As X Games 14 kicks off today downtown and continues at the Staples Center and Home Depot Center, Sal Masekela will once again be the leading voice of the largest action sports showcase in the country.
Since covering Winter X Games III in 1999, Masekela has become the face of action sports and is almost as recognizable as any athlete today. He has watched it grow from a niche sport into a global phenomenon that continues to attract more fans each year.
To the average fan, Masekela is perhaps the most famous Black personality associated with action sports outside of motocross champion James Stewart. But he is proof that Black athletes don’t have to play a traditional sport to find success
The son of jazz musician Hugh Masekela, Sal grew up in Carlsbad and was an avid surfer, snowboarder and skateboarder. He also briefly toured with his father before finding his calling with action sports.
He parlayed his love into a job with action sports magazine Transworld before moving on to MTV. By 1998, he was the co-host of the network’s Sports and Music Festival and later co-hosted Board Wild, a lifestyle show for Fox Sports. But he soon found himself in the right place when a producer from ESPN approached him about reporting for the X Games.
By then, Masekela was one of the leading experts on action sports and the network was looking for commentators that came from the sports they covered. In 2000, he told ESPN.com how that meeting went down.
“I met the producer in a bar and we just started talking,” Masekela said, “ He told me his ideas and how I could fit in and I was all for it. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
He started as a reporter for the snowboarding competition but it would be that summer that he and his sport would blow up. At X Games V where skateboarding icon Tony Hawk landed the first 900 - rotating 2 1/2 times in the air - and action sports exploded to an even greater audience.
Masekela’s duties expanded in 2000, as he became the host of the skateboarding and snowboarding competitions and in 2001, he became the host of ESPN’s complete coverage of Summer X Games VIII in Philadelphia. The following winter, he served in the same capacity for Winter X Games VI.
He’s expanded his career to include co-hosting Daily 10 on E! Entertainment Television and starting a lifestyle apparel brand company, Alphanumeric. He also has a film company, Berkela Films, which has already put out several action sports movies that tell stories that go beyond competition.
As X Games host, he has the brought the same enthusiasm and passion that a fan would have. But he also carries that easy-going attitude away from the camera as he showcases a humility that he learned from watching his father.
“My dad has never gotten on stage and put himself on any pedestal above the people that he’s talking to, playing for and entertaining,” Masekela said in a 2007 interview. “He always made sure that he identified with his audience.”
That’s something he has done despite an audience that doesn’t often include many who look like him. But he is optimistic about increasing Black awareness in the sport and through his foundation, he is helping to change that.
He told this reporter at the 710 ESPN Southern California Sports Awards in April that part of his work involves taking kids from East L.A. and exposing them to unfamiliar activities.
“Most of these kids live five minutes away from the beach and have never been there,” he said.
But as more urban kids have picked up skateboarding the last few years - mostly due in part, to rapper Lupe Fiasco’s hit song “Kick, Push” and rapper/producer Pharrell Williams’ heavy interest in it - there lies a chance that they will embrace action sports and discover a way to financially profit from it.
They have a role model in Sal Masekela, someone who brings an excitement and passion to a sport that will showcase its best and brightest this weekend.