Rachel Blount: Skating's fire still burns on the ice

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 28, 2008 - 11:43 PM

After suffering some severe body blows the past few years, figure skating seemed to be on life support. The U.S. championships showed it's not true.

Mirai Nagasu won the senior ladies free skate final of the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships Saturday evening

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Before last week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, much of the sporting world declared the once-golden sport as wounded as Nancy Kerrigan's knee. Its most glamorous stars had faded from the scene. TV ratings and attendance had fallen. It lost its television rights money and its championship title sponsor.

U.S. Figure Skating executives have some challenging times ahead as they try to climb back up a constantly changing sports marketplace. Last week, though, proved they still have the most important part of the equation: great athletes.

The women's, men's and ice dancing fields showed a depth and diversity that American skating hasn't seen for years. Emerging stars battled established ones in competitions that were decided by the width of a skate blade. Over eight days, skating showed it still can stage the drama and melodrama that made it such a glittering property, offering proof it isn't dead yet.

"People still love skating," said Tanith Belbin, who won her fifth ice dancing title with partner Ben Agosto. "It's still a great sport and source of entertainment. It's a matter of how we sell, package and present it to people.

"We don't have the scandals or the celebrities any more. We have to find a way to bring people back in. But we're still putting out a great product."

The Kerrigan-Tonya Harding psychodrama and the Michelle Kwan supernova pushed skating to a popularity that was not sustainable in the long run. When Kwan stepped away with no successor who could match her star power, it was inevitable the sport would lose ground.

These nationals, though, might signal the end of the down cycle. The week unveiled a bumper crop of new stars and drew vastly improved TV ratings with the perfect mix of personality, rivalry and suspense. After being buried in the wee hours on cable TV or shown on tape in recent years, the final sessions were shown on NBC in prime time, with the women's free skate televised live.

The women's final drew a 3.8 overnight rating, up 65 percent from last year. The men's free skate registered a 3.5 rating. Those numbers were better than ABC's ratings for the Lakers-Cavaliers game -- featuring LeBron James and Kobe Bryant -- and made skating the second-highest-rated sports event of the weekend, behind the final round of the Buick Invitational golf tournament.

"[NBC] has shown great interest in promoting our sport," USFS President Ron Hershberger said. "It's the most prime-time coverage we've ever had. It's great for our athletes to have that kind of coverage."

NBC's deal includes no rights fee and replaced a 43-year run with ABC that recently provided U.S. Figure Skating with $12 million a year. The nationals also were without a title sponsor this year, though USFS Executive Director David Raith said he expects to have one in 2009.

Hershberger said revenue generated by events, membership fees and other sources will keep the organization's $12 million budget balanced. It sold all the advertising slots it received under its agreement with NBC, in which the network and U.S. Figure Skating each get some ad time and sell it themselves.

USFS officials have been trying new ways to reach the skating audience. They have launched a website, icenetwork.com, and struck a deal to televise the junior national championships on cable TV. They are tapping popular alumni such as Brian Boitano and Kerrigan to market the sport.

The unfamiliarity and complexity of the judging system remain an obstacle. Men's champion Evan Lysacek said skating "lost its brand" with the demise of the old 6.0-based method, and fans still don't know how the new system works. It's also suppressed individuality, as top skaters all try the same high-scoring moves.

Skating must continue to tweak the judging system and sell itself in a creative and proactive manner. But the personalities still drive the sport, and this year's stars portend a bright future. The men's scene was revitalized by the rivalry between the free-spirited Johnny Weir and the daring Lysacek, whose all-out performances had to be separated by a tiebreaker. Belbin and Agosto were more thrilling and romantic than ever. And the women -- the charming champ Mirai Nagasu, the tough and athletic Ashley Wagner, the bubbly Rachael Flatt -- demonstrated the potential to captivate audiences as Kwan did.

Barring another shot to the knee heard 'round the world, it's unrealistic to expect skating's popularity to reach the heights of the mid-1990s. Last week, though, showed it is reasonable to think that figure skating -- the original reality TV -- isn't in a death spiral yet.

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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