ESPN might pull Winter X Games out of Aspen

January 29, 2012
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ASPEN – So long, Shaun White. Happy trails, Kelly Clark. Goodbye, Lindsey Jacobellis. Shut off the halfpipe lights. Pack up the slopestyle course. Tear down the big air ramp.

The Winter X Games are over. And they might not come back to Buttermilk Mountain.

A contract to hold Winter X in Aspen has expired, and as ESPN, the event’s owner, and the Aspen Skiing Co. continue negotiations for a renewal, talk mounts that Winter X will return to its roots, possibly going to California, Vermont or somewhere else in Colorado.

With 200-plus athletes in skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, Winter X has been in Aspen for the past 11 years, growing into one of the marquee competitions on the action-sports calendar. The rate of progression has improved so rapidly, tricks are on the edge of becoming unsafe, and the level of exposure – across 16 hours on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC – has made Winter X a hit for the profitable demographic of teenagers and young adults.

“Aspen and the X Games belong together,” said Aspen snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, a 2006 Olympic silver medalist. She added, “Aspen needs the X Games, and the X Games need Aspen. It would be so awkward anywhere else. There have been so many memories, and there’s this crazy hype. … Any other place just wouldn’t do this event justice.”

Only 35 percent of respondents in a 2010 Turnkey Sports & Entertainment poll wanted Winter X to stay on Buttermilk, where a record 114,200 fans came through the gates last year – a 30,100-person jump from 2010. Plus, ESPN has an undeniable desire to expand the X Games, with nine finalists named Thursday for three global stops to debut in 2013, joining Winter X, Summer X in Los Angeles and the European edition in Tignes, France.

Some have speculated that ESPN, which spends a bundle on lodging in Aspen and nearby Snowmass, likes the idea of relocating Winter X to an urban destination. Winter X started in Big Bear Lake, Calif., in 1997, and it was held in Crested Butte in 1998 and 1999 and in Somerset, Vt., in 2000 and 2001 – long before ESPN began generating a reported $120 million in annual gains off the X Games brand; accumulated a load of corporate sponsors, including Jeep and Red Bull; and sold out of its halfpipe suites and filled its VIP room.

But why change what’s working? ESPN had 39.7 million Americans watch its 15 Winter X broadcasts last year, and this year, Winter X reached 232 million homes in 192 nations. It’s far more followed – and attractive from an advertising standpoint – than the suddenly popular Winter Dew Tour, and the Aspen Skiing Co. always breaks out the red carpet for ESPN, allowing the network to take over compact Buttermilk for a made-for-TV affair.

Of course, Aspen also has benefited from hosting Winter X, which pumps an estimated $3.37 million into the economy each year, largely as a result of visitors who inhabit fancy shops, pay for high-priced lodges and condominiums and flood bars and restaurants. For Aspen, the weekend of Winter X is usually busier than even Christmas, and on Saturday, Aspen hotels were a record 97 percent occupied, according to Stay Aspen Snowmass.

A two-time Olympic gold medalist in snowboarding, White called Aspen “definitely one of the more exciting ski towns. You have the fun nightlife, and there’s so much going on. … I like that old feeling of coming back somewhere, that similar vibe and welcoming.” If Winter X leaves Aspen, White has told ESPN, “Wherever you guys are going, I’m there.”

ESPN has “had interest, as we do, from time to time” from other U.S. cities about Winter X but hasn’t requested proposals, said Scott Guglielmino, an ESPN senior vice president in charge of programming and the X Games. The goal is to keep discussing with Aspen Skiing Co. in hopes of getting “something buttoned up sooner rather than later,” he said. “And we’re working hard on it. … Every year, we’re looking for the bar to go higher.”

Contact Brian Gomez: 719-636-0256 or Facebook: Brian Gomez. Twitter: @gazettehockey. Google+: Brian Gomez.

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