On Monday, ESPN sent out a press release announcing that it’d be taking open bids to host the X Games in 2017 and beyond, after three years of hosting the summer competition in Austin at the Circuit of the Americas. X Games Vice President Tim Reed was effusive in his praise for both the venue and the city that his company was preparing to leave as soon as it was contractually allowed to.
“We’ve been honored to call Austin home of the X Games since 2014 and are proud to have run world-class competitions for athletes, hosted amazing musicians for our fans and sponsors together with the Circuit of The Americas,” Reed said in the statement. “We thank COTA, the City of Austin and State of Texas for their support, and look forward to an amazing final X Games Austin event this June. Looking to the future, we’re enthusiastic to identify the next X Games host city and continuing to improve and bring the franchise to new locations and fans.”
That all sounds nice enough, but it’s still something of a surprise. Although the X Games is a roving event that relocated frequently in its early years, the summertime event settled comfortably in Los Angeles from 2003 to 2013, before relocating to Austin with a three-year lease at the Circuit of the Americas for 2014, 2015, and 2016. (The Winter X Games, meanwhile, have been in Aspen, Colorado, since 2002, and are guaranteed to stick around through at least 2019.) At the time the Austin deal was announced, there was no word that it’d be a short-term stay in the city—but two days before tickets went on sale for the 2016 edition, ESPN declared that it was ready to move on.
Earlier this month, meanwhile, the Circuit of the Americas managed to score a big win that shouldn’t have been huge news—it announced that the 2016 Formula One U.S. Grand Prix would be happening in Texas again after all. That’s a shocking thing to consider a victory: When the Circuit of the Americas was being pitched back in 2010, it was a purpose-built facility for F1, and one that came with heavy subsidies from the state’s Major Events Trust Fund.
The idea that the track could be abandoned by its primary event in less than five years was not in the cards when the enthusiasm following the 2012 debut was at its height, but by most accounts, the fact that there’s even going to be a U.S. Grand Prix in Texas in 2016 is mostly thanks to a high-profile music booking at the event’s after-race concert—it was announced in early March that COTA’s promoters managed to snag Taylor Swift to headline the performance, bringing the fans of one of the world’s biggest stars, playing her only 2016 show, to the event.
That’s good news for the Circuit of the Americas, and good news for the people—including Rick Perry and former comptroller Susan Combs, who staked a lot of capital (either the financial or political kinds) on the success of the track. But it doesn’t mean that there’ll be a 2017 U.S. Grand Prix in Texas.
The venue’s chairman, Bobby Epstein, told the Austin American-Statesman back in November that the state would be reducing the financial support that COTA receives by over 20 percent, putting the whole thing in downright blunt terms: “I think we’re screwed.” While ESPN didn’t immediately responded to a request for comment about the decision to bail on COTA as soon as possible, the fact that the state is changing the deal it made when the facility was constructed is a big part of why the future of the race is in question.
The X Games and Formula One aren’t the only big events that happen at the Circuit of the Americas, of course—the Lone Star Le Mans takes place at the track, as does the FIA World Endurance Championship, and the FIM Road Racing World Championship. Plus, Hall & Oates will be playing the Austin 360 Amphitheater at the track in May, so it’ll be making someone’s dreams come true. But nobody spends $400,000,000 for an outdoor amphitheater and a place to host niche events like six-hour endurance auto races for hundreds of fans. (Officially, the FIA WEC claims that 50,000 fans were at the track for the event over the weekend, but they certainly didn’t find their way to their seats.)
In other words, even without the X Games, and with the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix a year-to-year proposition at best, the Circuit of the Americas is going to continue to exist, and to be used for a at least a while. But at this point, it’d be awfully hard to describe it as anything approaching a success.