Thursday, January 31, 2013

The X Games: It Was Only a Matter of Time

When, not if.

That's what we at the Institute for Crisis Management tell all kinds of organizations about crises. Some listen. Some learn the hard way.

When, not if.

That's the heading on a story about the Winter X Games by Brent Rose on deadspin.com. (http://deadspin.com/5980175/its-only-a-matter-of-time-before-someone-dies-at-the-x-games) That was before Caleb Moore, 25, passed away today from injuries received performing a snowmobile jump at the X Games on January 24. Sad to say that Rose was right. Moore was the first fatality in the 18-year history of the games.

"I've been a longtime fan of the games, but this was my first year in attendance," Rose wrote. "As I watched these athletes fly over my head, it really hit home just how miraculous the zero-casualty rate was. 'Maybe it's safer than it looks,' I thought for a brief moment. And then they started dropping like planes over Midway.

"Caleb Moore's was the first and worst crash I saw, but he was followed closely by his younger brother, 23-year-old Colten Moore, who crashed on the exact same jump and separated his pelvis. The next night I watched as snowboarder Halldór Helgason attempted a laid-out triple backflip in the snowboard big air event. He flew 75 feet and then landed on his head. Everyone thought for sure he'd snapped his neck, but he'd been lucky and was carted off with only a concussion.

"On Sunday, slopestyle skier Rose Battersby, 19 years old, missed a landing off a jump and fractured her lower lumbar spine. At first she appeared to be paralyzed, and on TV you could see her being transported down the slope in what looked frighteningly like a yellow body bag. Another slopestyle skier, 25-year-old Ashley Battersby (no relation to Rose) broke her leg during her final run. In the snowmobile best trick competition, Jackson Strong, 21, missed a grab on an insane backflipping varial and thudded to the ground some 30 feet below. Strong was fine, somehow, but his snowmobile's throttle locked on, and it charged full-speed into the crowd. No one was hurt."

X Games athletes tempted fate just so long. Then luck ran out.

"Moore crashed a minute into a routine in which he treated his 450-pound snowmobile like a broomstick, spinning around it in midair as he flew from ramp (to) ramp. He had been attempting a backflip with his machine, a trick he had performed many times. The X Games, which are produced by ESPN, are built on such excitement – and risk. Moore's death was directly preceded by warnings that X Games athletes were taking life-threatening risks in the pursuit of victory – and the fame and potentially lucrative sponsorship deals that could follow."  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/31/caleb-moore-death-x-games-injuries)

Moore walked away from the accident with "only" a concussion but developed complications shortly later and was hospitalized until his death.

The X Games homepage opens with photos, an article, and a video tribute to Moore, all of which are tastefully done(http://xgames.espn.go.com/pulse), as is the media statement. "In a statement Thursday, X Games officials expressed condolences and said Moore would be remembered 'for his natural passion for life and his deep love for his family and friends.'"  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/31/caleb-moore-death-x-games-injuries) But the fatality comes at what may be a critical time for the X Games and ESPN. What crisis doesn't come at a critical time?

"For ESPN, the games have been a big success. This year's winter competition broke all records for viewership, drawing 35.4 million US viewers, including all live and repeat telecasts, according to official figures. Viewership among the key demographic, men aged 18-34, was up 16%. With the global television audience for the games growing, ESPN plans to produce competitions at sites outside the U.S. for the first time next year."

ESPN will have to deal with potential fallout from this accident, which, combined with others described above, may require the network to make changes and communicate well to retain viewers and sponsors. It's still early in the process, but I think we can look for questioning of some of the most dangerous events and stunts from an older, more cautious, generation. And then there's the legal liability that extends to spectators as well as athletes.

The take-away from this tragedy is Rose's subhead on deadspin.com: "It’s Only A Matter Of Time Before Someone Dies At The X Games."

Time's up. Likewise for you. If you've been putting off writing a crisis communications plan until you have more time or until business improves or for as long as you believe "It can't happen here," think again. It's when, not if. The X Games learned that lesson this week.

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