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Xcellent: X Games returning

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Cancel school – the ESPN Winter X Games are coming back.

Negotiations that began before the last X Games wrapped up Feb. 2 at Buttermilk Mountain ended yesterday when ESPN and the Aspen Skiing Co. announced the games will return to the Milk for an unprecedented third straight year, Jan. 22-25, 2004.

In striking the one-year deal with “by any means necessary” doggedness, the Skico ponied up for the expenses borne by ESPN during the last two events. The company sweetened the offer with lodging, transportation and marketing incentives to become the first X site to host three consecutive games, winter or summer.

“It came down to hard financial negotiations. They understand the value of their product, so we had to step up and invest more money,” said David Perry, Skico senior vice president. “But ESPN has also invested more in programming,” including more prime-time slots and a greater presence on SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship station.

“All the things that we look for in a host resort, it’s all here. That’s why we’re coming back,” said ESPN spokeswoman Melissa Gullotti.

Last winter’s games drew 48,000 spectators to Aspen, filling rooms and restaurants from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. Nearly 20 hours of programming aired on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, reaching 110 million homes internationally. And the event broke its own record in terms of average viewership with 412,673 per telecast, an increase of 33 percent.

The Thursday through Sunday event also caused truancy en masse from the Aspen School District – some 380 of 470 students at Aspen High missed school one afternoon. Superintendent Tom Farrell said at the time: “It pretty much validates what they’re saying about the X Games and youth, and it’s a good thing. 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.”

And in Aspen’s continuing struggle to reposition itself in the global marketplace, a rebirth of cool by youthful injection, the Skico’s Perry sees no greater avenue.

“The core reason the Skico invested in this event was to provide an appropriate counterbalance to our existing image as a posh, upscale resort, which may only be appropriate if you’re older and you have money,” said Perry. “Now we know that’s not true, but we need to try to prove that to the world.

“Is it working? It’s a very difficult thing to measure, but we’re investing a lot of money and forgoing a lot of revenue as a company during that period because we believe in our hearts that currently this is the single most important thing we can do to send a message to the world that we’re young and we’re vibrant.”

Winter X Games VIII will be staged entirely at Buttermilk again, and the venue should resemble the setup from the last two years. All the games are the same, ESPN’s Gullotti said, with skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and moto X big air.

“Enhancements only,” she said. “Because we have two years under our belt now, we can only improve the venue.”

Gullotti said X Games production crews are currently at work in Los Angeles, preparing for the Aug. 14-17 Summer X Games at the Staples Center, and should begin trickling back to Aspen in early October.

Perry said landing the games again was a community effort. Lodge and hotel owners agreed to offer rate reductions, city and county officials lent support and agreed to shoulder additional busing expenses, and Jim Crown, owner of the Skico, also threw his hat into the ring to get the deal done. Crown made window space available at Rockefeller Center, the New York City landmark (and a Crown family holding), for ESPN to place an X Games display, with video of course, in front of 60,000 passers-by daily.

“A lot of people kicked in,” said Perry. “Jim Crown and the Crown family believe in this event, and Jim went out of his way to see if the Crown family businesses could assist in some way.”

Perry declined to comment on specifics of the deal, but said: “We’ve invested in the past, including capital, about a million dollars in this event. And we’ve picked up a lot of costs this year that were previously borne by ESPN … And the community, especially the lodging community, has stepped up, which is a real tribute to the community spirit of this event.

“ESPN has solid business reasons for moving the event around, to broaden exposure, create new audiences,” Perry continued. “But for the first time, the advantages of staying in Aspen far outweighed their traditional business model.”

Judging from the last two years, lift ticket sales will dip during the games, Perry said, “because people are here to watch.”


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