Eighteen-year-old Kendall Tomkins, left, and Jordan Lally, 15, of Virginia Beach, Va., joke about their goggles after skiing Buttermilk in Aspen. They come
Eighteen-year-old Kendall Tomkins, left, and Jordan Lally, 15, of Virginia Beach, Va., joke about their goggles after skiing Buttermilk in Aspen. They come to the area to ski and watch the Winter X Games. (Mahala Gaylord, The Denver Post)

ASPEN — After 12 years, the Winter X Games here are more than a business boom. Yes, the event fill hotels and restaurants. It bolsters the reputation of resort operator Aspen Skiing Co. The busiest weekend of the winter, the snowy bacchanal fires an economic engine that fuels a valley.

But more important, Aspen X has become a vital tradition, a high-profile, youthful gathering of the tribe where goggle-tanned lovers of winter celebrate stars, mourn losses and randomly fist-bump parka-swaddled strangers.

The idea that ESPN might move its snow-sports circus from Aspen after the 2014 games — there are at least three other locales vying to host the event from 2015-17: Utah's Park City, California's Lake Tahoe resorts and Canada's Quebec City — is equivalent to a sort of amputation.

"Think of it like losing the December holidays, Presidents Day weekend or the Fourth of July," Michael Goldberg said as he wrapped up an atypical Wednesday night where the band Bloc Party shook his intimate Belly Up nightclub in downtown Aspen. "But the loss of the tradition — one of the things that makes living here so special — would be felt well beyond the business community. We will survive if they leave, but it won't be nearly as much fun. Or as profitable."

The 200 competing athletes draw more than 100,000 visitors for the four-day festival at the Buttermilk ski area, with the peak show Saturday topping a record 45,000 last year. The Roaring Fork Valley's lodges, hotels and inns swell to 98 percent occupancy during the X Games. That's as big as the New Year's Day and Labor Day holidays.

Aspen, ESPN and Aspen Skiing don't discuss the economic impact of the X Games, but the city's sales-tax report last January shows that Aspen's lodges harvested $21.1 million, and restaurants and bars saw $10.8 million in spending for the X Games month.

That was a 10 percent increase from January 2011, delivering $1.7 million in sales- and lodging-tax revenue to the city.

But the brief bump in cash is only part of the benefit of Aspen's X Games jubilee. Last year, ESPN's telecast of the action-sports gala reached 232 million homes in nearly 200 countries. Today's digital reach has expanded the breadth of the X Games exponentially.

That global presence elevates the Aspen name, floating not just the ski areas but the valley's vibe. A dozen years ago, before the X Games arrived in Aspen, the valley's signature hill in downtown Aspen didn't even allow snowboarders. Now, Aspen is ground zero for the hottest, most progressive snow sports in the world.

Reaching those young riders and future skiers and snowboarders — planting the seed that no place plays harder than Aspen — is something money can't buy, said Aspen's longtime mayor, Mick Ireland.

"Someone who comes here when they are 13 for the X Games and they are really excited about it, they are going to remember that — and you can't reach that person any other way," Ireland said. "You can't justify special events like this on the two-, three-day bump in lodging. The effects go much longer."

Aspen Skiing, which is privately owned, carries most of the weight in hosting the X Games, pretty much turning over the keys to its Buttermilk ski area for months of preparation. But the community, too, is in deep. This year, the City Council increased its contribution by $25,000, providing $125,000. A transportation council of regional officials delivered another $100,000 for transit service.

Aspen, in the past dozen years, has honed its X Games operations into a science. Buses from across the state rally in the valley, ferrying visitors with the efficiency of the New York subway. Vacationers can easily ski three other areas while the traditional beginner-friendly Buttermilk hosts the X Games invasion. And Aspen is no stranger to throwing a party.

"We really do have it down to a science," Ireland said.

John Rigney, the Aspen Skiing vice president of sales and events who has spent countless hours negotiating with ESPN over the 12 years and the contract renewals that have kept the X Games in Aspen through the 2014 event, said his company treats X "as a long-term positioning investment."

"We've long been known for celebrating athletic achievement at its highest levels, and yet this event is the biggest on the planet for winter sports. Our community has a legendary reputation for vibrancy and nightlife, and still X takes this to another level," Rig-ney said. "Aspen represents so many different things to so many different people, and X is simply another incredibly appealing and inspirational component of our resort."

Potential hosts have until April 2 to submit formal proposals, and ESPN is expected to announce the 2015-17 Winter X host by the end of this year.

"We love it here. They are phenomenal hosts," vice president of X Games global events Chris Stiepock said Wednesday at the news conference to open this year's X Games. "It's a place where we know and a place that we love."

Athletes have a range of opinions on the potential venue shift, but they share a universal appreciation of Aspen. The Buttermilk course is the best in the world, the Aspen nightlife is unrivaled and the X Games is a party that generates memories for a lifetime.

"I think Aspen has proven itself," said local snowboarding queen Gretchen Bleiler. "I think ESPN is hoping Aspen pulls it together with the best bid because it's just so easy for them here."

Aspen halfpipe skiing phenom Torin Yater-Wallace recently relocated to Park City to train in the Olympic-caliber halfpipe, but he still leans toward keeping X in his hometown.

"Aspen is the best fit. Park City would be a good place for it, but I think no place will be better than Aspen," the 18-year-old said.

Shaun White, the California kid-turned-action-sports superstar who competes in both ESPN's Summer and Winter X Games, is the athlete most responsible for floating the network's X franchise. Maybe so much that it has outgrown its Buttermilk home.

White has trained at Park City Mountain Resort. His home hill is Lake Tahoe's Northstar. He has built a multimillion-dollar career off his 23 X Games medals.

"I love Aspen, but a change of scenery would be fun," White said. "Change is good, right?"

Even if ESPN picks a new host for the event in 2015-17, Ireland says not all will be lost for Aspen.

"I doubt if the X Games leaves Aspen, that would mean they would never come back," he said. "We are the perfect place for X."

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins


Spots mark the X

Denver Post staff writer Jason Blevins outlines four sites said to be in the hunt for the Winter X Games:

Park City, Utah

The 3,330-acre Park City Mountain Resort was the alpine venue of the 2002 Olympics and several World Cup freeskiing and snowboarding contests. The area has proposed an April Winter X Games. The traditional end-of-January schedule for Winter X overlaps with the city's Sundance Film Festival. Bob Kollar, special-events director for the Park City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said moving Sundance isn't an option. Kollar declined to discuss details of his city's X Games bid. The resort is a training area for many of the top riders in the superpipe, and the area continues to host offseason training.

Lake Tahoe

A partnership has united South Lake Tahoe's Heavenly ski area — owned by Vail Resorts — with Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley, owned by Denver's KSL Capital Partners. The proposal would divide events among the locations, separated by a one- hour drive. Next year, Heavenly will host the U.S. freestyle nationals, and Squaw will host the U.S. alpine championships. "Hosting the Winter X Games is an immense commitment. However, the gains are pretty substantial," said Andy Wirth, CEO of Squaw-Alpine and a former Steamboat executive. "To participate in the next evolution and the next staging of winter sports is pretty incredible."

Quebec City

Sarah Matthews, a spokeswoman with the 400-acre Le Massif de Charlevoix ski area, said resort executives and Quebec City marketing and promotions group Gestev are analyzing the possibility of hosting the winter event. The resort is about an hour northeast of Quebec City on the Saint Lawrence River. "It is a really nice project that could be very interesting for Le Massif. But for the moment, there are too many details that are unknown," said Matthews, declining to discuss specifics.

Whistler Blackcomb

Host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, which lost to Aspen in a two-year X Games extension despite a reported promise of $750,000 in support to lure the event, the Vancouver, B.C.-area resort is not commenting on whether it is bidding for 2015-17. Last May, when ESPN announced Winter X would remain in Aspen through 2014, Whistler leaders promised to keep alive the fight to host the X Games. "ESPN has shared with us that they also believe Whistler would be a great fit, and we would certainly be open to discussing future opportunities with ESPN if the occasion were to arise," Whistler Blackcomb president and chief operating officer Dave Brownlie said last year.