As BMX continues to evolve and change, one thing is for certain: in the eyes of the public, flatland is fading. Now, for us BMX'ers, it is alive and well. But, with the discontinuation of flatland from the X Games (and not a good outlook of it coming back) and the stagnant growth of flatland riders (with the exception of Japan)... it's hard to tell where the future of flatland is going in regards to these large events.
In a 2011 interview with Ride BMX, Tim Reed (X Games Sr. Director Content Strategy) stated:
"X Games had seven successful years of BMX Flatland. Our evaluation of sports in the X Games include a sport’s progression, growth and infrastructure, as well as a review of viewership, spectator, demographic, and psychographic as they pertain to that sport. Results of those factors led ESPN to the decision of not including Flatland anymore at X Games."
In response, it's is easy for flatland riders to buck the system, and exclaim, "WE DON'T NEED X GAMES" - and in the spirit of defiance inherent in freestyle, I understand this. However, the question must be raised: Why the downfall? And, what kind of message is being sent to the public when Call of Duty gaming is included in the X Games and flatland BMX is not?
Flatland was an essential core of freestyle during the budding years during the "rad" 1980's. You couldn't turn on the TV and not see a soft drink commercial with somebody doing a cherry picker or boomerang. It was part of "kid" culture, accessible, cool, fun... marketable. In fact, if you told somebody you rode BMX freestyle back then, they would reply, "Oh, you do those tricks on those bikes...". The idea of "tricks on a bike" meant the inclusion of flatland in some form.
Conversely, in 2014, the idea of BMX translates to much more bigger stuff a la X Games. If I told somebody I ride BMX today, they wouldn't picture me doing front wheel hops; they would picture me attempting a backflip. The egging on of heckling spectators have gone from "DO AN ENDO!" to "DO A BACKFLIP!"
Will pure flatland ever have a place in the public's perception of BMX riding, or will it continue to go deeper into the underground niche it is slowly becoming? Can flatland ever take seat next to big air and draw a crowd as it did in the 1980's? Or is flatland going somewhere else?
Quite possibly, like BMX does, it is evolving as young street riders find themselves practicing flatland moves in parking lots to eventually be taken to a ledge or park. Yes, we will always have the purists - riders with flatland specific bikes pushing the boundaries of balance and style. But as technical riding becomes more apparent in street/park contests and video edits, it is hard to shake our flatland DNA. As I said before, flatland is in us, inherently, from the moment we bunnyhop on flat ground. Every BMX'er does it in some form - a trick on a flat surface.
It is possible that flatland is evolving into an entirely different type of riding altogether: common ancestor of pure flatland that branches off into 1) the purists, traditional form of flatland riding and 2) the street/park interpretation of flatland riding.
Recently I watched a video of a kid attempt a flat ground bunnyhop flair, with no assistance in terms of a drop, jump, or even a bump. Just flat ground. Eventually this kid will land it - is that a street move, or a flatland move? Is the bunnyhop tailwhip on flat ("whopper") a street move, or a flatland move? What about hop bar spins, flat 360's or cab variations? While I'm not a fan of categorizing or compartmentalizing riding (if you look at my own riding style, it's all jumbled under the "BMX" heading as one style), if we are to play this game of calling out names and labeling, then what is flatland becoming in the context of large commercialized events?
Maybe flatland will find its way back to X Games. Not through the decisions of money driven corporate sponsors, but through the riders incorporating it into their street and park runs. There will come a time when a rider will incorporate a whiplash drop-in on their park run - or possibly a time machine drop-in. Because BMX freestyle has never been one to allow marketing, sales and corporate sponsors to tell us what to do with our sport. We always find our way to make it happen for us.
I foresee flatland coming back to the X Games, maybe not the form of a separate class of riding - but incorporated into the street and park runs of the elite technical riders that are gaining popularity. Whether that is accepted by the purist flatland riders, is another story.