Atlanta Aftermath

by Alexandra Stevenson

For two years in a row, U.S. Nationals have not made a profit. Attendance this year was disappointing -- less than 90,000. Is that reason for doom and gloom? And if so, what can be done to stem the downswing?

Alexandra Stevenson looks at the reasons Atlanta fared less well than the organizers hoped, and  recaps the scandalous event that booted the sport’s popularity into the stratosphere in 1994, a high it is likely never to recapture.

There is no doubt the visibility of figure skating is not what it was ten years ago. USFigureSkating (as the USFSA is now called) publicly recognized this when they voted to change their logo at their 2003 annual meeting.

They said they believed the new name and logo would aid recognition and help sponsorship. They have also changed the bidding structure for nationals effective for the 2007 event. Next year the event is in Portland, Oregon, and in 2006, the Olympic year, Nationals will be in St. Louis.

Since interest in the sport peaks in Olympic years, the traditional process, rotating between the three sections, will continue as before in Olympic years.  1998 Nationals in Philadelphia and 2002 in Los Angeles, for example, had no problem selling both seats and sponsorship.

But the years between the Olympics have a harder time. Worst off are the years right afterwards. Salt Lake in 1999 had a record low attendance (35,000). Dallas, last year, did much better, but sold only 96,000 seats and had to rely on unpublicized help to get the bills paid.

So the bidding for 2007 and subsequent non-Olympic year nationals was opened up to arenas with less seating capacity. This follows the example of Skate Canada which has had a lot of success taking events to smaller cities where the population is not so jaded and more gets involved.

Both sections which did not host the previous non-Olympic year nationals are now allowed to bid.  Nationals in 2007 has attracted Spokane, WA; Hershey, PA; and Boston into vying for the vote.

It is quite a commitment. The host must anti up $125,000 before the event and agree to pay USFigureSkating an equal amount afterwards. The organizers get to keep any profit over that to plough into local skating activities.

Local TV, which would have spurred interest, seemed to bypass Atlanta Nationals possibly because none of their own qualified. Dallas had several locals to cheer for and their local television delighted in the wins of Novice and Junior Pairs.

Maybe US Nationals should instigate a policy similar to that at Worlds. If the host country’s sole competitor in each event does not qualify for the short program or free, they still progress to that event but must skate first as an "appetizer" for the crowd.

Atlanta’s timing was bad. Except in Olympic years when it must be earlier because the Games are in February, Nationals are generally never earlier than the second week of January.  But that week would have conflicted with the poultry convention at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) where, originally, the Novice and part of the Junior events were to take place on two specially laid down ice pads, with temporary seating and locker rooms.

Then, in May, the organizers decided not to use the GWCC and opted for the Arena at Gwinnett Center, a lovely, new facility 27 miles away, which saved them $850,000. That meant the poultry convention was irrelevant. And in the end the poultry convention was held at the end of January anyway.   As it turned out, a monster truck show at the Georgia Dome fought Michelle Kwan for attendance on Saturday evening.

Dana Graham, co-chairman of the Atlanta Organizing Committee which won the event in 2000, said, "When you start planning that early, things are bound to change."

The distance between the two sites angered many fans who come to Nationals every year. These hard core enthusiasts not only attend the competition, they like to watch practice. The time involved in traveling a busy highway between the sites limited that possibility.

Bus passes were sold on the transportation between the venues, but, because skaters would also travel on them, security demanded that bus passes only be sold in advance to those who would provide their social security numbers so a background check could be made. Some found this an invasion of privacy.

Doug Zaghibe, the executive director of the event, said, "The sport crosses from sport to celebrity and each year we get a list from the FBI of known crazies, fanatics and stalkers who stalk figure skaters. And each year that list grows. We need to protect the athlete, volunteers and spectators."

He said about 400 passes were sold which was about the same as Dallas when no background check was made. However, in Atlanta, there was far more need for transportation because of the distance between the two venues.

One of these enthusiasts was told that next year the two arenas would be close to each other and no transportation would be available except for those with credentials (skaters, chaperones, officials, volunteers and the media).

The early date, so close to the holidays, undoubtedly deterred some spectators who might have been reeling from Christmas bills. It also was unpopular with some skaters. Garrett Lucash, who retained his second place in Championship pairs with partner Katie Orscher, said, "It doesn’t just ruin the holidays but training is much more difficult because you have much less ice time."

The 89,318 seats sold comprised 74,047 at Philips and 15,271 at Gwinnett. The audience could not be faulted for its enthusiasm and knowledge, although on Saturday some were found missing in action while waiting for the top women to skate. They were watching NFL playoffs on the big concourse televisions with double overtime for the Rams-Panthers game.

Zeghibe, who also stepped in to the nationals in the past three years (Boston, Los Angeles and Dallas) joined the Atlanta organizers last June after D.J. Mackovets resigned. "I’m the cleanup batter. Sponsor sales here were more challenging than in the past. This event did pretty well at least in cash and value-in-kind. We exceeded Los Angeles, which was one of the all-time revenue makers but it was a hard slog doing it."

He will return in that capacity for the 2006 event in St. Louis. He blamed Atlanta’s lack of spectators on the timing, saying, "I think if we’d had an extra week, you would have seen a lot more bodies in the building."

He also said Atlanta was traditionally "not a good market for skating events". That was certainly the case when Skate America was held here and just nobody showed up – another result of unfortunate timing.

"My personal opinion is it’s a sophisticated town and they’re accustomed to big events coming through. Since the Olympics, it's tough to ‘wow’ this city."

That won’t be a problem next year, according to Mike Rosenberg, the Managing Director of the Portland Nationals, which will be held January 9-16. "I believe we will have a very successful event. The U.S. Figure Skating Championships is the biggest event Portland has hosted and I believe the fans will show that through their attendance.

"I can’t comment on what has gone on at past championships as I am responsible for 2005 only. Our ticket sales are going very well at this point, so I have not even been looking at the possibility that we will not able to pay our bills. If at some point that becomes an issue, we will discuss it with U.S. Figure Skating.

"We are also a week later and will not have to contend with as busy a city schedule (Peach Bowl, etc.), and a year closer to the next Olympics."

In Atlanta the number of written press was less than in the past. Some of the sport’s regular Nationals reporters were absent. Particularly noticeable were the lack of reporters from San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland and Colorado Springs (headquarters of both USFigureSkating and the USOC).

Media interest in any event is important because it sparks spectator interest. After the Sunday Atlanta Journal Constitution’s great preview, ticket sales skyrocketed from a pretty dismal base. The organizers should bow down and acknowledge Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen. 13,787 turned up to watch their duel on Saturday night. More than 4,000 of those tickets were sold in the week leading up to the ladies free. Without that spurt in interest, the event would not have broken even.

Seeking advance publicity, the organizers brought in the then five time US national ice dance champions Naomi Lang & Peter Tchernyshev, and Paul Wylie for a skating appearance at Centennial Olympic Park and Derrick Delmore and Rosalynn Sumners to the Boys and Girls’ Clubs.  But to jump start interest, bigger names were needed.

Atlanta’s excuse for lack of interest was this was the "trough" season, when winter sports are overshadowed by the growing interest in the Summer Olympics which will be held later this year.

But Boston Nationals in 2000 was held in the same time sequence and set records for attendance (124,000) and in other respects. I asked Ted Clarke, who was Chairman for the Boston Nationals, what was his secret for success. "A major factor was getting over a thousand volunteers involved. We got them motivated to actively seek out sponsorship and they did a good job."

In Atlanta, the event struggled to get 800 volunteers. Clarke, who is not involved with the 2007 bid, has been actively involved in the sport and the association for a gadzillion years in many capacities until last year’s unfortunate and unfair exile (which has now been rectified). He personally knew many of the volunteers, skaters, and reporters, and was able to inspire and supervise an event which was heralded as one of the best ever, if not the best.

The amount of media in Atlanta compared to that in Boston was like night and day. Was that because USFigureSkating is currently operating without a specific media person? Bob Dunlop, who formerly filled that post, moved to another assignment at the beginning of the season, and his former position has yet to be filled.

Possibly. Both the representatives of the Atlanta Constitution Journal, which was one of the sponsors, and the Associated Press said they had not received the usual flood of press releases promoting the event, and even the form required to order their needed dedicated phone lines.

USFigureSkating said the forms were e-mailed to them. But surely an experienced media person would have realized the "usual" forms had not been filled out by those who always arranged for this work tool, and followed up on it.

That was not a problem in Boston, in part because of Clarke’s experience running a skating magazine, "Tracings", for 25 years, which led to his rapport with the media. (And, yes, we were bribed – with a fun throw away camera from a sponsor.)

Ticket prices are esclating. When nationals were last held in Atlanta, in 1980, an all event ticket cost $60. Next year top price will be $795 Rows 2-6 including exhibition.

Susan Johnson, who was the co-chair and a judge in 1980, and was on the board this go around, said, "It’s infinitely more complicated. Now there are multiple contracts to sign. Then we didn’t even have a lawyer!"

Rosenberg is not apologizing for next year’s ticket prices. "I believe the ticket prices are a fair value to the market (our Gold Blade tickets sold out in 40 minutes and lower bowl all-event tickets are available for $395) and again our sales are tracking very well, which indicates tickets are priced well."

Interest in figure skating rocketed to an all-time high in 1994 after associates of Tonya Harding planned and brought off the "whacking" of Nancy Kerrigan.

For over two months after the afternoon "hit" on January 6 at the Detroit Nationals following a practice at the Cobo Arena, until Harding was found guilty of "hindering an FBI investigation", the story was on the front pages of newspapers round the world.

Harding was pulled off the world championship team, given a lifetime ban from the USFSA, three years probation and massive fines.

"It was a terrible, terrible thing to happen," said well known coach Frank Carroll. But in the context of the real world of shootings and drug overdoses, it was trivial. Carroll’s overstatement may have reflected his concern for his then pupil, Michelle Kwan. The memory of that day is still vivid for her.

In Atlanta, Kwan recalled, "I remember there were lots of people saying, ‘Nancy! Nancy! Nancy! We want your autograph. We were both getting off the (practice) ice. I said, ‘Oh! You’ve got to sign lots of autographs, so go ahead.’ She went through the curtain. It was chaos after that. I didn’t know what was happening. All I know is that my coach pushed me aside. I flew that way and everyone was going that way. At 13, I didn’t understand what was going on. I guess I was kind of naïve that way (thinking) that everyone’s perfect."

Part of the scandal’s appeal is that ice princesses work hard at projecting a patina of pristine perfection.  1968 Olympic champion Peggy Fleming’s aura is still so sugar-y that when, commenting on this year’s Nationals on television, she suggested that Sasha Cohen’s problems might be in her head, the internet buzzed with shock at such "outspokenness".

Many had believed that under skating’s wholesome exterior, a layer of bitchiness percolated just below the surface, and now – Oh, joy! The phoniness was being exposed.

The original "take" was that this was the work of a "stalker". If that had been so, the case would never have gained such lasting notoriety. It was the opposite of the O.J. Simpson business which began later that year with two grizzly murders.

Instead it was like a soap opera. As the details were uncovered, the public began to revel in its juicy, frivolous nature. Whispers that Harding was involved surfaced almost immediately.

She was already seen as "white trash", a label which developed from the Sports Illustrated piece written three years previously when she won the 1991 national title with a performance that was probably the most athletic ever seen, and included the only triple Axel at a women’s U.S. championship.

SI titled their coverage of the event, "Not Your Average Ice Princess". They detailed her chain smoking, drinking, truck-driving habits; her blowing off the Sponsor’s party after 15 minutes to go play pool; and her marriage to Jeff Gillooly.

While Kristi Yamaguchi, who finished second in 1991, was back on the ice practicing almost immediately, Harding took the week off after nationals. That March, Yamaguchi won her first world title, while Harding demonstrated her triple Axel again but had problems with other jumps and finished second (with Kerrigan third). It was the start of her decline. In 1993 Harding didn’t even make the world team.

Harding divorced Gillooly, claiming he was physically abusive but prior to 1994 he was still living with her. He organized a collection of misfits that rivaled any comic movie gang of incompetents.

Gillooly later confessed the plan came about because they believed the judges were unfairly biased against Harding, ignoring that the real reason for Harding’s demise was her own lack of training and weight gain. They believed, with Kerrigan out of the way, she could get the national title and Olympic gold would automatically fall into her lap. Then they would all reap untold monetary gain.

Their plan was an abysmal failure. The "hit" man gave Kerrigan a very nasty whack with a retractable baton just above her right knee but it did not sideline her for long. Video of her crying, "Why me?" dressed in a beautiful white skating outfit immediately flashed to uncounted television stations. But intense therapy enabled her to appear at the Lillehammer Olympic Games in the best physical shape of her life.

The USFSA, which at that point had no Ethics Code, was very wary of lawsuits and completely failed in their efforts to remove Harding from the Olympic team. In Kerrigan’s absence, Harding, attired in a dress with an extremely wide and low neckline showcasing the fact that she had little to show (she has since had implants), had won the U.S. title but was in far inferior form to that she had demonstrated in 1991.

As the investigation proceeded, interest was fueled by hysterically hilarious details of the gang’s incompetence. Harding was "protected" by one of the gang, her 350 pound "bodyguard". He felt the situation would lead to him establishing a firm which would succeed at renting out bodyguards to other skaters who would be afraid a similar fate awaited them.

A major break in the case was provided by a woman employed by a company who provided phone sex. She contacted the F.B.I to say one of her customers had tried to impress her by boasting how he was the bigwig who arranged to take Kerrigan out of the Olympics. Her firm was delighted to supply his phone and credit card numbers to the F.B.I. in return for all the publicity gained.

Harding even provided details of her complicity in the action, by dumping a note on which she had written details of where Kerrigan trained, in a rubbish container behind a motel. The dumping of this took place well after the F.B.I., and hoards of reporters had begun following her everywhere.

The Association later stripped her of the 1994 title. They did not pass it on to the second placed Kwan, although, in an unusual action, Kwan did travel to Norway ready to step into Harding’s position in case the plan for her ouster succeeded.

In Hamar, the town where the figure skating actually took place, Kerrigan failed by the tiniest of margins to win the gold, eclipsed by the appealingly youthful Oksana Baiul. And had the judges had the access to video replay which they have today, Baiul’s two-footed combination in the short might have swayed the decision for gold in Kerrigan's direction.

Harding lived up to her trashy reputation. Her performance in the short was flawed so she did not get into the top six to skate the long. Some believe that the incident in the free skate with the broken skate lace was a ploy to get the referee to let her skate last in the vain hope that she might get higher marks.

In any case, photos of her contorted face, squalling and bawling, with her foot plonked on the barrier to show to the referee, is a memory many people still can not get rid of. Despite her shenanigans, she finished eighth – lower than Katarina Witt, making her Olympic come-back appearance.

It was the sixth most watched program in the history of television. (The other five were the last installment of "Mash", the "Who Shot J.R." installment of "Dallas", an installment of Roots,  and two Superbowls.) And then, on CBS, there was "NancyTonya" (or TonyaNancy", whichever you preferred), a one word amalgam that conjures up the same sordid affair to this day. Try mentioning it and folks outside the sport will still raise an eyebrow or break into a chuckle.

Nearly half of the households in North America watched. Amazingly, because the competition took place from 2am to 5a.m. because of the time difference, it was taped and shown that evening. The result could easily be had in the intervening 15 hours or so, yet that did not dilute the viewers anticipation.

That figure will never be exceeded because of today’s growth of the number of television channels has fragmented the viewing public.

"Maybe, if I hadn’t gone to Lillehammer, less people would have tuned in for the women’s final," said Kerrigan while she was in Atlanta to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Atlanta. That certainly was true.

Interest in Kerrigan as silver medal winner would almost certainly have flagged had her name not received the publicity it did because of this incident.

Other networks saw those viewing figures, producers went wild devising all sort of skating programming. When CBS lost its contract with the NFL that fall, and needed to fill the Sunday afternoon timeslot they turned to figure skating.

It is amazingly that the popularity lasted as long as it has. Carroll said, "I don’t think anyone in our sport really expected that kind of interest to last indefinitely." But then all sports, except golf and NASCAR, have had falling ratings in the last few years.

With any luck, and provided Kwan stays around, they won’t drop any further.

Harding became sleazier and sleazier. She did not serve any jail time for the Kerrigan incident, but she did later when, in a drunken fit, she threw a hubcap at her then boyfriend and he went to the police.

She has tried to make a living in the entertainment industry and failed abysmally. Today she struggles as a professional boxer. Her first trainer threw in the towel, after her first bout, which she lost. Jeff Hargis said he had really believed in her at first, even taking her into his home, but, "You can’t make it in this sport if you smoke, drink, and don’t train."

Nothing new there!

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