X Marks Battle for ESPN, Startup

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Does X mark the trademark spot? That’s at the heart of a dispute between ESPN, owner of the X Games franchise, and The X Channel, an extreme-sports service that hopes to launch later this summer.

ESPN on June 25 sent a letter to the Miami-based The X Channel demanding it “cease and desist” from using the name, or risk legal action for trademark infringement.

The sports programming giant gave The X Channel until the end of the business day on June 30 to respond.

That deadline came and went, with the fledgling service continuing to ready for a late August or early September launch.

X Channel CEO Victoria Davis-LaPorta said she has not received any additional documentation from ESPN, but “we expect something to happen.” To that end, The X Channel has retained Kendall Coffey, the former U.S. attorney and Cable News Network legal analyst.

Davis-LaPorta said that after consulting earlier with the company’s attorneys and trademark barristers, “they all said, 'I don’t know how they can own the X.’ ESPN is trying to bully us.”

DISCLAIMER OFFER

She said her network would “prefer not to fight” and is willing to put disclaimers on the air stating the service is not affiliated with ESPN’s X Games.

ESPN has a lot invested in X. In addition to the summer X Games — the 10th version is Aug. 5 to 8 in Los Angeles — ESPN runs Winter X Games.

Both alternative-sports competitions receive prominent exposure on ESPN, ESPN2 and broadcast sibling ABC.

The franchise also has been extended to capitalize on DVDs, an IMAX film, the EXPN.com Web site, EXPN radio content interstitials and an EXPN2Day monthly series, which airs on ESPN2.

Fox Cable Networks Group’s Fuel is also in the extreme-sports space.

The next step in the X wrangling remained unclear at press time.

An ESPN spokesman last week stood by his previous statement: “As we routinely do, we are prepared to take all appropriate steps to protect our trademarks.”

Davis-LaPorta said X Channel is prepared to file a suit of its own if it discovers that ESPN is “trying to get cable companies not to carry us.”

She said the network had forwarded presentation reels and held conversations with programming executives at Comcast Corp., Adelphia Communications Corp., Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable.

“Two of the operators said the [late summer] launch is a doable time frame. Another was looking toward October,” Davis-LaPorta said, without identifying the MSOs.

She hopes to speak to reps from Charter Communications Inc. and Cablevision Systems Corp. soon, while The X Channel has not yet heard from DirecTV Inc. or EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network.

Trademark issues aside, The X Channel is currently developing original programming, including lifestyle fare around athletes from such sports as skateboarding and mountain biking.

The schedule would include some instructional programming, as well as competitions.

SIX-HOUR WHEEL

According to Davis-LaPorta, the initial game plan calls for The X Channel to run six hours of program daily in a wheel format.

The service is being offered free to distributors, with operators retaining four minutes per hour for local ad sales. Without specifying, Davis-LaPorta said the service is also open to “deal making” relative to sharing revenues from national ad sales.

Energy drink Red Bull is already on the network’s sponsorship roster, with other advertisers poised to join once distribution is secured.

“Red Bull is standing firm with us. They are, like us, a grass-roots company,” Davis-LaPorta said. “We’re just trying to get on the air.”

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