SBJ/Jan. 24-30, 2011/In Depth

Winter X Games celebrates a decade in Aspen

During the third week of January every year, Hotel Aspen owner Michael Brown reduces his room rates. It's part of a multiyear agreement he made with Aspen Ski Co. to help keep ESPN and the Winter X Games in Colorado.

The deal costs Brown some money, but he says it's worth it. Like most of Aspen's business community and many of its residents, he loves hosting the Winter X Games. He likes the spotlight it puts on Aspen, the spectators it brings to town, and the future visitors it attracts.
The tony ski town of Aspen has embraced the event.

"The X Games introduces Aspen to a type of customer that might not otherwise come here, and once they visit, they understand what an amazing place it is," Brown said. "I definitely would not want to see X Games go away. It's a great demand generator and a great exposure generator."

This year's Winter X Games will be the 10th hosted by Aspen. ESPN took its first event there in 2002, and it has returned every year since.

Though the initial pairing of the tony ski town and the youthful sports festival seemed odd, the partnership has benefited both parties. The long-term relationship has turned the X Games into a destination event, helping to increase attendance 132 percent from 36,300 spectators in 2002 to 84,100 spectators last year.

ESPN has used a similar strategy with the Summer X Games, which has remained in Los Angeles since 2003.
Aspen Ski Co. lured ESPN to Aspen with a 2001 offer to help underwrite the cost of the Winter X Games, which began in 1997 at Big Bear Lake in California. When ESPN got to Aspen it found a perfect venue. The town has four resorts, all owned by Aspen Ski Co., and ESPN was able to take over the base of Buttermilk Resort without disrupting skiing and snowboarding for residents in town.

Because it owns the other nearby resorts, Aspen Ski Co. is able to let ESPN begin setting up at Buttermilk several weeks before the event, giving it ample time to prepare everything from a halfpipe to television stands. It also helps secure discounted rates at hotels like the Hotel Aspen that help ESPN control the cost of the Winter X Games.

"To find an accommodating venue that can handle our needs from a production perspective and an event perspective and the number of people we bring to town is tricky," said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN senior vice president of programming and Global X. "Aspen's shown a lot of flexibility on the mountain and in the area itself, and that's a big part of its success."


Panelists in the Turnkey Sports Poll were asked: 2011 will mark the 10th consecutive year that the Winter X Games have been held in Aspen, Colo. Future X Games should …

… rotate among different sites to expose the event to wider audiences 52%

… remain in Aspen. The continuity has helped the event grow 35%

Not sure / No response 13%

Source: Turnkey Sports Poll, December 2010. The survey, conducted by Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.

The return on Aspen Ski Co.'s investment in the event is most apparent in the 26 percent increase in occupancy rates that weekend at local hotels and the estimated $3.37 million the event pumps into retail sales during the end of January.

The event also gives the resort more than 20 hours of national TV exposure and averages nearly 1 million viewers. As a result, awareness of the resort among millennials has increased, with 38 percent of respondents saying they were likely to visit Aspen/Snowmass, according to a study by Colorado-based Webb PR.

"We have an aging population and need to reach out to the next generation," said John Rigney, Aspen Ski Co.'s vice president, sales and events. "The power of ESPN works in our favor."

The relationship hasn't been without incident. The 2007 event was marred by 35 arrests and 521 calls for service. The community grew concerned about the strain the event put on its services and ESPN responded by canceling a series of concerts that were a major draw for out-of-town spectators.

"There were some concerns within the community about the breadth of this, but we addressed them and it's paid off," said Helen Klanderud, former Aspen mayor.

The current contract between ESPN and Aspen Ski Co. runs through 2012. Executives at both organizations expect to reach an agreement that keeps the Winter X Games there well into the future.

"We look at this property and ask, 'Do we think this property is on an upward trajectory?' Absolutely," Rigney said. "'Do we like who we work with at ESPN?' Yes we do. 'Do we get the right exposure for Aspen/Snowmass?' Of course. We'd like to continue this for all those reasons."

Guglielmino agreed, saying, "As long as they're interested in growing the event and we are as well, we're committed to staying there."

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