Professional Competition: Sport or Spectacle?

Over the past several years skating has undergone dramatic changes in the world of both eligible and ineligible (professional) competition. The demise of figures, reinstatement, pro-am competitions, prize money, agents, and more have drastically changed the competitive landscape.

Discussions in the skating world that preceded these changes frequently made reference to a "tennis model" for the future of skating. More recently references to a "golf model" have appeared occasionally. Whether either of these models is adopted by eligible skating remains to be seen, but in professional skating the direction is clear. Neither of these models is being used by professional skating. Instead, professional skating is embarked on adopting the "professional wrestling" model. With the current evolution towards profit driven, manufactured competitions of inconsistent format, closed entries controlled by agents and promoters, unproven and inconsistent scoring systems, and judges of questionable training, professional competitions as competitive sporting events are hemorrhaging credibility. Only the talent and reputations of a few of the currently competing professionals keeps professional competitions from totally degenerating into farce, but at the rate things are going even that may not be enough in the near future.

Despite the significant number of professional skaters active today and the large number of events held, professional competitions today basically consist of the same four-six competitors performing the same routines, endlessly. Here is the overall breakdown for professional competitions during 1995.

  1. 19 ladies competed in 15 competitions
  2. 14 men competed in 14 competition
  3. 9 pairs competed in 10 competition
  4. 9 dance teams competed in 7 competition

In tennis, the same group of players can be expected to reach the the last few rounds in most of the major competitions, but each match is different and so variety is maintained. How many times can one watch Paul Wylie perform "JFK", for example, without it becoming tiresome, regardless of how well it is done (note: Wylie competed in 11 competitions this year). With endless repetition of the same skaters doing the same routines, professional competitions quickly become tedious affairs.

When the rules on eligibility began to open up, and pro-am competitions were instituted, the eligible and ineligible skaters competed according to generally the same rules. In the case of the initial USFSA pro-am competitions the eligible skaters competed head-to-head according to the same rules, and in general the pros got thumped. By the spring of 1995 most of the top ineligible skaters were no longer willing to compete against the ineligible skaters according to the same rules. At the 1995 fall pro-am a new format was introduced. The eligible and ineligible skaters were grouped into teams, with skaters of both flavors on each team. The eligible skaters had one set of rules, the ineligible another, and the ineligible skaters were spared the indignity of being placed against the eligible skaters. This may be a vastly entertaining and highly promotable format, but it is not a credible sports competition.

Adding further confusion to the professional competition scene is the inconsistent formats and scoring systems used. It doesn't matter if one is watching professional baseball, an old-timer's game, college baseball, high school baseball, or little league. The rules of baseball are the rules of baseball, and most everyone knows how it works. In skating today every event is different: long program, short program, artistic, restricted content, with vocal music, without vocal music, 6.0 scoring, 10.0 scoring, ordinals, throw away the high throw away the low. How is the public supposed to understand skating and take it seriously as a sport if every time they turn on the TV it's a new set of rules and a different scoring system?

Then there are the marks given by the judges. In the early pro-ams, and the few competitions since where eligible and ineligible skaters compete on "level ice", so to speak, the judges were gutsy enough to give a former champion with only a double axel the 4.6 it deserved, compared to the 5.8 for the eligible skater with everything through triple Luzt. This however, did not sit well with the public, who have been hyped by promoters into believing former champions are still "the best skaters" in the world. As result of this outcry, judges have made adjustments.

In a typical professional competition with 4-5 skaters the current practice is to give everyone marks as close to the maximum as possible so as not to hurt anyone's feelings, and to placate the public. The skaters may be placed in the correct order, which is all that counts at the bottom line, but the marks are now totally meaningless. In eligible competitions, even though the marks are primarily only an intermediate step to get the ordinal placements, they still have some importance in gauging the quality of a performance in an absolute sense. In an eligible competitions a 5.8/5.9 means something, and a 6.0 is something special. In professional competitions these marks mean nothing. Sadly, this dilution of integrity in the marks may spill over into eligible competitions.

The public's does not understanding the eligible scoring system. This is primarily due to the pathetic job the ISU and national skating associations have done in educating the public, and in providing results to the public in an understandable form. Rather than make the effort to educate and inform the public, some within the eligible skating community are now considering radical changes to the scoring system. Dangerously, such proposals are a knee jerk reaction to uninformed criticism of the current system, and are not based an any studies of the merits and drawback of the various scoring systems. The different scoring systems that have been used and/or have been proposed are all easily testable in a mathematical sense, but such comparisons have not been made and are not planned by any of the skating governing bodies. In the meantime, simple actions to better educate and inform the public are not pursued by the ISU and USFSA.

Finally we have the judges themselves. Most competitions involving professionals do not make use of ISU or National Governing Body judges. ISU and NGB judges can only judge in competitions sanctioned by the ISU or NGBs. Since most competitions involving professionals are not sanctioned by the ISU or NGBs other judges are used. These judges consist of former skaters, coaches, and other "experts in skating" selected by the event promoters. While these individuals are unquestionably knowledgeable about various technical aspects of skating, they have no formalized training program to ensure consistency of judgment and implementation of the rules, and they are accountable primarily to the promoters who invite them to judge. This is akin, for example, to having the owner of the home team at a football game hire the officials to work the game; a situation that would not be tolerated in any other professional sport.

In recent months we have heard of anecdotal reports that professional judges are sometimes pressured by event promoters; and public criticism of the professional judges similar to that directed at the eligible judges has arisen recently, such as in the case of Kurt Browning beating Brian Boitano at Landover. We know of no actual proof that professional judges have behaved unethically in their duties; however, it is clear the current system lacks serious checks to guard against a lack of integrity, and to insulate the judges from promoters and competitors. There real danger here is that a widespread perception of a lack of integrity can, alone, kill the credibility of professional competitions and create the impression that they are fixed.

Professional skating is at a crossroads. Will it degenerate into the carnival of professional wrestling where you watch to enjoy the spectacle of it all, or will it develop into a sport of touring professionals along the lines of tennis or golf. We close with several actions that should be taken to help insure the latter.

  1. The rules and scoring of professional competitions must be standardized
  2. Open competitions should be the rule and not the exception
  3. The typical number of entrants in a competition should be increased
  4. Judges must be trained and accredited by some independent organization devoted to that purpose, and judges should be assigned to competitions by that organization
  5. To better inform the public, ordinals and deductions should be posted in the arena along with the marks for each skater, immediately after each competitor performs.

Where professional competitive skating ends up will depend largely on whether the professional athletes are more interested in spectacle or sport; i.e., do they want to be Pete Sampras or Hulk Hogan. After all, it is their reputations that are on the line.

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