Las Vegas is commonly referred to as the Entertainment Capital of the World. And to most people, the first thing they think of is Cirque du Soleil, magic and variety shows, and dancing showgirls. Las Vegas is full of entertainment outside of the traditional stage spectacular with events ranging from theme parks, zip lines, luxury shooting ranges, indoor skydiving and even auto racing tracks. But there’s one event taking place in December at the Rio Hotel & Casino that caught our eye, and it’s not only perfect family entertainment but an exhibition of the greatest skill performers in the world.
World champion juggler Jason Garfield is bringing the 4th annual SkillCon and 13th World Juggling Federation conventions to the heart of Las Vegas for a three-day series of exhibitions, competitions, and unique family entertainment. It will host more than 200 highly-skilled athletes and 1000+ spectators.
Garfield learned to juggle at age 11. Within a few years, he became an award-winning competitive juggler, winning multiple international gold medals, and set a world record in 2001 for juggling 11 balls. While regularly performing on cruise ships with his show, Garfield became dissatisfied with the opportunities for competitive jugglers, or athletes as he describes them. Jason wished for some sort of outlet, like ESPN, which might showcase these technical athletes. In 2003, Jason formed the World Juggling Federation, pitched the concept to ESPN and received approval for a five-program series. He single-handedly produced the first sport juggling convention at the Riviera Hotel in December of 2004 and while developing five sport juggling competition programs for ESPN.
Fast forward to 2014. Jason launched SkillCon, which hosts 20+ unique skill and alternative sports events. The combination of outside-the-box sports held at SkillCon and the World Juggling Federation (WJF) competitions comprise the Moxie Games. Vegas Report sat down with Jason to discuss the ups, downs, and all-around fun of the Moxie Games.
VEGAS REPORT: How did you first come up with the idea for a convention about unique skills?
JASON GARFIELD: After producing seven WJF conventions, I realized that I was able to procure a lot of space—more than we needed for juggling—and I noticed our stage and competition arenas were not always in use. I thought other things could be going on while we introverts juggled with each other while facing the wall. I sent out some invitations in 2011; a kendama group joined us. Then I formed a partnership with a yo-yo event organizer for 2014, and with yoyo locked in, I went to town inviting organizations that run all my favorite things.
Starting with events close to juggling such as flair bartending (I had beaten world-renowned flair bartender Christian Delpech and his brother in a juggling competition in 2002) Delpech organized the flair bartending event at the first SkillCon. I also made attempts at bodybuilding and powerlifting, which took a couple of years but we got powerlifting in years two, three, and now four, plus the addition of a natural bodybuilding competition this year. Dodgeball was also one of the first events to sign on, and then it started snowballing into a variety show of alternative skills and sports.
VR: Who is your audience for SkillCon?
JG: The competitors from a wide range of outside-the-box sports and skills, their friends and family members, but also kids and families looking to learn a variety of skills that can greatly enhance coordination and reaction time. I make sure to have each event include beginner level workshops so that families learn the beginning steps to all these skills, and then pick for themselves which ones they’re most interested in.
For families in Las Vegas, it’s a unique opportunity that only happens once a year where we bring the best in the world to teach and demonstrate skills that they’ve spent decades perfecting. People have been signing up from all over the country since watching our programs on ESPN. People actually watched the Moxie Games, and thought “Yes, I will buy a plane ticket and fly to Las Vegas to watch people throw dodgeballs at jugglers”. Some of them actually want to participate in Dodge Juggle as a thrower.
VR: Is SkillCon entertainment or sport?
JG: SkillCon is a skill convention that features unusual sports entertainment, demonstrations, workshops, exhibitions. It also includes opportunities to participate in events with a low entry barrier such as bottle flipping, fidget spinning, Dodge Juggle, and Rock Paper Scissors. I liken it to the Olympics or the Arnold Sports Festival, only with our brand of skills and sports.
VR: How do you get these specialized athletes to become household names? Or does that even matter?
JG: I think it matters to the individual athletes. As a juggler, it was more important to me that the general public understand the differences between sport juggling—that takes an incredibly high degree of skill—and a street performer juggling while eating an apple. People are shocked to find out that it takes very little skill to juggle fire, knives, or juggle while eating an apple. My goal was to change that perspective. One of the things I’ve noticed with SkillCon is that every other event organizer has the same battle with their sport being misunderstood. I’ve inadvertently created a support group for misunderstood mavericks who chose a different path and want more people to see and understand their passion. Our broadcasts on ESPN are the best chance we have of changing those perceptions.
VR: Tell us a bit about the challenges selling this product to ESPN.
JG: Being a juggler makes it difficult to take ‘no’ as an answer. Because juggling teaches you that if you keep trying, you’ll eventually succeed. So just like when I first pitched the juggling competition concept to ESPN in 2003 and they passed, my only thought was that I needed a better pitch. And two months later, I changed their mind. In 2016 I pitched the idea of the Moxie Games in an email and they passed. So I self-funded the 2016 production, edited the entire thing together, and that changed their mind. Now we have a five-episode deal for programs that will be produced from our upcoming 2017 event at the Rio Hotel. What we all do is very visual; about 100 percent of it is visual. So videos always sell better than text. But the main challenge is finding funding for the production. It’s easier to get a deal with ESPN than it is to find funding for a new idea like this.
VR: How does digital marketing play a role for you in promoting Skillcon?
JG: Our content and what we are doing with it is inherently viral. So much so that, even news of any company that sponsors our event, will make news because everything we are doing is unprecedented. And the support of that is also unprecedented. A true testimonial to that is the 25 million views we received, shortly after our event concluded last year, with the upload of only a handful of clips. Our bottle flipping videos alone received over 14 million views. Imagine what kind of media attention we’d get if we were offering $25K in prize money for the world’s best bottle flippers. Snapchat sent a rep and they produced a live story of our event. They’ll also be back again this year. So all this helps us achieve a lot of exposure and we’ve received interest from some big platforms both digitally and from network TV. The marketing so far has simply been showing mostly short clips of what takes place at SkillCon.
VR: Who helps you create the video content?
JG: A lot of it is footage from our main productions that I then edit into short clips. Josh Horton has done a great job shooting his own content at SkillCon, and a lot of that has gone viral. Kuma Films also shot a ton of footage last year and they recently released their main SkillCon video. They also released several other videos throughout the year.
VR: How did you get Penn Jillette involved with color commentary for the tv segments.
JG: Penn started his performing career off as a juggler. I met Penn in 2003 and we’ve been friends ever since. I did a brief stint as his personal trainer. You can read some questionable material he wrote about me in his latest book, “Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales”.
Penn hosted the first series of WJF competitions and was a commentator in those shows, and I couldn’t think of anyone better to be involved with the production of the Moxie Games.
VR: What kind of a response did you initially get when pitching the convention to the hotels? Was another city also considered?
JG: We think Las Vegas is the perfect city to host our events. We do have plans to expand and turn SkillCon into a touring event and take the Moxie Games internationally, but we feel our big event needs to be in Las Vegas annually. Who doesn’t want to come to Las Vegas? It’s always a two for one—you get our event, and you also get Las Vegas. And those who live in Las Vegas get us. I ran the 9th WJF convention at the Rio, so I already had some history with the facility. Most of our events took place at the Riviera hotel, but it has since been imploded and I like to think that’s more correlation than causation. Vindication at best.
VR: Why should a family take their kids to Skillcon?
JG: SkillCon is a captivating and magical experience for kids. It’s a bunch of amazing skills you’d otherwise only see online, and in many cases, you’re seeing the online stars in person—competing, performing, and teaching you. It’s a great opportunity to learn new skills and meet unique people from all over the world.
VR: What’s the future of Skillcon?
JG: We’re going to look into other cities that would be a good fit to host SkillCon so we can bring these events to people all over the country, and we plan to take the Moxie Games internationally and combine them with other existing events. We’ll continue to produce sports programming from our events and increase sponsorship opportunities so that we can accomplish our ultimate goal of producing Moxie Games programs on par with the production value seen in mainstream sports programming.
More on SkillCon
For detailed information about SkillCon, WJF, and the Moxie Games, click here.
Las Vegas—Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino | Pavilion
Dec 15-17, 2017
$20/day or $50 3-Day Pass
Registration Link: https://www.skillcon.org/attend/