ASPEN " The Winter X Games is extending its stay in Aspen.
ESPN and the Aspen Skiing Co. announced Wednesday that the two sides have agreed to stage the action-sports showcase at Buttermilk until 2012. The previous agreement, one established in January 2006, was set to expire after 2010.
2009 marks the eighth consecutive year that Aspen has served as host.
"Back when we first got into the X Games, we had a two-year deal. We thought OK, maybe it will last three," Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said Wednesday. "For it to last 11 years is phenomenal."
The latest announcement is the third such agreement between the two parties. A three-year deal was struck back in 2004.
"Aspen has been a terrific partner," said Rick Alessandri, managing director of ESPN's Global X Franchise. "They've always been enthusiastic. They've always been supportive of our desire to keep growing our event."
The inaugural Winter X Games was held at Snow Summit Mountain Resort in California in 1997. It made stops in Crested Butte (1998-1999) and Mount Snow, Vt. (2000-2001), before landing in the Roaring Fork Valley in 2002.
Aspen's attraction was obvious from the start, Alessandri said.
"There's something special here," he said. "There's kind of this idyllic setting with the community and the mountains and this being a resort destination. It seemed to be the perfect fit. We always try to provide the athletes with the best facilities and the best experience. We have that here."
Sal Masekela, Winter X's lead host and commentator, agreed.
"The town embraces us," said Masekela, who has been a part of ESPN's X Games coverage in various capacities since 1999. "I think people get this sense that Aspen is all about big homes, money and fur. But at its core, people just come here to live the outdoor lifestyle. X Games is a celebration and a progression of that lifestyle.
"For me, Aspen is not so much a destination as it has become the home [of Winter X]."
Skico has conceded in years past that hosting the games is a loss-leader (costing more to stage than the event actually brings in). Investing capital to fund on-mountain improvements such as snowmaking and a new 22-foot superpipe, and providing equipment and manpower, among others things, constitute a "significant" portion of the firm's annual operating budget, said John Rigney, Skico's vice president of sales and events.
"It's a massive laundry list," he said. "But the caveat there is that, in my humble opinion, it's been worth every bit. The credibility we've gotten from holding the X Games has done wonders for Aspen's image with the greater population. You can't put a price on that.
"[ESPN] gives us the exposure, gives us the distribution channels and platforms to continue to grow and best get the word out ... They have good vision and professional execution time and time again."
The publicity and local economic boon far outweigh the bottom line, Kaplan added.
"It generates exposure for the next generation of skiers and riders," he said. "The X Games have such a strong appeal for teenagers and younger. The fact that they equate the X Games, the preeminent winter sports event, with Aspen is huge. It's invaluable.
"Second, it fills up the town in January, when we're normally empty. The shops, the restaurants, the bars are full. It creates a vitality that really is our hallmark."
The agreement has paid appreciable and quantifiable dividends for both sides. Attendance has nearly doubled since 2002, according to Skico. Last year's telecasts garnered record viewership, reaching 863,000 households " up 17 percent from 2007.
Such is the reason other resorts are standing in line to vie for their chance to play host in the future, Alessandri said.
"Obviously, there's a lot of interest in all of our events, but we made the decision to remain here until 2012," he added. "Several resorts will visit Aspen this week to better gauge and understand the impact it has. The X Games generate significant value that other communities see and want a piece of.
"We always knew Aspen was the ideal situation for us ... I don't think any of us anticipated being here this long. It's been a real team effort."
That's something Kaplan said he hopes will continue.
"We talk every year about the relationship, about looking back and looking ahead," he said. "I think the X Games is representative of big wave riding. The wave has just begun to rise up, and we'll continue to push going forward."
Masekela is already lobbying for an extension of his own.
"I hope I get a contract extension through 2010 cemented," he joked. "As long as they have it right here, I'm going to fight to keep my job."