Virus safety a top priority as X Games Aspen returns to Buttermilk on Friday

X Games Vice President Tim Reed discusses creating this year’s event amid the coronavirus pandemic

A team prepares for the upcoming 2021 X Games Aspen at Buttermilk on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

How do you celebrate two decades at Buttermilk Ski Area? Well, in a pandemic, you don’t.

ESPN’s Winter X Games is back in Aspen this week for the 20th straight year, although it’ll lack most of the usual flair. Out of precaution to safeguard against further spread of COVID-19, there won’t be any fans, any music and, well, really anything outside of the main skiing and snowboarding competitions.

There will be a lot more social distancing and a lot more nasal swabs for the few working the event.

“We really believe we’ve looked at this and thought of all the details. We feel like we’ve put the right plan in place to mitigate the risk,” said ESPN executive Tim Reed, who oversees X Games production. “We’ve been in Aspen for 20 years, right? It’s an important event to us, it’s an important event to Aspen, it’s an important event to the industry. There was a lot of desire to want to make sure that we could produce it.”

Usually a four-day spectacle, this year’s X Games will only be three days, starting Friday and running through Sunday. Buttermilk hosted its first X Games in 2002 and will host for at least another three years after this one, but the 2021 version will certainly be one that stands out, for better or worse.

ESPN is limiting the people inside its “bubble” to 500, which includes the nearly 100 athletes invited to compete. Each athlete is allotted one additional spot for a coach or manager, which could be a big change for some who might bring an entire support team.

Everyone, from superstar athlete to course worker, will be tested each time they come to the Buttermilk venue. Mandatory mask wearing and social distancing will be a focal point during the three-plus days.

“We always felt like there was a smart plan that could again mitigate the risk and limit the spread,” said Reed, who always felt confident X Games would take place this winter, even after the 2020 summer event in Minnesota had been canceled. “It’s a significantly reduced footprint. There are a lot less people working the event this year. So again, all of those size and scope type things, we felt with the right plan we could really execute something.”

ESPN had plenty of time to learn about the bubble as it helped produce many sporting events over the past year that took a similar approach, including the NBA’s playoff bubble in Orlando. A lot of what they learned has been used to help create a safe bubble environment at Buttermilk. This includes much of the staff essentially living on-site — social trips into Aspen aren’t a thing this year — and the nixing of the athlete lounge, a popular hideaway for the competitors.

This year’s event is very much a business trip for everyone involved.

“I’ve talked to a few athletes and they are all thrilled that this is actually happening, and we are excited to produce this for them,” Reed said. “Really, once they arrive on-site, it’s get to practice, get to the competitions, and ultimately there is no typical après stuff that we’ve had in the past. The comps are going to be there … that’s still the key.”

While no spectators are allowed — Buttermilk will remain open per usual during the day to skiing and snowboarding — ESPN will provide 17.5 hours of live coverage across its networks and social media channels. This begins with Friday’s women’s snowboard slopestyle final at noon. The Friday nightcap is the men’s ski superpipe final at 8:30 p.m., where Aspen local Alex Ferreira will be going for a three-peat.

A lot of eyes will be on the snowboard superpipe contests, where the women’s side includes the return of Chloe Kim after she took a year off to focus on her collegiate studies. On the men’s side, snowboard icon Shaun White is tentatively scheduled to compete at X Games for the first time since 2017, and for the first time period since he won Olympic gold in 2018.

“I’m thrilled with the athlete lineup for this year, and I think it’s really going to make for some great competitions,” Reed said. “On the skiing side, it’s awesome to have Alex as the local story. That should be an awesome way to kick it off on Friday night.”