Watch Out, Super Bowl - Here Come the Ice Skaters

ICE skating is hot. For years, American figure-skating fans could count on seeing only a handful of major events on TV - the nationals, the worlds, the Olympics. Now, sorting out the numerous program offerings is more dizzying than watching a Brian Boitano spin.

Ice skating is on TV almost every week. Events featuring professionals, says pro and former Olympian Paul Wylie, ``are being made like sausages - just to get programming on. It feels like a really special period of history for figure skating.''

This weekend, ABC Sports and ESPN briefly shift attention to nonprofessionals competing at the United States Figure Skating Championships in Providence, R.I. A year ago, this event catapulted skating into world headlines when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked in a plot hatched by individuals linked to rival Tonya Harding.

The Kerrigan-Harding affair was still big news weeks later at the Olympics. But while the drama boosted TV audiences (126.6 million Americans saw them skate, more than watched all but three Super Bowls), factors propelling skaters across TV screens have more to do with Olympic scheduling, athleticism, and artistry.

The main reasons cited for ice-skating's popularity today are:

* The one-time-only scheduling of the Olympic Winter Games two years apart, in 1992 and `94. The switch to an alternating winter-summer format created continuity for a sport that often lost it in the four years between Olympics. (The Kerrigan-Harding drama also ``put a whole lot of new people in front of sets who never would have watched skating before,'' says Canadian Kurt Browning, a four-time world champion.)

* Open competition at the Olympics. This meant that professionals like Boitano, Katarina Witt, and ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, stars of previous Olympics, were reintroduced to millions of TV viewers.

* The evolution of more athletic skating (which some purists say has gone too far). There's generally more suspense in watching someone attempt a triple jump than seeing Peggy Fleming glide through a seamless routine.

* Ice dancing, added to the Olympics in 1976, has emerged as a show-stopping, spectacularly innovative event. Torvill and Dean's ``Bolero'' routine at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics was a cutting-edge moment that introduced perfection to the sport. They scored the first 6.0 in the event's history.

* The development of new performance vehicles beyond the glitzy ice extravaganzas. These include tours by Olympic champions, by-invitation pro competitions, and television specials such as the one in which Browning re-created Gene Kelly's ``Singin' in the Rain'' on ice.

* Promoters and TV executives came to realize that women, who watch Olympic figure skating in large numbers, want to see more.

Last fall, in fact, CBS turned to skating to fill a void left when Fox aced it out for National Football League games. ``Skating appeals to a different audience, so we feel it is excellent counterprogramming,'' says Dave Kenin, president of CBS Sports.

CBS began its barrage of skating coverage in November with ``Ice Wars,'' a team event that pitted top Americans against top Europeans. A host of other promoter-driven events, characterized by big-name skaters and nontraditional formats, have since appeared on the networks.

Some view these as more exhibitions than competitions. How serious can the events be, they wonder, if Midori Ito can crash into the boards and still score a 10, as she did during one recent competition?

CBS's Mr. Kenin says his network is on ``the right track'' with its made-for-TV events. These are not cooked-up celebrity events, he says. ``This is not refrigerator racing,'' he says: ``athletic competition is still the focal point.''

While pleased that her sport is receiving greater exposure, Linda Siegrist, an avid recreational skater in Boston, has reservations. ``What has brought figure skating into the living rooms of millions of people could kill it,'' Ms. Siegrist says. She is wary of TV's profit-oriented packaging. During a two-hour ``Ice Wars'' telecast, she says, it seemed there was only one brief skating routine every 15 minutes, prompting her switch to a TV movie.

The rest of the time was filled with commercials and skater features. TV executives would argue that such features frame the human dramas and may expand viewership. ``Figure skating has something for everyone,'' Wylie says. ``It's like family entertainment with a competitive element.''

But how much is too much?

``I don't think there are enough big-name people to sustain all this exposure,'' Siegrist says. ``How many times can I see Nancy Kerrigan's short program? Twice is enough for me and I'm out of there.'' Skaters' programs take months to perfect and are not easily changed.

Claire Ferguson, president of the US Figure Skating Association, says skaters compare their sport to golf and tennis in terms of its tour possibilities. ``But skating is totally different,'' she cautions. ``In tennis, you just put your whites on and go out and play, maybe with a new sweatband. In skating, you have to have new music, a new program, and new costumes.''

Ferguson also is leery of sanctioning a tour in which most of the money is funneled to elite skaters and their agents, leaving little for grass-roots development.

Without the sanction of the sport's national and international governing bodies, promoters and sponsors have produced a confusing crazy-quilt of events.

Diminishing returns could signal the saturation point. Events ``that resonate with quality'' may eventually form an eight-to-10-stop World Cup circuit, Paul Wylie says. ``That would be good,'' he adds, ``because right now the Olympics are the only ticket. If you finish fourth there, you're basically relegated to minor-league status.''

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