SkiCo, ESPN sign five-year extension for the X Games

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
In the 13-year history of Winter X Games in Aspen, there have been two- and four-year renewals of the contract between ESPN and the Aspen Skiing Co. to host the action sports extravaganza at Buttermilk.

That makes Wednesday’s announcement that the games will be here through 2019 — for five more years, the longest contract extension to date between the two companies — all the more unprecedented. Word came down at the X Games’ opening press conference at Buttermilk. Competition begins today and runs through Sunday.

With seven other bids on the table over the last 18 months to host the X Games, ESPN Senior Vice President Scott Guglielmino, who is in charge of programming and X Games, said the extensive process helped both his company and the SkiCo better understand the event and how it should run.

“It became very clear that this is the place for X Games well into the future,” Guglielmino said.

The availability of Buttermilk Mountain to host the event, the appeal of Aspen, the quality of the courses — which many athletes at Wednesday’s press conference described as the best in the world — and the local support the games receive were all pieces of the puzzle, Guglielmino said.

While the eight initial bids were whittled down to three finalists, including Aspen, Guglielmino declined to name the other potential host resorts.

SkiCo and ESPN executives said the extended commitment will allow them to experiment with new ways to grow the X Games, which have launched the big air, halfpipe and slopestyle disciplines of skiing and snowboarding to new heights.

“There are a bunch of things we’re considering that we’ve been looking at for a while now,” Guglielmino said. “Now that we’ve gotten the extension behind us, we can really try and dig into those and see if we can make those a reality.”

Asked whether that could mean new events outside of the Buttermilk venue — a freeride competition on the cliffs at Snowmass, perhaps? — officials wouldn’t say. But the opportunity is there to examine those options.

“I think being together for five years allows us to explore things and properly vet things that would require a new lens to look through,” said John Rigney, SkiCo vice president of sales and events, adding that Aspen/Snowmass is a diverse resort with plenty of options. “From a sports standpoint, we’ve talked about a lot of things that could, would, should happen if the right circumstances came together.”

The “spectator experience and lifestyle elements” of the X Games are likely to get more attention with the extended deal, Rigney said, in an attempt to make the event a “complete weekend” for those who come to Aspen.

“Going out and putting the shows in Wagner Park again is dipping our toe in that water,” Rigney said, referring to Saturday and Sunday’s outdoor concerts featuring Phoenix and Tiesto, respectively. 

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Local athlete and longtime X Games competitor Gretchen Bleiler shares her excitement at a press conference following the announcement on Wednesday afternoon that the X Games will be returning to Buttermilk for the next five years. ESPN Senior Vice President Scott Guglielmino, middle, made the announcement, along with John Rigney, right, the vice president of sales and events for the Aspen Skiing Co.

Guglielmino added that another potential way to grow the X Games would be to add another day to the event, starting competition on a Wednesday instead of a Thursday. The games have traditionally run from Thursday through Sunday.

The Winter X Games first launched in Big Bear Lake, Calif., in 1997, and then spent two years each in Crested Butte and Mount Snow, Vt., before coming to Aspen in 2002. ESPN announced a four-year extension in 2006, and in 2009, the contract was again renewed through 2012.

The 2012 X Games came and went with no announcement of another extension, fostering wide speculation that the event would move to a new resort. But in May of that year, ESPN and SkiCo announced a new, two-year deal, which would have expired after this weekend. Again the community was left wondering until the last minute whether the games — which bring millions in revenue and priceless exposure to the resort, as well as some logistical hassles — would stick around.

Over the years, attendance has been on a mostly upward trajectory in Aspen, with crowd numbers over four days breaking the six-figure mark in the last three years. Last year set the all-time record with 114,500 spectators, according to SkiCo and ESPN estimates based on the amount of people taking public transportation to the venue, where private automobiles are not allowed to park.

The X Games can be an all-consuming event for the town, with hotel rooms, as well as many locals’ couches and floors, full with visitors. It also is seen as important to Aspen’s effort to extend its appeal to the younger generation.

As such, the event receives a public subsidy, including cash contributions from the city, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, the Elected Officials Transportation Committee and the Town of Snowmass Village.

Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said the council met recently with Rigney in a closed-door executive session to discuss upping the city’s financial contribution. It has been $125,000 annually for the last two years. Skadron said the council on Monday will vote on increasing the payment to $165,000. Other jurisdictions are believed to be upping their contributions as well, but those numbers weren’t available Wednesday.

Rigney described the bid as “massive.”

“Suffice it to say it’s an even better bid than what we’ve had in the past,” Rigney said.

Skadron said he is excited to have the X Games back, and that he loves seeing Aspen promoted on ESPN between spots on the Super Bowl and the Australian Open.

It speaks well of the community “that a first-rate organization like ESPN wants to continue the relationship,” he said.

Rigney got a bit nostalgic at the Buttermilk press conference, reflecting on how the new agreement will have the X Games in Aspen for 18 years when it expires in 2019. He noted that when the event first came to Aspen, he had a 1-year-old son.

“Now I have three boys who have made it abundantly clear that if I didn’t figure this out” and extend the X Games’ arrangement with ESPN, “I’d be in some serious trouble,” he said.