Successful X Games may return

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer
DJ Eckstrom (25), third from left, and TJ Gulla (44), right, catch air during the Hillcross finals at the Winter X GAmes Vii in Aspen, Colo., Sunday afternoon Fevruary 2, 2003. Gulla, South Hero, Vt., won the competition and Eckstrom, from Duluth, Minn., finished in fourth. (AP photo/ Paul Conrad, The Aspen Times)
AP | The Aspen Times

The ESPN Winter X Games drew 48,700 fans to Buttermilk Mountain over four days, and attracted millions of young viewers to ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 over the weekend.

And now the Aspen Skiing Co. may attract ESPN to come back next winter.

“It’s very possible,” said ESPN’s Chris Stiepock, general manager of the X Games. “The event was a smashing success. We’re very, very pleased. So we’re having very positive communications, but we still don’t know.”

Officials from the Skico and ESPN weren’t sure when a decision would be made.

Before coming to Aspen last year, the Winter X Games spent two years at the Mount Snow ski area in Vermont and then signed a two-year contract with the Skico to hold the made-for-television event here. The Summer X Games are heading to Los Angeles this year after two years in Philadelphia.

But Buttermilk has proven to be a nearly ideal venue.

“It works very well here,” said Stiepock. “We have a mountain that provides us with a natural amphitheater. We also enjoy the benefit of Aspen having three mountains that can disperse recreational traffic … so that the Skico does not have to rely on lift ticket sales for this one mountain. And that’s a positive thing for us.”

John Rigney, Skico special events director, is optimistic that ESPN will decide to return to Buttermilk next year.

“We’ve been speaking off and on for months, and we’ve been speaking every day in the last 10 days,” Rigney said. “And it has been a positive discussion. We just need to make sure it works for both parties. But I’m very excited to have them hopefully come back.”

And, he said, if ESPN does come back, the network would likely come back for another multi-year stint.

“Just like they gain efficiencies from having a multi-year relationship, so will we,” Rigney said. “It’s certainly an investment we are willing to do again.”

And it’s likely fans from around the region would come back as well – especially if the Moto X big air competition returns. That event, which included riders doing back flips with their bikes, was held on Saturday, the busiest day of this year’s event. Organizers estimated 18,500 people crowded into the base of Buttermilk.

On Thursday, an estimated 7,500 people came to the free event. Friday drew 10,700 fans, and 12,000 people were thought to be at the venue on Sunday.

Saturday’s huge crowd pushed the venue to its capacity, and event organizers asked KSPN radio to announce around 2 p.m. that no more people should go to Buttermilk.

“There were too many people so we decided to close the venue,” Joe DiSalvo of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office said on Saturday, as he stood in a sea of people coming and going at the base. “The crowd is swelling past what we can handle right now so we are just cutting it back.”

Saturday’s crowd started building early. By noon, the 1,000-car Cozy Point parking area at Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 was filled to capacity, and electric signs were directing X Games fans to park in Aspen.

One fan at Cozy Point responded angrily to the parking directions of Mike Siegel, a Skico event worker.

The driver gunned his engine, fishtailed his car and hit Siegel. Siegel was taken to the hospital and treated and released with some significant bruising.

The driver fled the scene and was arrested near Buttermilk. He was charged with careless driving and third-degree assault. Siegel was back at the X Games on Sunday.

“He’s fine,” Rigney said. “He’s happy to be alive.”

Overall, the X Games crowd was well-behaved, police said, just as they were last year when 36,300 fans showed up for the event.

This year, DiSalvo said there were no more than five arrests at the venue, with “two or three” for underage drinking and two for disorderly conduct. In addition, there were two cases of people being overly intoxicated.

“That’s not a lot of police contacts for 30,000 people,” DiSalvo said. “All in all, for that many people, it went pretty well.”

Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said he’s open to the event coming back.

“The crowd has been really well-behaved,” he said. “They are really good people, and they are more than welcome to come back any year they want to.”

And DiSalvo said there were no significant traffic problems and that mass transportation efforts went smoothly, although there were some long afternoon lines to catch shuttles back to Cozy Point.

An official with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority estimated it moved 20,000 people to and from the event on Saturday, which took nearly 80 buses to pull off. On both Friday and Sunday, RFTA moved an estimated 15,000 people to and from the event.

Most of the fans at the event were between 12 and 34 years old, ESPN’s target demographic for its telecast.

“It was awesome, man,” said Nate Wierwille, a 19-year-old student at Fort Lewis College in Durango who came to watch the Moto X big air. “It was so nuts. They were doing back flips and no-footed back flips.”

At 43, George Nicol of Glenwood Springs may be outside ESPN’s target demographic, but he was at the X Games with kids ages 8, 10, 13 and 16.

“Today’s my birthday, but they are the ones having fun,” Nicol said Saturday afternoon. “Most of the day I spent down there where the beer was, but the kids have been having fun, and now it’s time to go and I can’t find them.”

By Saturday, T.J. Hauser, 14, of Aspen, had made it to the X Games every day, including school days. “I got out of school for my free period and lunch,” Hauser said. “It’s a lot better than last year.”

Aspen School District Superintendent Tom Farrell said about 380 of the 470 kids at Aspen High School were absent on Friday – the day that Gretchen Bleiler won the women’s halfpipe competition.

“Because they were supporting her, we decided to give them all excused absences,” Farrell said. “Next year, we’ll just close school down and let the kids go. It’s really not fair to the kids, to not support them going to the most exciting event for their age bracket in Aspen all year.”

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