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On Thin Ice
MUCH OF what's wrong with figure skating, and a glimpse of what might save it, was on display last Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, where Mirai Nagasu, a feathery 14-year-old from Arcadia, Calif., became the second-youngest woman to win the U.S. crown.
The 4'11", 78-pound Nagasu is just 35 days older than Tara Lipinski was when she won the national title in 1997. One month later Lipinski became the youngest woman to win the world championship, but with the change in the age requirement, Nagasu is too young to go to the worlds this year. Same story for second-place finisher Rachael Flatt, 15, of Del Mar, Calif., who misses the cutoff date for the worlds by 20 days.
This is the modern state of skating. Under the clinical scoring system adopted by the International Skating Union in 2004, the women's sport in particular has become gymnastics on skates: all jumps, contortionist spins and girlish mugging, so much so that an 18-year-old like defending champion Kimmie Meissner, who finished a shockingly distant seventh in St. Paul, perhaps finds her best competitive days behind her.
Sagging TV ratings, spotty attendance and disappearing sponsorship dollars suggest that the U.S. public has already weighed in on the new scoring, which replaced the flawed but beloved 6.0 scale that had been skating's signature. Following the judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the ISU changed the scoring system to make it more difficult for judges to cheat. But the new protocol has introduced a different set of problems, chief among them a numbing sameness that has crept into programs choreographed to maximize points, not artistry or creativity.
The sport's problems (which extend to the recent collapse of the once-thriving Champions on Ice exhibition tour) aren't helped by American skaters' international slump. No U.S. man has been Olympic champion since Boitano in 1988, and the women's ranks have been dominated of late by Japan and South Korea. "Any sport requires a charismatic icon," says David Michaels, executive producer of NBC's figure skating coverage. "Right now figure skating doesn't have one."
NBC took over the broadcast rights this winter from ABC, which bowed out after 43 years in the face of steadily declining ratings. (The 2007 U.S. women's final on ABC drew an anemic 2.3 rating, down from a high of 13.4 in 1994; last Saturday's event earned a 3.8.) ABC's contract called for rights fees to the U.S. Figure Skating Association of $12 million a year, but NBC got them for nothing, agreeing to split ad revenues instead.
Humbled, the USFSA has begun to make significant concessions in its scheduling to try to reverse the ratings slide. Last year it moved the U.S. championships so that the competition wouldn't go head-to-head with the NFL playoffs. Whether skating can get out of the doldrums may depend on the likes of tykes Nagasu and Flatt. Will the youngsters stay at the top of the ladies' field long enough to develop rivalries or even personalities the public can embrace? Can one of them evolve into the iconic star the sport needs? Or will they grow up and be remembered as one-year wonders?