"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 2½ 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 option.
"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."