X Games excels at X-selling

In Communicate, Dubai, Marketing, Published journalism on November 23, 2010 at 10:22 am

Dubai is full of bored middle-class kids with a thirst for rebellion and Mountain Dew. The X Games brings both, with branding to boot

Originally published in Communicate, January 2008

Not content with importing replicas of the pyramids, faux Taj Mahals and inoffensive clones of famous art galleries, the UAE has been striving to import subculture in the form of the X Games.

After being dropped off in 4x4s, thousands of surly youths last month trudged to a makeshift skate park at the back of Festival City. Checking their bikes, boards and inlines at the gate, the nobody-understands-mes of Dubai scowled from beneath Korn hoodies at the likes of Garrett Reynolds in the BMX freestyle street event (who was “psyched to have won”), Tyler Hendry (skateboard street, “It was very close and I’m so stoked”), and Greg Hartman, who – according to a press release – pulled a switchblade no-footed can flip to win his Moto X best trick medal. Awesome.

Perhaps gnarly ollies and bodacious grinds are only as alien as the subcultural lingo of the marketer on the street. Would an alley-oop goofy gay twist beat ROI on a POS dangler in a game of terminology top trumps?

Regardless, these sullen skaters – all image conscious young consumers of the future – represent a massive market for the back-street branders and the venue was plastered with sponsors’ logos – ESPN put their name to the event, nuclear-yellow Mountain Dew was the drink of the day, and Vivitar made sure athletes’ wives were seen with their limited-edition gold cameras.

The merchandise stalls did a roaring trade, and the games attracted almost 29,000 spectators.

This year was the first that the Games were an actual competition, as opposed to a mere showcase of stunts. While any sport performed by athletes still in their prime in the region is a rarity, it is easy to see why the X Games might appeal to the denizens of the UAE.

Not all of these athletes were especially, well, fit.

That’s not to say they weren’t very good at what they did. When Communicate went along, bikes were doing amazing things in the air they wouldn’t normally do, bar in the milliseconds following a high-speed collision with a car, and the commentator (think of a stoned Des Lynham) was talking that peculiar patois of x-treme sports pundits at high speed into his mic.

There was even a half-hearted attempt to raise a cheer for “the local boy.” “Well, he owns a house here, at least,” conceded the compere.

But, up close, the competitors were slightly more average than the average professional sportsman. There was more pockmarked skin, more graying hair, more middle-aged spread.

And a slightly shocked look of recognition that comes from being in a country where drugs are unobtainable. After twenty-odd years of looking at the ramps through a cannabis haze, Dubai must have seemed like the oddest trip gone wrong.

These men dressed as boys were hanging upside down, suspended in space and time for a dazzling flash of surrealism in front of the Burj Dubai, towering a million miles tall, and Al Jadaf boatyard, where dhows are being nailed together as they have been for centuries.

Sure, it wasn’t real homegrown subculture. Sure, the athletes were just 30-something versions of the middle-class brats who came to watch them, but while many of the kids in the crowd and a few of the “grown-ups” in the air fell flat on their faces, from a marketing standpoint the X-Games caught some mad air.


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