The picture of domestic felicity: Madge is knitting on the
couch, Harry is channel-surfing from his favorite armchair.
(Click.) Pat O'Brien, looking very nifty ... (click) bowling ...
(click) lions licking themselves in the Serengeti ... (click)
figure skating ... (click) golf.... "Wait," Madge says.
Fred Couples, palm trees as a backdrop, is lining up a 90-foot
putt. "Go back," Madge says. "That looked like Viktor Petrenko."
"I don't care if it was Victor Laszlo," says Harry. "No more
Couples stifles a yawn. So does Harry, and in the instant that
he lets down his guard, Madge snatches the remote control.
December 16, 1996
(Click.) "It is Viktor Petrenko," she says.
"Looks like he's deer hunting in a disco," Harry says, frowning.
"What's with the Day-Glo coat?"
"This is the artistic program. See. He's reading a Dear John
letter. Now he's crumpling it up and dropping it onto the ice."
"What an athlete."
"Ooh, I really love this part. Viktor hops onto the boards and
flirts with the judges. This might be a rerun of Too Hot to
Harry grunts in disbelief. Last weekend, in this very room, he
had been forced to watch Elvis on ice. The week before it was
Challenge of Champions. Tuesday night it was the Battle of the
Sexes, with Boom-Boom Mancini judging. That was a treasure.
Thursday was the Rock 'n' Roll Skating Championships.
"Oh, dear," Madge says. "He fell. Well, one small mistake
shouldn't cost Viktor much. Could this be the Legends
Championships? There's Paul. There's Kristi. Where's Brian?"
"Change the channel. He's probably hanging out on TBS with Scott."
"Shh. They're putting up the marks. Four 10s and a 9.9. Good for
"10 is perfect, right? Give me the clicker, Madge."
"Oh, look at this," Madge gushes. "Here comes Dorothy Hamill.
All these years, and she still hasn't changed her hair...."
"GIVE ME BACK MY CLICKER!"
"Harry, I think we've stumbled onto Skates of Gold."
The wide world of figure skating has certainly stumbled onto
something. Or stepped into something, depending on your point of
view. A few years ago figure skating was seen as a prim,
somewhat stuffy sport that only ventured into the limelight
every four years, during the Winter Olympics. Now faster than
you can say, "Shane Stant did all this with a tire iron?" it's a
$100-million-plus industry with all the decorum and
self-restraint of a kid in a tomato war. Got an idea? Let 'er
fly. It's sure to stick somewhere. As long as the viewing public
is buying, don't worry about the mess.
Between October 1996 and March '97 figure skating is scheduled
to provide 162 1/2 hours of programming to ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox,
ESPN, TBS and USA, half of it in prime time. In one dizzying
two-week period between Dec. 14 and Dec. 28, 12 figure skating
shows will be aired on seven networks--none live--a schedule
that includes such grandly titled competitions as the Continents
Cup, The Professional Skating Championships, the Legends Skating
Championships and The United States Postal Service Challenge.
What are they? Who cares? The skaters themselves can't keep
track of what these titles mean--nothing--and which promoter
will be writing the checks. It's all they can do to remember the
rules. Individual competition or team format? Celebrity judges
or former skaters and coaches? Spotlights or house lights?
Triple jumps or artistic programs? All anyone knows for certain
is that Dick Button will wear his tuxedo, and the winner will be
given long rows of 10s.
"We're in the entrepreneurial stage of skating," says Paul
Wylie, one of the handful of top skaters whose earnings have
soared to seven figures per year. "People are running around
making deals as fast as they can. We call them sausages. You
take a hodgepodge of ingredients, crank them up, and what comes
out is what you get. Television is driving all this."
And, of course, money. Gobs of it is being greedily divided by a
few well-heeled promoters and agents, plus a dozen or so marquee
skaters. Todd Eldredge, Elvis Stojko and Michelle Kwan were each
paid $100,000 by the International Skating Union (ISU) to skate
in the Continents Cup in mid-October, an inaugural competition
that CBS will air (on a show called Olympic Winterfest) in prime
time on Dec. 28 and 29. The Gold Championship, held in Halifax,
Nova Scotia, on Nov. 23, was even more lucrative. Six Olympic
gold medalists vied for a million dollars, with $200,000 going
to each of the winners, male and female, $160,000 to the
second-place finishers and $140,000 to those finishing third.
Not bad for one night's work.
The terms amateur and professional no longer exist in topflight
figure skating. The key words are eligible and ineligible, in
reference to a skater's Olympic standing. Eligibility is
determined solely by the ISU, the organization recognized by the
International Olympic Committee as the ruling body of the sport.
Eldredge, Kwan and Stojko are all eligible skaters. Oksana
Baiul, Brian Boitano, Kurt Browning, Ekaterina Gordeeva, Scott
Hamilton, Nancy Kerrigan, Viktor Petrenko, Jayne Torvill and
Christopher Dean, Katarina Witt, Wylie and Kristi Yamaguchi are
among those who are not. It has nothing to do with how much
money they make. Eldredge recently purchased a $150,000 Ferrari,
hardly a financial stretch, since he and Kwan will each surpass
a million dollars this year in earnings.
What determines a skater's Olympic standing is who runs the
competitions in which he or she appears. "You are ineligible if
you have participated in an event not sanctioned by the ISU,"
says Claire Ferguson, an ISU member and past president of the
U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA). "The ISU isn't looking
for control. The whole point is to maintain some integrity and
consistency in the rules. Everybody wants to get in on this
honey pot, but somebody's got to care about the future of the
sport. TV certainly doesn't care."
If you believe that the ISU, now headed by Ottavio Cinquanta of
Italy, isn't looking for control of the sport, you probably
should let a professional handle your investment decisions. But
if someone doesn't take control, the whole figure skating boom
could easily sink under the weight of overexposure, as casual
viewers tune out, unable to distinguish between the few genuine
competitions, like the U.S. nationals and world championships
and the myriad schlocky spin-offs. "There should be a
commissioner of figure skating," says Kerry Leitch, the
president of the International Professional Skating Union, a
coaches' organization that, among other things, oversees the
judging at professional competitions. "The sport is being run by
three or four entrepreneurs, and to get all the players in the
same room is going to be very difficult. But we've all had
concerns about overexposure. Everything's working now, but what
will happen when the ratings start to fall?"
They already have. Last March the Champions on Ice competition
on ABC drew a 7.4 rating in prime time (meaning approximately
7.2 million households tuned in); the U.S. Pro Championships
attracted a 6.0 in a similar time slot on ABC on Oct. 31. ESPN's
Legends of Skating series, figure skating's version of a
seniors' championship, has dipped from a 1.9 rating last season
to 1.6 this year, a loss of about 290,000 households. That's
still 2 1/2 times the size of ESPN's prime-time National Hockey
Night audience, which has been drawing an anemic .7 for
regular-season games this fall. Legends of Skating is also
higher rated than ESPN's prime-time college basketball games
were last season, and on a par with ESPN's ratings for major
league baseball. And that's for a show with such second-tier
skaters as Elaine Zayak and Rosalynn Sumners. What numbers might
a network attract if the big names--Baiul, Boitano, Hamilton,
Torvill and Dean, Wylie, Yamaguchi et al.--put their drawing
power behind a World Cup-styled championship series?
"I keep telling the skaters that this could be as big as any
sport in the world--if it were legitimate and organized," says
Eddie Einhorn, a former CBS executive who has served as
television consultant for the ISU for 20 years. "I'm not saying
it's crooked or fixed, but it's not legitimate. It's
entertainment disguised as sport. And the further you drift away
from sports, the bigger the risk you're taking. It becomes a
fad, and then it goes away."
How, then, to validate professional figure skating? First, a bit
of history. Many people date the launch of the figure skating
boom to the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan by the thugs of the
Tonya Harding entourage, including the aforementioned Stant, but
that was only one factor. "The biggest thing was when CBS lost
football, and it then needed programming," says Einhorn. "The
ISU didn't have the events to fill that need, which led to all
these contrived things like Ice Wars and Too Hot to Skate. What
drove the boom even further was when the networks started
putting figure skating in prime time and getting double-digit
ratings. All of a sudden skating went from the sports divisions
to the entertainment divisions."
Figure skating has long had an incestuous relationship with the
entertainment industry, going back to the days of Sonja Henie,
who in the late 1930s went overnight from Olympic champion to
movie starlet. Skating icons like Peggy Fleming and Dorothy
Hamill became the darlings of America, but after winning their
gold medals, they could only capitalize on their new status in
entertainment. It was either the Ice Capades, Ice Follies, TV
specials or commercial endorsements. Pro competitions weren't an
"I began talking to the ISU in the 1960s about putting on a
professional championship," recalls Button, who retired from
competition in '52, at age 22, with seven U.S. titles and two
Olympic gold medals, then discovered he had nowhere to turn but
show business. "But the ISU wasn't interested."
So Button, as promoter (after a lucrative spin on Wall Street),
started the made-for-TV World Professional Championships. First
aired in 1973, they weren't held annually until '80, the year
Button talked Fleming and Hamill into competing. "The only way
they'd do it was if I made the format a team competition,
because neither wanted to lose her Olympic title. I tried to
tell them they couldn't lose their Olympic title, but they
The format has changed a couple of times since, but the one now
used by the World Professional Championship is considered the
model for professional events. The skaters perform two programs,
each worth 50% of the scoring. The first is technically
oriented, the second artistically oriented. There are no time
limitations on the programs, no costume restrictions and no
restrictions on music. Spotlights can be used for dramatic
effect. "There are no rules in professional competitions," says
Kerry Leitch, who is charged with selecting and overseeing the
World Professional Championship judging panel, which consists of
former skaters and coaches. "There's nothing the skaters have to
do. We leave it to the judge's discretion to determine what is
and isn't a well-balanced program."
It's a popular format. Small wonder, since the marks are
inflated to make everyone look celestial. "The other night I saw
someone make three mistakes in a program and get three 10s,"
says Boitano. "It needs to be shaped up."
As nice as it sounds to have skaters and coaches judging a
competition--people who are in the rink every day, not the
trained volunteers who judge ISU competitions part time--the
skating community is too small at the top for this system to
work. Everyone knows everyone else and, in some cases, works for
everyone else. In last year's World Professional Championship,
choreographer Toller Cranston judged Yuka Sato, who was skating
in a costume that he had designed. In the past, Elizabeth Manley
has been judged by her former coach Peter Dunfield. It's all too
chummy. At the U.S. Pro Championships (another competition put
on by Button's company, Candid Productions) in October, judge
Karin Kuenzle-Watson was overheard talking with Wylie after he
had skated his technical program. "Sorry, I had to do it," she
said with a grin.
Wylie, misunderstanding, told her not to worry. He hadn't landed
a triple Axel or a combination jump, the most difficult elements
in his technical program. "No," said Kuenzle-Watson, a former
pairs skater from Switzerland. "I had to give you a 10. I just
love your skating."
"Thanks," said Wylie, apparently abashed. "Don't apologize."
"I've got some more 10s in me," the judge said, looking forward
to the artistic event to come. She used them, too.
Such scenes make it difficult to view these non-ISU-sanctioned
competitions as serious sporting events. "I don't cover
professional skating, because the competitions don't lead to
anything," says Phil Hersh, the Olympics reporter for the
Chicago Tribune. "The rules aren't standardized. And how can you
judge Dorothy Hamill, who doesn't do a triple jump, against
Kristi Yamaguchi, who does? It's like Jesse Owens of 1936
running against Donovan Bailey. I also have a big problem with
who's judging these competitions and who's running them. There's
far too much conflict of interest. All that being said, the
quality of the skating from an entertainment perspective is
Which explains why the World Professional Championships was the
highest-rated figure skating show of the 1995-96 season,
outdrawing even the world championships. The professional
competition's numbers--which last year averaged an 11.3 rating
and 18.5 share over two nights on NBC--were down slightly from
1995 but still impressive. Certainly the ISU has taken notice.
"What I'm learning from the professional world is that we
should, and will, begin integrating events with a wider range,"
says Cinquanta. "We're not asleep. We're thinking. This is the
Among the competitions that the ISU is planning to add by the
1997-98 season is a top-jump event, sort of a game of H-O-R-S-E
on skates, in which competitors try to one-up each other with,
say, a double flip followed by a triple toe loop. "Ottavio's
moving pretty fast in this direction," says Ferguson, who goes
so far as to allow that the ISU might consider sanctioning its
own version of the Rock 'n' Roll Championships. "If that's
what's necessary to help these medal-winning skaters participate
in the broad and colorful spectrum of figure skating, so be it."
What they're worried about, of course, is losing a generation of
Olympic skaters to the professional (read: ineligible) ranks.
Because it's the Olympic champions who attract the television
ratings--the fuel that feeds the money engine. "The ISU is more
reactionary than visionary," says Linda Leaver, Boitano's
longtime coach and manager. "It's moving into the 20th century,
which is great, paying out money to its skaters and trying to
make it tougher for them to choose whether to become ineligible.
But this has happened only because the professionals have made
the ISU let loose of some money and control."
In truth, the last thing skating needs is another Rock 'n' Roll
event, whether the ISU sanctions it or not. Nor does it need a
top-jump event. "We need to get some sort of a pro circuit going
that makes sense," says Leitch. "And the people who could end up
holding the trump card are the skaters, if they start an
Christopher Dean hopes the top echelon of professionals will
band together and do just that, wresting control from both the
power-hungry ISU and deep-pocketed promoters like Candid
Productions, International Management Group and Jefferson-Pilot
Sports that rake in an estimated 50% to 60% of the profits from
the athletes' efforts. "In professional skating you can count on
two hands the number of people who make the circus go around,"
says Dean. "It seems crazy that we can't get together. We could
control our own affairs as an entity."
Dean would like to see the skaters organize a Grand Prix series
of five to seven events that would lead up to a championship
final. "If you went to a television network and said, 'I've got
these 10 names; we're a collective,' they'd jump at it," he
says. "The sport is crying out for a credible world professional
championship series that ultimately would be open to everyone."
Dean has talked to Mark Miles, the head of the Association of
Tennis Professionals, and feels that a skaters' association
could be successful if it were modeled after the ATP tour, which
is owned and run by the players. "The money the ATP generates
from television rights fees goes back into the association
rather than into the pockets of a promoter," says Dean. "Right
now, as a group, skaters don't even have a pension plan or
disability insurance. It's something that will happen. Whether
it takes 12 months or three to four years, it will happen."
Inertia is working against him. "Most of the skaters just don't
care," says Boitano. "We're all exhausted with what's on our
plates. And if we form an association, we'll have to forgo
appearance fees, and people are leery of that, even with a big
"What's kept us from forming a union is the distance between us
...and being too busy," says Wylie. "Plus I don't know how
altruistic everyone is. We're fairly self-oriented. Your product
is you. We're all too psyched with what we have now. We don't
expect a lot more. It'll happen with the next generation of
Olympic skaters, the Stojkos and the Eldredges."
The sooner, the better for fans who are tired of the spectacle
of figure skating and long for the days when it was simply an
exciting and beautiful sport. "There'll always be a demand for
stuff like the Rock 'n' Roll Championships," says Einhorn, "just
as there'll always be a demand for golf's Skins Game. But the
Skins Game is an offshoot of something legitimate. Here there's
nothing legitimate to be an offshoot of. If these skaters want
to achieve the status of sportsmen, they've got to form their
own association, their own rules, their own championship.
Someone would pay big money for that, but there's a lot more to
be gained than just money. It's also the legitimacy of being an
athlete. Right now, they're on the fringe."
Madge is weeping, dabbing her cheeks with a Kleenex.
"What now?" Harry asks.
"So sad. So, so sad."
"That I missed seeing Couples make that putt? Yes, it is sad."
"Oh, stop. Juliet's dead. I always cry at this part."
"That isn't Juliet, Madge. That's Marina Klimova lying on the
ice between two battery-operated candles. And it isn't Romeo,
either. It's Sergei Ponomarenko, her husband, holding a rubber
"Shush. Don't intrude on the illusion."
"Madge, you've already seen this program 20 times. Peggy
Fleming's about to say something incredibly banal. Then Sergei
and Marina will bow to each other 30 times, and they'll get six
10.0s and a 9.9, even though Sergei slipped on his wife's hair
before his suicide scene."
"You have no feelings, Harry. Here's your stupid clicker back."
"Thank you. Much obliged."
"I'm going to bed."
"Fine. (Click.) Oh, my god!"
"Good heavens!" Madge says, sitting down once again. "The
Hershey's Kisses Figure Skating Challenge. There's that precious
Michelle. Harry, be a sweetheart and get me a beer."