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2014 U.S. National Championships

U.S. Championships Put Skating Back on Radar

by Liz Leamy

Big event turnout, viewership show sport is alive and kicking

Boy, was Boston the place to be last week, not just for anyone connected to skating, but for much of the American public, who for the first time in a long while, tuned in to watch the drama of this high-charged Olympic trial on prime-time television, which instantly, catapulted the sport right back into the mainstream of the money-making media machine.

This event, held at the TD Garden in Boston last weekend, generated strong viewership, with more than 4.12 people watching the live ladies event on Saturday night and showed an increase of nearly 40 percent in the age 18-49 category compared to last year, according to the latest Nielsen ratings.

Whether the high level of public interest was due to this season’s extensive crop of superior skaters, the fact that it was an Olympic year, NBC’s vigorous promotion or merely the fact that people were pulled in by the mesmerizing beauty of the sport, somehow that indefinable magic that had been absent for so long was resurrected once again.

“The experience of our athletes, coaches, officials, staff and most importantly, our fans had in Boston was overwhelmingly positive,” said David Raith, U.S. Figure Skating Executive Director.

During this competition and throughout the week, many ‘civilians’ unconnected to the skating world have been buzzing about the skaters in mainstream and social media outlets (Gracie Gold, the newly crowned ladies champion, was the third-most Googled person last Tuesday, according to the New York Post) indicating that its popularity is on the way back.

Over the past few years, since the retirement of Michelle Kwan and with the induction of a more complicated International Judging System, skating has lost some substantial steam in the mass media.

It is not broadcast as much on the major networks or cable television and has not had the same audience draw as it did back in 1995, when the sport had reached its apex in popularity following the drama from the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding knee-whacking incident when the ladies event at the 1992 Lillehammer Olympic, in which they both had famously participated, generated the second-highest Nielsen ratings of that year behind the Super Bowl.

These recent Nielsen numbers are a big deal for the American skating community, which has worked earnestly over the past number of years to put the sport back on the media map, something that bodes especially well for them with the Sochi Olympics right on the horizon.

The attendance numbers also back up this claim with a total 108,946 people having shown up to watch the week-long competition. Meanwhile, approximately 14,000 people showed up to watch Gracie Gold clinch her first-ever U.S. Championship title, representing the largest single-session crowd since the 2002 Los Angeles nationals.

As with any competition, there were some great moments as well as disappointing ones. Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning U.S. World titlists looking to capture gold in Sochi, claimed their sixth consecutive national title with an arresting performance to ---‘Scheherazade,’ which brought the crowd to their feet.

Jeremy Abbott also brought the Boston house down with a stunning world-grade short program that helped him clinch a third U.S. title. Ashley Wagner, the 2013 Grand Prix bronze medalist and two-time U.S. champion, fared less well, however and placed fourth due to critical missed jumps in her free skate. (Following the competition, Wagner was selected by U.S. Figure Skating officials to be part of the Sochi Olympic team over Mirai Nagasu, the bronze medalist, due to Wagner's superior international competitive record.)

Without a doubt, much of the reason this event was such a success was due to the other key players of the sport including the officials, coaches, vendors, media members and volunteers who have been dedicated so much of their lives and time to making sure the sport made its way back to the mainstream map.

Heavy back-room hitters such as former U.S. Figure Skating presidents Ron Herschberger, Phyllis Howard, Benjamin Wright and Patricia St. Peter, who presently oversees the federation, were on hand all week long and were present at virtually all the events.

There was also a flood of former U.S. Olympic and World champions also at this competition, including Peggy Fleming, Dick Button, Dorothy Hamill, Tenley Albright, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi, Sarah Hughes and Michelle Kwan along with numerous others who were friendly, accommodating and happily chatting with friends and fans in the venue all week.

The top brass from the Professional Skaters Association, the educational arm of American figure skating, was also there, including Jimmie Santee, the Executive Director, Kelly Morris Adair, a former president and Carol Rossignol, Director of Education and Accreditation, making sure the technique of the skaters was on the mark.

“It is great to be here and it has been a fantastic event on so many levels,” said Jimmie Santee. “The skating has been outstanding and reflects the efforts of so many people who have been so committed to making American figure skating the best it can be.”

The leaders of the federation agreed.

“The skating has been very good and it has been wonderful to see all of the hard work of everyone come together,” said Patricia St. Peter, president of U.S. Figure Skating. “It has been such an exciting event.”

Along with so many decorated Olympians and top officials, standout members of the media also showed up in full force, including Christine Brennan of USA Today, Phil Hersch of the Chicago Tribune, Jere Longman of the New York Times and John Powers of the Boston Globe, among others. Michelle Kwan, meanwhile, was reporting for Fox News along with Elvis Stokjo, the Canadian Olympic silver medalist, who was blogging.

Dozens of top American coaches, who serve as the fountainhead for the sport since they build and cultivate the athletes at rinks around the U.S., also had a huge hand in the success of this event. At the helm of this contingent was Frank Carroll, the iconic Los Angeles-based coach who taught Kwan and Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion and now coaches Gold as well as Marina Zoueva, the Canton-based dance coach who works with Davis and White, among others.

“These coaches are just so dedicated to giving these skaters everything it takes to succeed,” said Santee, who has played a major role in seeing that the U.S. skaters adhere to a superior standard through the PSA, which is based in Minnesota. “They have committed themselves as much as the athletes to achieving success and it is a really great thing to see.”

No doubt, this dynamic community has proven as a whole, they are definitely formidable and able to make magic happen, even when presented with a Herculean task such as bringing the sport back to life with the mass public.

Based upon these promising new numbers, this spirited community has indicated it possesses the same level of resilience and magnificence as the sport itself, and should never to be a group to be counted out.