Aspen Skiing Co.’s philosophy of maintaining bridges rather than burning them helped secure the return of World Cup Alpine ski races this winter.
US Ski & Snowboard made a surprise announcement May 17 that Aspen had been awarded a men’s super-G and two downhill races March 3-5.
John Rigney, SkiCo senior vice president of revenue, said the opportunity came nearly out of the blue. While SkiCo officials had tried to maintain good relations with the International Ski Federation and US Ski Team, they didn’t specifically lobby for races for the 2022-23 season.
“It wasn’t this grand, orchestrated plan,” Rigney said. “We always kept the relationships alive, not only with the US Ski Team — we do a lot with them — but also with the FIS officials. We would check in once a year.”
Last December, a SkiCo contingent visited with US and international ski officials during the World Cup races in Beaver Creek.
“We kept the dialogue open and reiterated, ‘Hey, if things change, we always remain committed to hosting the Alpine World Cup and nothing has changed here,’” Rigney said.
A few months later, the bridge building paid off. US Ski Team officials called and asked if Aspen would be interested in a spring 2023 event.
“Obviously that generated a thousand questions from me about how that could happen given that these calendars are typically orchestrated four or five years in advance,” he said. “The short answer after a quick (internal) huddle was, ‘Yeah, we’re game, tell us more. We’re interested in giving it a try if you guys are interested in coming back to Aspen.’”
US Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Sophie Goldschmidt felt it was important to bring more World Cup races to the US and worked with the new leadership at FIS to achieve it, according to US Ski & Snowboard spokesperson Courtney Harkins. Goldschmidt successfully got races at Aspen and Palisades Tahoe added to the previously scheduled races earlier in the season at Beaver Creek and Killington.
The beefier lineup of racing in the US “will bring more attention to the sport domestically and help to inspire the next generation of US athletes,” Harkins said.
Aspen’s return to the World Cup fold was probably made possible by a change in leadership at the FIS, the governing body for World Cup racing. Sarah Lewis was ousted as secretary general of FIS on Oct. 9, 2020. She has served in the post since 2000.
The FIS insisted during the later years of Lewis’ reign that Aspen had to replace Lift 1A and improve the base area facilities on the west side of the mountain to assure World Cup races would return. When Aspen hosted the 2017 World Cup Finals, Lewis was complimentary of the effort but told local media that World Cup races wouldn’t return until the improvements were made.
Rigney said it seems not everyone in the FIS leadership shared that view.
“We blew everyone’s doors off in 2017 and did a really, really good job,” he said. “Springtime racing in Aspen is spectacular. I think that resonated with a lot of people, including the new leadership at the FIS. That’s one of those things that remained in our favor.”
The FIS is typically an organization that is a stickler on routine. The World Cup calendars are usually set at least four years in advance. But with US Ski & Snowboard pushing to add US sites, the FIS broke with tradition and, in Rigney’s words, “had a change in philosophy on the calendar.”
He said it is a logical conclusion that the change in FIS leadership was critical for Aspen’s chances to get back on the calendar.
“I can only react that we were on the calendar on a regular basis, we hosted the best event we ever hosted, we raised the bar on finals more than any resort had done before and then we were on the sideline for five years,” Rigney said. “So I have to believe the change of leadership probably opened doors that had been fairly closed for a significant amount of time.”
When Lewis was you, SkiCo officials reminded FIS officials they were still interested in World Cup races, but they weren’t pushy about it. In fact, Rigney joked with his contacts at the FIS, sending pictures each spring of him riding Lift 1A. “Just trying to keep the topic light,” he said.
“We kept the relationships alive and reminded (partners) the race venue hasn’t changed,” Rigney said. “It’s still the same kick-ass race venue that it’s been for 70 years. We never bought into the narrative that was out there that maybe the venue’s time had come and gone. We think it’s also ‘now’ and if down the road we have a new base area there, then all the better.”
He said he hasn’t heard a “peep” about the need to replace Lift 1A. The replacement remains in the plans as long as separate redevelopment efforts of base facilities proceed.
Harkins said Aspen was a natural selection for addition to the calendar.
“Aspen has incredible history within the sport of Alpine ski racing,” she said. “It hosted the first FIS World Championships outside of Europe in 1950, the World Cup Finals in 2017 and many World Cup races in between, and the resort has produced some of the greatest skiers in the world throughout the last century.”
SkiCo officials realized a “few weeks” before the May 17 announcement that it was a distinct possibility that Aspen would regain World Cup races. By that time, SkiCo officials had quietly conferred with key lodging partners to see if the rooms needed for the World Cup entourage could be provided at that time of year and they checked in with city of Aspen officials to see if special use permits could be obtained for celebrations in the downtown core during the race event.
Rigney said hosting races in early March rather than early in the season removes some of the biggest challenges. Aspen regularly hosted ski races in March into the 1990s, but in recent decades races were more frequently held at the start of the season. When races are in March, there is less fretting over snowpack and less trouble for businesses being staffed compared to November.
“We like doing it in March because it shows Aspen at its very best,” he said. “This place still rocks and that chairlift ride in the spring is pretty darned nice.”