Shredding it up in Motown

Two 20-somethings carry the hope of a metropolis on their backs in an effort to bring the X Games to Detroit.

To see Michigan hometown athlete Brandon Dosch shred a BMX dirt bike course is something to behold. The recent silver medalist from X Games Brazil may now be coming home to X Games Detroit in 2014. “It would mean the world to me to compete in front of my city,” Dosch says. Such are the rich possibilities for the Motor City — one of four finalist cities in competition for the ESPN X Games expansion in summers of 2014-2016.

We have Action Sports Detroit LLC to thank for this chance. Action Sports is Kevin Krease and Garret Koehler — the team behind Detroit’s X Games bid. The other finalist cities are Chicago, Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. ESPN promises a decision as early as in the second half of June.

Recently back from Barcelona, Spain, to observe one of six current annual international X Games events, Krease and Koehler of Action Sports are energized. We meet at Great Lakes Coffee’s charming Midtown location. These two college friends from Ohio’s Miami University are in their mid-20s, youthful and vibrant. They see this city as the ultimate place for the X Games. Koehler speaks of “a perfect alignment between the grittiness of Detroit and the grittiness of the X Games.”

In early May, Action Sports released a video supporting this city’s bid for the X Games. The video, produced by the Work Inc., a Detroit-based production house, includes poignant, vivid camera shots showcasing the city. It features young bikers, skateboarders and a rally car racer covering terrain from Belle Isle to Campus Martius. From the abandoned train station to the Ambassador Bridge, this video’s hard-edged vision of the city and its inspired youth culture is completely captivating.

ESPN’s X Games are the widely popular and quintessential extreme sports Olympics: from skateboarding to BMX biking to motocross, rally car racing and beyond. These are the very elite top athletes in their games performing breakthrough tricks and athletic acrobatics. The summer X Games may now be venturing from their glamorous Los Angeles home base to gritty Detroit, home of survivors.

In the early 1990s, ESPN saw a punk rock-inspired Generation X demographic that wasn’t necessarily watching football, and seized upon it. The games, which began in 1995 in Rhode Island and have called L.A. their primary home over the years, now include a winter games in Aspen, Colo., as well as events in Brazil, Barcelona, Munich, Germany and Tignes, France — all part of ESPN’s global expansion of the X Games to six annual events. Originally titled the “Extreme Games,” the event has included sports later incorporated into the Olympics and has contributed to the definition of an action sports lifestyle.

The X Games in Detroit would, according to Krease, likely be a three-day event held in late July or early August for three consecutive years, 2014-2016. The events, which have changed over the years, would certainly include skateboarding, motocross, BMX biking and rally cars, but going back to past X Games, may even include street luge and bungee jumping. According to Krease, “There could be wakeboarding in the Detroit River. It is an open platform to do some interesting things.”

Koehler describes these games as a “celebration of youth culture.” He begins: “X Games is a brand ESPN started comprised of action sports never before televised — an entire brand created around the action sports lifestyle. A lot of the events in the X Games later became Olympic sports. They are a cutting-edge brand. What is happening in Detroit is in perfect alignment with the X Games brand. Young people are taking action, taking risks to succeed in this city.” Koehler speaks fondly of the current business climate in Detroit and its favorability to young people exploring new ventures.

According to Krease, “What is attractive about X Games is what is attractive about Detroit. The X Games are all about action — action sports and action generally. Detroit is also about action and creating meaningful change.”

The two men feel Detroit is the ideal host city for these games because of the synergies between the event’s brand and Detroit’s well-acknowledged vibe. “X Games is a gritty extreme event. Detroit is a city of extremes — extreme wealth and extreme poverty,” Koehler says. “We believe this event can bridge these extremes and build stronger community.”

X Games is hugely popular among young people. The average attendee is 23 years old. This fits well with a growing youth community in this city, Krease explains. “Young people want to fix a lot of problems and stresses of the city,” he says, adding, “X Games is a platform to share the new story of Detroit and what is changing for the positive here.”

“This city embodies perseverance, more so than our competition,” Koehler says. “Austin or Charlotte would hold events at a race track outside the city. We’re proposing they hold events in spaces that these athletes are already performing in anyway. The urban environment of Detroit allows the showcasing of talent — whether BMX biking or skateboarding — in areas of the city they are always showcasing their talents.” The powerful video by the Work made as part of this city’s campaign for the games aptly captures this vision with local athletes riding and skating in Detroit’s gritty urban places and spaces.

“Action sports are about a lot more than sports,” Koehler says. “They are about lifestyles, building communities and events built in public spaces, not in private racetracks outside of town.”

According to an economic impact study of the 2010 X Games in Los Angeles (done by Micronomics, Inc.), that year’s games produced as much as $50 million in identifiable benefits to Los Angeles. The team at Action Sports Detroit feels very realistically that three years of summer X Games in Detroit, from 2014-2016, could bring $150 million in economic benefits to the city.

Furthermore, based on historical numbers, they feel attendances can safely be forecast at 150,000 to 200,000 over three days. Last year’s games in Los Angeles saw 144,700 people attend. Peak attendance was 268,390 in 1999 for X Games 5, held in San Francisco. Costs for putting on the games are estimated at between $15 million and $20 million per year.

The story of Detroit’s bid for the X Games began with Ian Studders, a good friend of Krease and Koehler from college at Miami University. Studders, who currently works at Wayne State University, heard about ESPN’s plans for global expansion of the X Games and thought the games positively belong in Detroit — thinking this was something the city could really take ownership of.

Studders shared this vision with Krease. After a lot of research, this past fall Krease contacted the ESPN consulting group managing the global expansion of the X Games. They put him in touch with ESPN executive director Jack Weinert, who just so happened to be in Detroit for another conference at the Cobo Center.

Krease, 27, born and raised in Grosse Pointe, and currently a resident in Midtown’s Park Shelton apartments, seized the opportunity and reached out to Weinert. He picked up Weinert at the Marriott hotel and took him for a tour of the city, including a visit to Astro Coffee in Corktown, where Weinert urged Krease to put together a Detroit bid.

Krease, who was enthused, had been thinking about a bid for the 2016 or 2017 summer games when Weinert told him the expansion would begin in 2014; the bid process would begin October of 2012, and the clock was ticking.

With Ian Studders busy with his full-time job at Wayne State, Krease reached out to Chicago native and 26-year-old Koehler, a college friend who’d been working in project management in Chicago. He wanted a project manager’s eyes to look at the opportunity, as Detroit’s qualified bid procedure for the X Games had begun.

Koehler came to Detroit in December and immediately got on board. His reaction: “I’m going to do this. This has got to happen in Detroit. There is no better city for the X Games.” He promptly quit his job at Groupon and moved here at the beginning of January 2013.

Krease and Koehler make up Action Sports Detroit LLC, the team behind the city’s bid for the X Games. Krease is founder and director. Koehler is managing partner. They do everything from cleaning the office to building financial models.

They have also had a lot of help. The Work Inc. put together the powerful video behind Detroit’s X Games bid. The event production management group Paxahau, which put on Movement, Detroit’s electronic music festival, as well as the Detroit Jazz Festival, has also been instrumental.

Perhaps no one has been of more help than Rock Ventures LLC, the company of local business titan Dan Gilbert, also owner of Quicken Loans Inc., the Cleveland Cavaliers, casinos in Ohio and Maryland, and now Detroit’s Greektown Casino Hotel too. Gilbert is providing funding and office space in the Compuware Building for Krease and Koehler.

Gilbert says of the X Games bid, “X Games Detroit is an outstanding fit for the city, the fans, ESPN and the games themselves. The core of Detroit is a young, diverse, edgy and gritty place. It matches up perfectly for the kind of feel that the X Games are looking to achieve. If we all get behind this effort Detroit can win the rights to host the X Games for three consecutive years beginning next summer. It would be another big confidence booster not only for Detroiters and the region but also for the international audience who will see Detroit in an authentic and exciting light.”

R.J. Wolney, director of business development at Rock Ventures, elaborates on Gilbert’s sentiments by adding, “This aligns with everything we’re trying to do down here — a Detroit where people can live, work and play.”

Wolney, who has been helping Krease and Koehler with building financial models to help support their efforts in convincing ESPN to choose Detroit, sees them as “an excited and energized pair of guys — very fitting with the entrepreneurial spirit here. ESPN has the opportunity to come in and be part of the amazing story of the revitalization of Detroit.”

Scott Guglielmino, senior vice president at ESPN, the network responsible for all aspects of the X Games franchise, has given Krease, Koehler and the city they are touting some hope by way of positive comments. He spoke from Barcelona about what he has seen from the Detroit bid: “We love their passion. They have some terrific ideas. We’ve been very happy with what they’ve shown so far. It is an interesting and passionate vision.”

Part of what Krease and Koehler have done well so far is harness the power of social media. Through Facebook and Twitter, their vision has been “… to create a movement that resonated with people who care about Detroit. Social media is a way to tell the story. It is all about creating a place for people to show their support for the city,” Koehler says.

Their Facebook page includes X Games Detroit photos and postings from followers. The name of their movement is #XG2D. On social media, they advertised an X Games Detroit event that was held April 20 in Eastern Market, at which 2,000 people showed up in support — and the seminal hardcore punk band Negative Approach played. The online community that supported the bid had become tangible.

The X Games are about sports, but they go beyond sports, as does Detroit’s vision for the games. Koehler explains: “More than anything, X Games is a celebration of the action sports lifestyle. We want to create a festival that embodies the ethos of action sports — all about action, including music, art and craftsmanship. It will be an urban festival anchored in sports, including an outdoor gallery and art creation space in Hart Plaza.” The potential of such a festival here seems limitless.

The Work Inc.’s video for X Games Detroit is, by all accounts, riveting material with visceral moving shots of action sports athletes and iconic Detroit city images. It brings to mind the rising of hope over despair.

The production company was an early partner with Action Sports. The principals had mutual friends and the partnership grew from one small meeting last February. According to Christopher Gruse, one of the Work’s five partners, Krease and Koehler let them run wild with the ideas they had for the video.

“Our inspiration was to show what is and what could be in Detroit,” Gruse says. “Let’s get these iconic Detroit spots and show a few other spots unknown. Clients come to us for the look and the unique way we conceptualize shots that are fitting with the X Games.”

The Work, founded in 2010, is made up of five partners, including Gruse, 30, Ed Knight, 27, Jerome Wald, 26 and brothers Shane Ford, 25 and Jesse Ford, 29. Their filming experience includes everything on Chevy’s website, work for Ford Motor Co., the new Corvette Stingray and the Silverado.

The video and the partnership between Action Sports Detroit and the Work started without money — all on trust with friends passionate about the project; it soon steamrolled. Ford Racing said it could get the men a rally car and driver if the guys promised they could get the streets closed. With just three weeks notice, Koehler’s response: “One hundred percent. We’ll get the streets closed.” The tactical operations unit of the city worked with the partners in an expedited timeline — mission accomplished.

From there, the Work said if you can get a rally car, we need a helicopter. Both the rally car and helicopter were monumental for the video. The helicopter, which appears in the video, allowed tracking and great shots of the city, including four rally car locations: the Cobo Hall roof parking structure, Campus Martius, Belle Isle and the train station. According to Koehler, “The Work got our vision with their vision.”

Paxahau, the event production management group, also became involved five months ago. Koehler says Paxahau was “hugely helpful when we were just two kids going door to door.”

According to Sam Fotias, operations manager at Paxahau, Krease and Koehler “had the idea and feedback from ESPN. They were looking for help on organizing and making this a reality … how to execute, how to judge expenses.”

If Detroit is awarded the 2014-2016 summer X Games from ESPN, Paxahau would, says Fotias, be the operations arm for the outdoors component of the games.

The relationship of Detroit’s X Games bid to the resurgence of a growing youth culture in the city can’t be overstated. Chicago native Koehler explains: “The reason I moved here is the incredible movement of young people taking action in the city. They are doing it without permission. Detroit is an affordable place to live and has the space to create things. Here everyone does it in a sense for Detroit. There is a very palpable sense of place here. Young people want to be part of that.”

Fotias of Paxahau weighs in: “There is a very strong momentum of the younger generation in the city, working and playing down here. There is a unique civic pride, very different than a lot of cities. This type of event really connects with what is going on here now.”

Action Sports’ X Games Detroit event plan is taking shape. They are thinking the skateboarding and BMX biking events would take place along the riverfront, including a possible superpark at Hart Plaza with street competitions there along with a half-pipe. Sponsorship action is being considered for Campus Martius. The rally car competition would likely be on Belle Isle, utilizing the home of the Grand Prix. Ford Field could house most of the motocross events, plus the big air ramp for skateboarding and BMX.

Kevin Krease is definitely jazzed after going overseas and seeing X Games Barcelona firsthand: “It was a fantastic trip. We spent time with ESPN learning the layout and infrastructure … from where you put the broadcasting vans to how large are the venues. We spent time learning how you build out the rally car race, down to the dirt mixture for the course.”

Krease sees Detroit as an international city, including its connection to Canada and Windsor. This international aspect is “… a wildly underplayed strength we have here. ESPN is viewing this as their North American event,” he explains. “Our goal in marketing it is to bring in Canadians and Americans alike.” Koehler echoes his partner’s sentiments when he calls Detroit “a global city where everyone has a vested interest in seeing this city come back.”

On the evening of Tuesday, May 28, ESPN came to town to examine Detroit’s X Games bid where, at Campus Martius, Action Sports with its #XG2D movement, pulled out all the stops. The party featured DJ sets by Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys and Ryan Richards, plus a live graffiti contest with Detroit artists, and an open skate and BMX.

After an all-day rain, the skies cleared for the 8 p.m. start time. The turnout was ample as the DJ set began; spirits were high as people danced to a remix of hometown legend Aretha Franklin’s Respect.

Now it is just a waiting game. X Games producers have stated that the bid city will be announced sometime at the end of June. As this week’s Metro Times goes to press, this writer and the city he lives in are on pins and needles.

Christopher Gruse of the Work sums it up when he says, “Detroit exemplifies what X Games is. From skaters to BMX riders to bands … it is an oyster here. Detroit is the perfect place for this.”

Carl Bookstein  is a freelance writer from Detroit. Send comments to [email protected]

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