Monday, January 23, 2012

X Games questions

By on Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 11:30 AM

With Whistler council presumably deep into the zero-based budgeting process, including no increases in property taxes (two of Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden’s 10 recommendations during last fall’s campaign), the new council is about to run into its first big budget decision: pony up as much as $2 million to bring the X Games to town or pass.

Exactly what the figure will be has yet to be determined, but it’s likely the money would come from RMI funds, the annual mystery allotment from the provincial government for tourism-related projects.

The new council’s decision comes down to whether spending RMI funds on the X Games, or X Fest as it would be known once integrated into the World Ski and Snowboard Festival in the April timeslot, is a good use of that money.

Whistler Blackcomb and Tourism Whistler have decided the X Games would be a good fit for Whistler. They’ve agreed to commit $500,000 annually to the project. Another $2 million is expected from sponsorship sales. Assuming sponsorship targets could be reached that would still leave a $2.5 million gap. Federal and provincial governments, along with the RMOW, will be asked to help fill it.

The success of the Winter X Games in Aspen is apparently beyond challenge. Aspen has hosted them for a decade and in 2011 the X Games drew more than 114,000 people, making it the Colorado town’s second busiest week, after Christmas.

Now ESPN, producers of the X Games, is expanding the series. From one winter and one summer X Games to three each season. ESPN is taking bids for three-year commitments to host, starting in 2013.

The lure, for Whistler, is the 24 hours of live broadcasting that come with the X Games, as well as the opportunity to leverage ESPN’s Internet media platform. Integrating the X Games into the 10-day World Ski and Snowboard Festival and its cultural events would also continue WSSF’s 17-year tradition of evolving and growing the festival.

The few details that have been released to date sound promising, but before Whistler council commits potentially millions of dollars to the project some more questions should be answered. Such as:

• with three winter X Games instead of one is the value of the coverage Aspen gets going to be reproduced in Whistler? In April?

• are the X Games going to fill more hotel rooms, in April?

The World Ski and Snowboard Festival has successfully extended the winter season into April, drawing visitors and creating a buzz when previously few people were thinking about Whistler. Melding the X Games and WSSF could be the next phase in that evolution, but it looks like it’s going to require a big cash outlay and the incremental increase in business and exposure has yet to be fully quantified.

Recall that in the mid-90s after guaranteeing a loan of several million dollars for snowmaking Whistler secured a three-year commitment to host early-season World Cup downhill races, based substantially on the assumption that early-season coverage of ski races in Whistler would generate awareness and boost bookings through the winter. That theory was never really tested because all three events were wiped out by weather.

However, the X Games seem to be operating under the same premise as the World Cup: if Whistler puts up some money the organizers will deliver media exposure and fill rooms.

The formula may work with the X Games, where it didn’t with the World Cup. But at a time when participatory events like the Whistler Half Marathon and the RBC Whistler GranFondo are bringing thousands of people to town who are willing to pay their own way the X Games model needs to prove its value.

You can check out the winter X Games on TV and the Internet this weekend.

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