What’s up with World Cup?
There will be no clatter of cowbells on Aspen Mountain this ski season. No boisterous crowd of Austrians will be waving their national flag and cheering maniacally for superstar Hermann “Hermanator” Maier.
Instead of World Cup ski races opening the season, Aspen will host something called Thanksjibbing. Some of the best skiers and snowboard riders in the world will hurl themselves down Little Nell Saturday, launch off a ramp and perform a dazzling array of tricks on rails and other implements atop a 26-foot wall.
The jibbing will be followed by a concert by “high-intensity post-punk rock ‘n’ roll band” Fingertight. The event is expected to draw a crowd, many of them males in their teens and 20s.
Such a dramatic change from the prestigious but slightly stuffy World Cup ski races to a raucous freestyle event understandably raises questions about the Aspen Skiing Co.’s direction with special events.
Are fans of the World Cup, which brings the world’s best ski racers to Aspen, going to be left to talk about “the good old days?”
Along with World Cup, the 24 Hours of Aspen endurance race is off the schedule this season. No title sponsor could be found to dish out the $350,000 plus to help present it.
In their place are events designed to attract a decidedly younger crowd. The immensely popular ESPN Winter X Games will be back at Buttermilk in January. There is also the Budweiser Hi-Fi Concert Series each month of the season, the Aspen Rail Revolution snowboarding event in January, and the Bud Light Big-Air Fridays competition at Snowmass in February and March.
The Skico will invest roughly $3.5 million in events this ski season, according to David Perry, vice president of sales and marketing. Excluding last season’s expenditure on World Cup, that’s an increase of 20 percent on special events this season over last (even with the loss of the 24 Hours of Aspen), said John Rigney, managing director of event marketing.
No change in philosophy
Even with an emphasis on events aimed at a younger demographic, the Skico hasn’t shunned World Cup, Perry said. The company has done an about-face before. The Skico briefly stopped pursuing World Cup races in 1995 after American racer AJ Kitt was stripped of a second downhill title in three years due to a controversial decision by the Federation International de Ski, World Cup’s governing body.
Kitt’s treatment prompted former Skico president Bob Maynard to declare the company was no longer interested in hosting races. New leadership brought a change of philosophy a few years later and renewed interest in the races. The company invested nearly $1 million in snowmaking improvements, in large part to show the FIS that it was interested in hosting early-season World Cup races.
Perry said World Cup is very much in the company’s plans, even if much of the visible marketing is aimed at a younger generation interested in different events.
“The Aspen Skiing Co. is committed to keeping World Cup here,” said Perry. “We’ve told that to the FIS and the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.”
Aspen didn’t end up with a World Cup race this year because of FIS planning decisions made years ago. The FIS had intended to hold late-season races in the United States this winter. However, the USSA didn’t want to surrender the early-season dates it traditionally holds. Park City and Beaver Creek were already on the calendar, and Aspen was on the outside, scrambling to get in.
Perry and Jim Hancock, the chief of race for Aspen’s World Cups, flew to the FIS spring meetings in France last May to lobby for races in Aspen.
“Sometimes you need your face right in the middle of the table to make your intentions clear,” explained Perry. The only reason Aspen was considered as a 2003 venue was due to the Skico’s lobbying, he added.
The Skico dug deep to try to land an event. “We put more money on the table than we ever have,” said Perry.
Alas, the slim possibility of a race fell through because of the USSA’s problems enlisting a major financial sponsor, Perry said. Alpine skiing events in the United States are often operated at a loss; they draw only a small American television audience. And it doesn’t help that the economy remains sluggish.
The USSA shares the costs of putting on a race with the resort that lands the venue. It costs more than $1 million to present a women’s alpine event, Perry noted.
The USSA tries to cover costs by selling television rights to the event as well as sponsorships. The host resort puts up prize money and pays for all the safety features required on the course.
The USSA had the advantage of working well in advance to secure funding for four races in Park City and two in Beaver Creek.
“There was a desire and a willingness [to hold Aspen races] but not funding,” Perry said.
USSA wants Aspen races
Bill Marolt, an Aspen native and president of the USSA, said Aspen did everything in its power to secure a race this season and has demonstrated in the past that it wants races and can present them effectively.
“Aspen’s been running great international events since before I was born, and that was a long time ago,” said Marolt. “The only thing holding us back is the resources.”
North America has carved out the early part of the season for races and the FIS “realizes the value” of holding races in Aspen, Marolt said. Therefore, he thinks the long-range prospect of Aspen securing races is good. And as long as Marolt is with the USSA, its got a friend on the national level.
“I grew up in Aspen so I have a lot of loyalty and I like coming home,” he said. “We’re feeling the effects of an economic downturn right now. Eventually the chances of finding a sponsor are good.”
How the sponsorship issue will affect Aspen’s ability to secure a race during the 2004-05 season is still in doubt. Although Aspen isn’t a venue on the preliminary FIS calendar, Perry is confident that Aspen will have a race. The USSA will have an answer on a major sponsor within the next few months.
In the long run, annual races may be difficult to pull off for a town like Aspen. Perry said the Skico’s preference is to have three or four races concentrated over a long weekend. The cost of preparing for four races wouldn’t be that much greater than prepping for two. The event would also be more appealing if there were several races at one venue.
In return, the Skico would be willing to host the races on alternating years rather than annually, sharing the exposure ” and the risks ” with other resorts.
Perry, who helped bring World Cup races to Whistler, B.C., as the top marketing executive at that successful resort, said hosting a World Cup event still pays dividends for resorts. It builds or maintains name recognition in Europe and rallies the community. Rigney noted there’s also a long history of hosting races in Aspen and building on its legacy as a ski town.
But the immediate financial return isn’t there.
“I have to say the value has diminished over the years,” said Perry, pointing to diminishing television markets. “It’s not a return on investment.”
24 Hours on life support
Rigney said the Skico wants to create events that are new and on the cutting edge of snow sports. Fourteen years ago, the 24 Hours of Aspen endurance race fit the bill.
“It was extreme before extreme was extreme,” he said.
But Rigney believes that every event has a life cycle. It’s apparently time for 24 Hours of Aspen to be reborn.
“Something was wrong that we weren’t able to get a sponsor for it,” he said. “Is it fixable? Absolutely.”
Skico officials will look at how the event fits into the grander scheme of what it is doing and come up with changes. “We certainly haven’t given up on it,” said Perry.
The Skico is sensitive right now to perceptions that it is pulling the plug on certain events ” Freestyle Fridays at Aspen Highlands being the glaring example. It was the longest-running competition of its type, but the Skico claimed that changes were needed last season.
It wasn’t drawing competitors so the Skico changed the format. Those changes, Rigney insisted, were the only chance to save the event. They aren’t what killed it.
Skico’s big picture
The two biggest events that the Skico helps stage ” the World Cup and Winter X Games ” appeal to drastically different markets. World Cup races appeal to a slightly older audience, Perry said. The X Games appeal to a broader, alternative market.
He and Rigney say there’s one glaring weakness of both ” they are controlled by somebody else. They want events that the Skico itself can organize and schedule.
World Cup scheduling occurs at the whim of the FIS. The X Games are controlled by ESPN, which agreed to bring them back to Aspen for an unprecedented third consecutive year.
Rigney said the Skico wants to control events so it can work them in with the needs of the community and resort. Events used to be scheduled almost exclusively during slow periods to try to draw more customers, but that philosophy has shifted. The company now aims to use events to “add value” for existing guests, Rigney said. If that occurs, and Aspen is regarded as a fun place to visit, more people will come.
For example, Bud Light Spring Jam used to be held in April, when crowds were sparse. It has been moved to the spring-break peak in March. The event features the KickAspen Big Air Invitational competition, a dash for cash and a block party.
One of the Skico’s new events this season, the All Star Weekend, is scheduled Feb. 9-15, when Presidents Day vacation guests are already here. He believes the event, which features competition for teams of riders and skiers, could become a huge success for the Skico.
Perry, who joined the Skico a little more than one year ago, said he heard two things from town residents and the business community upon his arrival: They wanted more events to draw people and they wanted events geared toward a younger crowd. Aspen’s perception of itself was that it was getting old and stodgy.
The Skico feels it has fulfilled those requests. “This is the most change in the winter events schedule in Aspen’s history,” said Perry.
But he also wants to assure the town that the company isn’t writing off World Cup.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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