big business

Welcome to the Winter X Games, home of extreme sport, Right Guard extreme sport deodorant that is.

Dozens of those Right Guard sample deodorants, handed out by the case to spectators attending this weekend’s event at Buttermilk Mountain, litter the base area surrounding these games, tossed away by the type of audience that, frankly, doesn’t seem to desire a more powerful anti-perspirant.

But there’s Right Guard, taking its place alongside the other prominent sponsors of these games. Wrapped around every venue and cloaking every move made by the athletes are the ubiquitous signs of Jeep, Mountain Dew, Motorola, Taco Bell, Levis, Verizon, AT&T, and a host of other advertisers fighting for space.

To get to the venues, spectators must pass through a tent city of those advertisers, everyone raffling off snowboards on the hour, every hour. Everyone handing out freebies like Taco Bell cowbells and coffee tumblers, Jeep ski caps and plastic hand clappers, and Sony PlayStation inflatable sticks, which make it impossible to squeeze through the crowd without being bopped by a stranger.

Want to make a free call anywhere in the country? Stop by the Motorola booth and get a quick charge on your cell phone while you’re there. Want to find out more about breast cancer? Stop by the Boarding for Breast Cancer booth along the boardwalk. Want a new pair of Oakley sunglasses? The EXPN Pro Shop has you covered.

Love daredevils like motocross freestyle trickster Mike Metzger? Then check out “Daredevil,” the movie, staring Ben Affleck, in theaters everywhere Feb.14, a date that has been burned onto the brain of every kid here by a nonstop stream of ads for the film on the big screen TVs hovering over the park.

Welcome to the X Games, which has always prided itself on being outside the mainstream, of appealing to the anti-establishment crowd.

Yeah, right.

“Now there’s corporate stuff here out the …,” Brian Deegan said, a motocross freestyle cyclist whose Metal Mulisha crew, decked out in black leather and silver studs, prides itself on being as hardcore and anti-establishment as any group at the X Games. And yet, talking about the sponsorship of his Alpine sports counterparts, Deegan admits, “I’d put my bank account up against any of theirs.”

“I thought when the X Games started, it was supposed to be for the rebels, and it was supposed to have no rules, do whatever you want,” Deegan said. “But guess what? Now that we have bigger sponsors, we have some rules. That’s life. When you’re dealing with bigger money, you have more rules. That’s something I’ve had to accept. I bite my tongue sometimes, because I want to make money. I want to be rich, just like everyone else. But yeah, selling out is always the biggest fear.”

Everyone’s making money. Beyond the $500,000 in prize money this weekend, there are all the endorsement deals, some in the seven figures for athletes like snowboarder Ross Powers. The motocross guys like Deegan can make $50,000 in a weekend for landing back flips.

And, remember, the X Games were created by ESPN, whose parent company is a little enterprise you may have heard of, Disney.

“I’m not sure the X Games were ever an underground movement,” Powers said, a freestyle gold medalist at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics. “I mean, they started as a made-for-TV event, so they were always designed to sell ads. All this is nothing new.”

No, but the audience seemingly is. Younger, younger, younger is the cry among advertisers, seeking that coveted young adult demographic. “By aligning our brand with this event, we directly connect with our loyal PlayStation2 users and action-sports fans on a very personal level,” Ami Blaire said, director of product marketing for Sony.

“These games are just like Jeep,” Daimler Chrysler vice president Jeff Bell said. “They have a go-anywhere, do-anything attitude.”

It’s just that amidst all this rampant commercialism, the games don’t have quite the edge that their reputation suggests. On Saturday, for example, skittish ESPN officials wheeled out a heavier-than-usual security presence, ironically enough, because of fears of a scheduled peace rally in Aspen.

ESPN posted warnings all over the venues warning spectators that, “ESPN reserves the right to remove any sign at any time,” but still there were plenty of “Make snow, not war,” messages displayed in the crowds, and at the end of one Ultracross run, a couple of female streakers carrying anti-fur signs made it onto the course and posed for pictures with skiers before being whisked away by security.

Alas, they didn’t make it into the evening’s broadcast. After all, that would be bad for business.