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 didn't care."
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 10.1 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 exceptional."
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 future."
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."