LOS ANGELES All of 250 people were there for Jamie Bestwick's first BMX competition in 1984, near his hometown of Nottingham, England.
A prime-time network TV audience will tune in as Bestwick swings his bike through the air in the X Games this week. Action began with a team surf contest last weekend and resumes Thursday.
''With a lot of corporate input and people taking a chance on action sports, giving it the publicity it warrants, you can make a decent living from, in essence, just riding a BMX bike,'' Bestwick said. ''I can't think of a better job to have.''
He'll be participating in the annual competition for the first time since he won a gold medal in 2000.
At 32, he is older than a lot of participants, and his years as a rider have allowed him to watch the X Games go from skate parks to stadiums with events that include skateboarding, in-line skating and wakeboarding.
This year's events on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 are expected to reach more than 110 million homes in 145 countries and territories worldwide, spokeswoman Melissa Gullotti said.
In their nine-year history, the X Games have expanded and reached an increasingly larger audience thanks in part to changes in the ways Americans play.
''This is what kids are doing. This is what they're more likely to watch as a fan,'' said Tom Doyle, a spokesman for the National Sporting Goods Association, a Mount Prospect, Ill.-based trade association. ''That's why the X Games are so successful. They've been able to attract advertisers.''
Since 1993, the number of people who play America's most popular team sport, basketball, has held steady at about 29 million, Doyle said. But the most popular action sport, in-line skating, had 18.8 million participants in 2002, up from 12.4 million in 1993.
Participants in action sports also tend to be younger than those in team sports, which is important to companies that hope to hook customers early. Forty-nine percent of basketball players nationwide are 17 or under, for example, compared with 61 percent of in-line skaters.
Why the youth appeal? Analysts say action sports tap into youthful rebellion in a way traditional sports don't.
''They're individualistic, there's an angry aspect to it, there's an in-your-face angle,'' said Harvey Lauer, president of American Sports Data Inc., a Hartsdale, N.Y., firm focused on sports and fitness research.
Lauer wrote an essay for his company's Web site describing most action sports as ''solitary activities that not only allow the participant to avoid social interaction, but provide an escape from supervision and authority.''
Doyle says action sports also are a reaction to overly regimented group sports.
While kids of a few years ago were more likely to come together on their own for neighborhood games of baseball or touch football, today's youth are often pushed into organized leagues by their parents.
''A lot of parents are worried about their kids being out in an unsupervised environment,'' Doyle said. ''There are a lot of suburbs where you can't walk and do anything. You have to be driven somewhere.''
Thus skating or biking with friends becomes an alternative. And from that alternative, competition develops.
Bestwick, for example, started riding years before soft drink and snack food advertisers latched onto action sports in the mid-90s.
In 1998, he worked for an aerospace company and competed in his spare time.
''Even when you won the contest, you knew you'd be back at work on Monday,'' he recalled.
That changed when GT Bicycles began sponsoring him. He and his wife moved to State College, Pa., and Bestwick now trains at the nearby Woodward Camp for gymnastics and action sports.
His sport, in which competitors launch their 35-pound bikes off 12-foot high ramps, requires agility, conditioning and strength. His workout routine includes power yoga and pilates, non-impact exercises designed to help align the body. He spends four days a week at the gym and three days running.
Bestwick sat out the X Games the last two years because of a broken ankle in 2001 and broken arm in 2002.
Despite the injuries, he's glad he quit his day job.
''It was a gamble because I had a good job and I made good money, but I always wanted to ride in the great contests I could never get to,'' he said. ''I took a chance and it's definitely paid off.''
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