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ESPN sells X Games to MSP Sports Capital

Aspen Skiing Co. has hosted the Winter X Games since 2002, has a contract through 2024
Gus Kenworthy competes in the 2021 men’s superpipe finals at the Winter X Games in Aspen. ESPN has sold the X Games to franchise to MSP Sports Capital but will continue to air the events. (Michael Ciaglo/Associated Press)

ESPN is selling the X Games franchise to a New York private equity firm invested in car racing and European soccer teams.

MSP Sports Capital announced it has acquired a majority interest in the Disney-owned network’s X Games at the end of October, which includes the Winter X Games festival hosted by Aspen Skiing Co. since 2002. MSP Sports Capital, which formed in 2019, is invested in the Formula One McLaren Racing and four soccer clubs in Belgium, Germany, Portugal and Spain.

MSP Sports Capital will own a majority of the X Games franchise and ESPN Productions will retain a minority interest while serving as the broadcast partner for the summer and winter events. MSP will run day-to-day operations at the Aspen X Games.

MSP co-founder and CEO Jeff Moorad, in a statement, said his firm was excited about being “the new stewards of such an important part of sports history and its re-imagined future.”

Aspen has shepherded the Winter X Games from sporting events to annual festivals, with tens of thousands attending both concerts and contests. The X Games has matured in Aspen, growing from daredevil contests – like shovel racing – to sports featuring Olympic-caliber athletes. Many of the most recognized action sports and new-school Olympics athletes got their start at the Aspen X Games. The Olympics has embraced the new generations of X Games-honed athletes, creating more X Games-like events with each Olympics Games.

Aspen Skiing Co. vice president John Rigney visited with MSP Sports Capital bosses at the X Games event in January and “they were very complimentary and seemed excited with how the events were run,” he said.

“I’m super-curious as to their vision of the X Games brand and specifically what they are hoping to do in Aspen,” said Rigney, who has worked with ESPN on every Aspen Winter X Games since 2002. “I think it’s going to be exciting to have some new energy and some fresh perspectives. And I like that ESPN has their finger in the pie and will remain in the mix. They have the institutional knowledge and know-how that makes the X Games shine.”

In a column this spring in Sportico magazine, Moorad tracked the evolution of investment in sports organizations as an asset, not just an ego-driven pursuit for uber-wealthy individuals. A growing number of private equity and venture capital funds like MSP Sports Capital are investing in sports teams and values for teams and leagues are outpacing more traditional investments, Moorad wrote.

“We believe that the combination of competitive dynamics, cultural significance and increasing management sophistication positions teams, leagues and sports-related businesses for continued growth of revenues, incomes and valuations,” wrote Moorad, who founded MSP Sports Capital with Phoenix Suns minority owner Jahm Najaf and Arne Rees, the North American head of sports technology company Sportsradar.

ESPN founded the X Games in 1995, offering a platform for a new generation of action sports athletes. The summer and winter events also created a new way to watch action sports, offering never-before-seen views of skiing, snowboarding, motocross, snowmobiling, BMX and skateboarding.

A statement from MSP Sports Capital announcing the acquisition said the company “will focus on infusing new energy” into the X Games brand, by prioritizing “premiere athlete and fan experiences” and investing in new technology “to launch the brand into the future.”

Aspen Skiing Co and the communities of the Roaring Fork Valley have been key partners for ESPN, hosting the Winter X Games for 21 years at the Buttermilk ski area. ESPN and Aspen Skiing Co. inked a contract in 2019 to host the X Games through January 2024.

ESPN explored other venues to host the Winter X Games but always returned to Aspen, renewing agreements with Aspen Skiing Co. in 2004, 2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2019.

Aspen is part of the “original DNA of what the Winter X Games has become,” said Steven Flisler, the newly tapped CEO of the X Games who attended his first Winter X Games in January. He recently was the vice president for content at the livestreaming service Twitch.

Flisler said MSP Sports Capital is focused on making the X Games more accessible for more people at both the live events and on digital platforms. MSP Sports Capital is still studying expansion plans for the Winter X Games.

“We are going to be really smart,” Flisler said. “We want an event that makes the most sense as we expand it and make it more accessible and get the right fit. It’s got to make sense. Aspen’s legacy is an opportunity for us to have a launching point.”

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