X Games' Sal Masekela
August 27, 2007 1:53 PM
With all the talk of football’s and baseball’s trials and tribulations in recent weeks, lost in the mix has been the success of X Games 13, held in Los Angeles earlier this month. The annual competition scored its highest television ratings as well as a record online audience this year.
Nearly 38 million fans tuned into the action sports games on television to watch their share of skateboarding, BMX and rally car, to name a few sports, with ratings up 7 percent from the 2006 competitions. Overall, X Games 13 averaged a 1.0 household coverage rating on ESPN, a 19 percent increase from 2006.
Online, EXPN.com earned its most overall traffic, ever with live webcasts for the first time on the outlet. Unique visitors more than doubled 2006 numbers, with more than half a million visiting the site and more than 3.2 million page views.
I sat down with X Games host Sal Masekela to discuss the state of the action-sports industry. We talked about everything from unions for professional X Games athletes to the chances of certain X Games events hitting the Olympics to the influence of his father, musician Hugh Masekela, on his career.
You worked your first X Games event in January 1999. Did you ever imagine nearly 10 years later that you would be described as the face and voice of action sports?
Sal: No, never in a million years did I think I’d be described that way. I never would have guessed it, 18 years ago, when I first started as an athlete.
How do you feel watching the entire category explode, even seeing international press at X Games?
Sal: It’s amazing. I got to be involved in action sports in my teen years at the perfect time when it was fringe and subculture. It was like punk rock was in the ’70s, or what hip-hop was in the early ’80s. That’s what action sports were in the late ’80s through the mid ’90s. When I look at the path of my career, the timing was perfect. I don’t think someone could just come along and get to do what I’m doing now out of the blue because of exactly what you mentioned. It is so huge now, the amount of attention that the X Games draws on an international level is just mind-blowing.
Where do you see these sports going in 10 years? What’s the next level?
Sal: In 10 years, I think we’ll be laughing at what we thought was possible now, which I’m sitting here witnessing thinking it’s impossible. But to be a 15-year-old kid now, sitting at home watching the level of what’s possible now and having that in your head that it’s reachable, I couldn’t comprehend what that’s like.
I think the sports as a whole will be better organized. The different unions for the athletes, I’d like to see them better organized so that the professionals that are these kids that are in their 20s now, that are putting themselves through, let’s face it, there is a 10-year career in this business that is exciting and exceptional. But unlike the NBA and MLB that have amazing pension programs for their athletes, those kinds of programs don’t exist right now in action sports. So you end up with a here today, gone today sort of thing. I definitely would like to think and hope that the sports have really grown on that level.
I know the summer sports would have broken the Olympic barrier by then, definitely—skateboarding and BMX I think would have broken the Olympic barrier by then a couple times over.
What did you learn from your father about performing, whether it’s on a skateboard or in the broadcast booth?
Sal: I grew up in jazz clubs with my dad from my earliest memory. I remember growing up and staying with my dad on the weekends at 4, even 5 years old and being in clubs and watching him play. I could say I’ve seen thousands of my dad’s shows on the road and on tour with him, and I learned how to just be straight with the audience. My dad has never gotten on stage and put himself on any pedestal above the people that he’s talking to, playing for and entertaining.
Because of that, I watched people become very endeared to him and his storytelling. He always made sure that he identified with his audience. So for me, that’s the one thing that I learned about this job: … Never detach yourself and assume any sort of alternative reality, because the audience can smell that, and the second you do that you sort of detach from them. That’s no fun because your job, my job, is to connect with them and communicate and translate to them what’s happening and figure out ways for them to be able to comprehend what they are seeing, because they don’t get to exist in the environment that I do.
I think that’s the main thing I learned from my pop—and to always have a good time. I hope that people get that if “this guy” is having a good time, maybe there is a reason why I should stick around and watch.
Was it difficult for you the first time you got behind a microphone?
Sal: Honestly, no. The first time I got behind a microphone, it came as naturally as anything has ever come to me. I was always a ham as a kid and played music, sang in a choir. For a little while I thought I was going down the same road as my father, until I got to be about 14 or 15 and I realized that trying to walk in the same footsteps, people were expecting a lot of you. At that age, I saw down the line how people would want to eat you alive if you weren’t at the level of what your father’s done. When I look at what my dad’s done, not only musically but socially and just for mankind in general, that’s like, “Hmmm, I think I’m going to go in another direction.”
I love music, I still love music, I do some stuff with my cousin who is a music producer, but when I got on a mike for some reason, the first time I remember emceeing an event in ’93 or ’94, I felt like I had done it a thousand times. It was a trip, it was like a surreal experience.
Pulling everybody in, I think that’s inherited.
You’ve already done a lot of work in front of the camera. What projects are next for you?
Sal: I have a film company called Berkela Films that I started with my partner to try to tell the real stories of action sports that matter. We’re trying to show the character of these guys beyond what you get in the videos, which is action, action, action, and slow it down and tell a story of these guys.
I put out “Disposable Hero”—we did all the distribution for that. We have a new movie called “Bra Boys,” which is about this surf club/gang in Sydney, Australia, that really shows that surfing is all these kids have. A lot of them come from broken homes, and we show how surfing and how them sticking together as a brotherhood has really taken them through some horrific things, including, at one point, a murder trial. It’s narrated by Russell Crowe. That comes out in mid-October.
We also just wrapped on our first feature, called “Switch,” about three kids who have a love of snowboarding, which bound them together in childhood, who then go on to become pro. So now you see what happens when the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll parts of being a pro athlete come into play. We’re putting that out next fall.
Of course, I had a real blast working on “Surf’s Up” for Sony, and I hope to continue that in the future as well.