Aspen Skiing Co.’s philosophy of maintaining bridges rather than burning them down helped secure the return of World Cup alpine ski racing this winter.
US Ski & Snowboard surprisingly announced on May 17 that Aspen was awarded a men’s Super-G and two downhill races March 3-5.
John Rigney, SkiCo’s senior vice president of revenue, said the opportunity came almost out of the blue. While SkiCo officials have tried to maintain good relations with the International Ski Federation and the US Ski Team, they have not made a specific commitment to racing in the 2022-23 season.
“It wasn’t this big, orchestrated plan,” Rigney said. “We have always kept 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 US and international ski officials during the Beaver Creek World Cup races.
“We kept the dialogue open and reiterated, ‘Hey, when things change, we always remain committed to hosting the Alpine World Cup and that’s not changed,'” Rigney said.
A few months later, the bridge construction paid off. US Ski Team officials called and asked if Aspen would be interested in hosting a Spring 2023 event.
“Obviously, that raised a thousand questions from me about how that could happen, since these calendars are usually orchestrated four or five years in advance,” he said. “The short answer after a short (internal) huddle was: ‘Yes, we’re in, tell us more. We’re interested in trying it out if you’re interested in returning to Aspen.’”
US Ski and Snowboard President and CEO Sophie Goldschmidt felt it was important to bring more World Cup racing to the US and was working with new FIS leadership to make that happen, according to US Ski and Snowboard spokeswoman Courtney Harkins. Goldschmidt has successfully added races at Aspen and Palisades Tahoe to the previously scheduled early season races at Beaver Creek and Killington.
The stronger US racing offering “will give the sport more exposure domestically and help inspire the next generation of US athletes,” Harkins said.
Aspen’s return to the World Cup was likely made possible by a leadership change at the FIS, the governing body for World Cup racing. Sarah Lewis was removed as Secretary General of the FIS on October 9th, 2020. She has been in office since 2000.
The FIS, in the later years of Lewis’ reign, insisted that Aspen needed to replace Lift 1A and improve facilities at the base area on the west side of the mountain to ensure World Cup racing would return. When Aspen hosted the 2017 World Cup Finals, Lewis was pleased with the effort but told local media World Cup racing would not return until improvements were made.
Rigney said not everyone in the FIS leadership seems to share that view.
“We smashed all the doors down in 2017 and did a really, really good job,” he said. “Spring races in Aspen are spectacular. I think that resonated with a lot of people, including the new FIS leadership. That’s one of the things that stayed in our favor.”
The FIS is typically an organization that is an advocate of routine. The World Cup calendars are usually set at least four years in advance. But when US Ski & Snowboard pushed to add US sites, the FIS broke with tradition and, in Rigney’s words, “had a change of philosophy on the calendar”.
He said it was a logical conclusion that the change in FIS leadership was crucial to Aspen’s chances of getting back on the calendar.
“All I can say is that we were a regular on the calendar, we put on the best event we’ve ever put on, we raised the finals bar higher than any resort before and then we were on the sidelines for five years.” said Rigney. “So I have to believe that the change in leadership has probably opened doors that have been pretty much closed for a considerable time.”
When Lewis was ousted, SkiCo officials reminded FIS officials that they were still interested in World Cup racing, but they were not pushy. In fact, Rigney joked with his contacts at FIS and sent pictures of him riding lift 1A every spring. “I’m just trying to keep the subject light,” he said.
“We kept the relationship alive and reminded (partners) that the race venue hasn’t changed,” Rigney said. “It’s still the same kick-ass race location it has been for 70 years. We never got into the narrative that was out there that the venue’s time might have come and gone. We think it’s ‘now’ too, and if we have a new base there later, then so much the better.”
He said he hadn’t heard a “peep” of the need to replace lift 1A. The replacement remains in the plans as long as separate refurbishment efforts of the base facilities continue.
Harkins said Aspen was a natural choice for inclusion on the calendar.
“Aspen has an incredible history in 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 over the last century.”
SkiCo officials recognized “a few weeks” before the May 17 announcement that there was a definite possibility that Aspen would regain World Cup racing. At this point, SkiCo representatives had been quietly consulting with key lodging partners to see if the rooms needed for the World Cup entourage could be provided at this time of year and were inquiring with Aspen City officials about obtaining special use permits for celebrations in the city center during the race event.
Rigney said hosting races in early March rather than the start of the season removes some of the biggest challenges. Aspen regularly held ski races in March until the 1990s, but in recent decades races have been held more frequently at the beginning of the season. When the races are held in March there is less hassle with snowpack compared to November and fewer problems for companies that have staff.
“We like to do it in March because it shows Aspen at its best,” he said. “This place still rocks and that spring chairlift ride is pretty darn nice.”