Rebuilding Skating's Popularity

Easy!  Find a ladies superstar, tweak IJS, build at the grassroots level and work the media.

By Liz Leamy

High-level competitive figure skating seems to be at a bit of an impasse right now in terms of its popularity with the general public.

It is not exactly a secret that in recent years there has been a marked decline in television viewership for the sport. This drop in popularity has, in turn, prompted some of America’s top figure skating officials, coaches and also members of the media to seek out effective solutions to change this situation.

Although much of this viewership decline has largely been due to the massive expansion of cable television over the last decade (compared to the 1990s, figure skating’s media heyday, when most American households had access only to the basic channels and a handful of cable stations), there are some other major issues to consider.

According to Christine Brennan, the award-winning ESPN and USA Today columnist, the U.S. needs a big ladies singles’ star, a la Michelle Kwan, the iconic nine-time U.S. champion, five-time world titlist and two-time Olympic medalist, to boost viewership.

"There’s a lack of a superstar," said Brennan at the 2011 Professional Skaters Association annual conference in Dallas last May.

Kwan, perhaps one of the greatest competitors ever in the sport, had a huge and loyal fan base that followed her diligently and made her a draw for consistently big ratings.

Kwan also drew scores of prominent national and world reporters from major newspaper and television media outlets all over the U.S. and around the world that kept the sport in the forefront of the public eye.

In recent years, however, fewer reporters have been attending competitions, at least here in the U.S., which has affected the exposure of the sport on a public level in a profound way.

According to Brennan, last year, a handful of press members from major media outlets showed up at the 2011 U.S. Nationals in Greensboro. This turnout was markedly different compared to previous years when the media room would be bursting with writers.

"Fewer of us are covering this sport," she said.

Certainly, the U.S. does have Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning World dance champions, who have helped build television viewership over the past several years and increase awareness and popularity of that discipline.

There is also Evan Lysacek, the Teflon American competitor, whose famous defeat of Evgeny Plushenko, the 2006 Russian Olympic titlist at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics turned him into a huge public sensation.

Still, American viewers love the idea of watching a ladies’ superstar.

"Women draw eyes to the television set," said Brennan.

At the same time, the International Judging System has been another variable that has adversely affected viewership.

This system, implemented by the International Skating Union in 2004 following the infamous judging scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, is an intricate point method that is regarded to be much more complex than the former 6.0 scoring method, which had been used for more than 60 years.

"The new system is still indecipherable to viewers," said Brennan. "The 6.0 system was perfect for television, [viewers] felt like they understood and could ‘participate’ in the competition."

David Dore, ISU vice president and a prominent Canadian official, said the ISU is aware of the public’s perception of the IJS and claimed they are doing everything possible to make it as expeditious and effective as possible.

One major problem of the IJS, according to some officials, skaters and coaches is that the IJS always seems to be in a constant state of change.

"The ISU Technical Committee has said they’re slowing down with changes so that by the 2014 (Sochi Olympics), there will be a lid on it," said Dore in Dallas.

According to Dore, a strong proponent of the IJS, many of the changes were part of the adjustment process, but we’ve reached a point where the changes need to cease.

"Now we need to settle in with the system," he said.

Coaches and officials in Dallas said the time lapses that occur between each competitor are an issue. This process, which can take up to five minutes, not only interferes with a skater’s concentration but also might cause boredom for the viewer, who can simply change the channel.

David Santee, the 1981 World silver medalist and eight-time U.S. medalist who is a Chicago-area coach, suggested that television interviewers come up with creative methods to entertain viewers during these lapses.

In addition, coaches suggested that interviewers start taking on bolder, more straightforward stances with skaters during competitions.

"Commentary should always be real and [interviewers] shouldn’t be afraid to say negative things about a bad performance," said Frank Carroll, the renowned Olympic and World coach who guided Kwan, Lysacek and many other top skaters, including Linda Fratianne, the 1980 U.S. Olympic silver medalist, to the pinnacle of the sport.

Brennan also advised those in the figure skating community to use the internet and social media networks such as Facebook to help increase the sport’s popularity.

"The media is mostly gone, but figure skating has the internet and that’s great," she said.

At the same time, coaches should be constantly promoting the sport as much as possible at the grass roots level ,and need to figure out ways to get skaters involved from learn-to-skate group lessons, public sessions and birthday parties.

"We have to make skating visible, real and affordable," said Peter Martell, Ice Skating Institute Executive Director. "We have to continue to make it enjoyable, that way we will have a greater chance to produce top-notch athletes."

A little aside on how a group of kids changed and inspired a sport as well as the face of American culture during the 1970s:

Back in 2001, there was a critically acclaimed 2001 documentary film titled "Dogtown and the Z-Boys" that contained a message that might inspire members of the figure skating community.

This film, narrated by Sean Penn, tells the story of a group of young Southern California rebels during the 1970s, the Z Boys, who helped catapult skatboarding to a entirely new technical and artistic level. Their influence not only helped revolutionize skateboarding, but also managed to impact the entire American culture in a powerful way.

These skateboarders, most of who were surfers, transferred the concept of low-riding on the water over to their street skills.

With their blonde hair, modern skateboarding style and cutting-edge personalities, these kids effectively captured the essence of the whole California ideal, and sparked the imagination of young people all around. Hence, a lifestyle was born.  This skateboarding style eventually would be the catalyst for most of the sports at the X-Games and also the Olympic snowboard half-pipe event.

Somehow, there has to be a way to recreate this type of phenomenon in our sport, it’s just going to take a heavy dose of courage, creativity, persistence and perseverance. If this happens, that would be a real gold-medal move.

"[Figure skating events] are like Broadway meets sports, it carries us all away and represents our hopes and dreams," said Brennan. "Somewhere here, someone’s going to come up with something."

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