Aspen Journalism: X Games bus ridership rebounds but still lagging pre-COVID years
New operator declines to release total attendance estimate; incident management team says crowd was 'well behaved,' no arrests
The new operator of Winter X Games is not releasing estimated attendance totals from last month’s event, although other data indicates that crowds were up from last year but are still lagging the massive numbers seen during the pre-COVID-19 years.
The Winter X Games, which have been held in Aspen since 2002, took place under frigid temperatures and snowfall at Buttermilk Ski Area on Jan. 27-29.
“We saw a bigger crowd than we were expecting,” said Gabriel Muething, who is with the Aspen Ambulance District and was one of two co-commanders for the incident-management team set up by local public safety agencies during X Games. “People are excited to get back out and excited to see an event like this (after the pandemic’s shutdown), so it was great to see the crowds back.”
ESPN had been the owner and operator of X Games until last fall, when it sold a majority stake in the event to New York-based private equity firm MSP Sports Capital. A X Games spokesperson said this week that they would not be releasing attendance estimates for 2023 because the new operator is working to get a better handle on all the variables that make up the attendance to ensure the accuracy of the totals.
However, officials with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority shared ridership totals for this year’s event. Those numbers showed an uptick from last year, but a 45% drop from 2020. This year, RFTA reported a total of 17,939 rides coming to and from the venue over the three-day event, up from 10,732 last year when buses had limited capacity, but down from 2020’s 32,756 and 2019’s 36,163.
The last big Winter X Games goes back to January 2020, when the event welcomed roughly 111,500 people over a four-day-weekend at the base of Buttermilk about six weeks before the state’s first reported COVID cases.
In 2021, the event still took place but without any spectators.
Last year, in-person attendance was back, but only 35,700 people showed up at the 2022 X Games, which were scaled back to three days and no longer included snowmobile competitions. The attendance marked a 68% drop from 2020.
Last month’s event also was only three days long and also did not include snowmobile competitions.
RFTA’s numbers differ from prior years’ ESPN-reported totals because they do not include riders on transit services contracted by X Games to supplement the capacity of the local bus system. In the past, that supplemental transit has been provided by Rocky Mountain Express, Ramblin’ Express, and others. This year, according to RFTA, it worked with Hermes International to help move people to and from X Games.
Other attendance variables include ride-share services providing access to the games, private vehicles, and pedestrians.
Aspen Skiing Co. Senior Vice President John Rigney, who oversees events, said he had always taken previous attendance estimates with a grain of salt, as he does with all non-ticketed events. “But I think the crowds this year were comparable to pre-COVID attendance levels,” he said. He added that the event went well.
“The caliber of competition was exceptional; there was good energy in town, and we got a fantastic three-day snow commercial for Aspen/Snowmass,” he said.
The X Games this year featured three competition courses, the on-snow X Fest with food and music, an outdoor patio, and the newly-renovated Buttermilk base lodge.
Coordinated community response
Roughly a mile down Highway 82 from Buttermilk, representatives of Pitkin County’s incident-management team were based at the Mountain Rescue Aspen station for the duration of X Games. The team consists of 25 agencies called upon when community events require a heightened response.
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the team — which includes the Pitkin County Sheriff Office, Aspen Fire Protection District, Aspen and Snowmass Village police, Aspen Ambulance District, and Colorado State Patrol — was fully-staffed for the X Games.
Among its responsibilities is ensuring the safety of the public in collaboration with the private security firm hired by the X Games. The event is particularly complex to manage because it is set up in the dead of winter with structures being built on snow.
On average, 67 personnel worked for the incident-management team each day of the event. The team reported 136 public-safety contacts, ranging from 25 to 60 contacts each day. Public-safety contacts typically range from somebody needing medical attention after an injury to breaking up a fight between two people who had too much to drink.
This year, the medical tent was busy attending to people with weather-related injuries, accounting for a total of 34 contacts on Friday and Saturday, Muething said, including people who slipped and fell due to icy conditions. SkiCo received reports from people at the venue who saw 5 inches of snow on the ground in the venue on one day. During the first two days of the event, temperatures ranged from 8 to 26 degrees, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, and the team recorded 51 contacts on Friday of the event and 60 on Saturday.
Icy road conditions and multiple car crashes Saturday night caused the Highway 82 downvalley lanes to close west of Service Center Road near the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
“I didn’t envision Shale Bluffs shutting down Saturday night during egress, but these things happen when snowfall is abundant, and the fans were great,” Rigney said.
On the law-enforcement side, dealing with people who had too much to drink was one of the most common situations officers had to face as they reported a total of 15 contacts with an intoxicated person Friday and Saturday, but no arrests were made this year. They also recorded 19 traffic stops and 13 motorist assists during the first two days of the event. (The Sunday data was unavailable.)
As the X Games were scaled back in the past couple of years, it’s difficult to compare the number of contacts with past events. Muething said this year’s contacts were close to average or even a little below.
At the 2015 X Games — which had an attendance of about 115,000 fans, according to ESPN — public-safety contacts topped 500, and 23 people were arrested. 2019’s event saw just as many fans but fewer law-enforcement issues as 2015’s. In 2020, the Aspen Daily News reported that the team received between 75 and 140 calls each day.
One of the reasons for the smaller numbers this year is the size of the X Games, which were spread over three days instead of four as they were pre-COVID. Before the pandemic, the X Games also hosted large-scale concerts — featuring artists such as Lil Wayne, The Chainsmokers and LCD Soundsystem — that packed a concert venue that could hold more than 7,000 spectators adjacent to the action-sports festivities.
“Typically, there have been many thousands of people at a concert in the afternoon and evenings,” Muething said. “And I think that those definitely draw a crowd, and with any large crowd, we typically see a little bit more public safety contacts.”
MSP Sports Capital announced in December that they would downsize the concerts, cutting the big nighttime events in favor of smaller stagings between competitions. This year’s concerts were shorter and attracted a smaller but “well-behaved crowd,” Muething said.
The incident-management team celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year. The Winter X Games came to Aspen in 2002, so for the first decade, the event’s safety was handled internally between the Sheriff’s Office and X Games security.
“I won’t say it’s a well-oiled machine, but it’s pretty close to well-oiled as you get,” said Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta, who is also an incident commander.
Burchetta, who has been supervising the event for 15 years, launched in 2013 the incident-management team, a first on the Western Slope.
Over the years, the team evolved beyond the X Games and has been activated for other major planned and unplanned events, including the pandemic response and the 2018 Lake Christine Fire.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering local data. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
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