Almost exactly three years ago, I wrote a story about the state of figure skating as a TV property in which I said, "The forecast is so ominous that it could turn figure skating into primarily an Internet sport as a broadcast commodity, barely a decade after its over-the-air network TV ratings and income were sky high."
This is what Eddie Einhorn, a U.S. figure skating TV consultant, told me at the time:
"Will we stay on TV? It depends what you mean by TV. I see a combination of over-the-air, cable and Internet/new media. It will likely switch mostly to new media as years go by.
"Getting a big rights fee from television is the old game. Smaller sports are going to have to find other ways to get broadcast time."
Although Einhorn's words and my prediction have been borne out, as further evidenced by this week's announcement of a new deal (actually an extension) between Universal Sports and the International Skating Union, I would like to temper a few parts of it based on what I have seen since the story appeared Dec. 12, 2006.
1. There is nothing really ominous about figure skating -- and here I am referring mainly to live coverage -- being primarily on the Internet if the sport wants to attract a new generation of fans, most of whom already use their computers to watch TV shows, movies and all sorts of other video. Quality of these live Web streams is getting better and better; I hooked up my computer to my TV monitor to watch some of the icenetwork.com coverage during this Grand Prix season.
2. The Internet is giving fans more live coverage of the sport than ever before. Judging from the running commentary on the live action in posts to skating newsgroups like Figure Skating Universe, fans will get up (or stay up) in the middle of the night to watch live coverage of an event like last week's Grand Prix Final in Japan.
3. Yes, the sport is getting a lot less TV money -- probably some 20% of what it received at the apogee in the late 1990s -- but the sponsors paying for rink board ads still are getting exposure, which is critical to keeping that revenue stream.
The new Universal-ISU deal, which runs through 2013, assures coverage of the World Championships, European Championships, World Junior Championships, World Synchro Championships and all Grand Prix events but Skate America (a U.S. Figure Skating property, sold to NBC/Universal Sports through 2014).
I had several questions about the deal, and Universal Sports CEO Claude Ruibal answered them by saying most were TBD, "to be determined."
Q. Does this mean Ice Network (owned by the U.S. federation) won't be live streaming Grand Prix events in the future?
A. Not necessarily. That is TBD.
Q. Will there be any coverage of [senior] worlds on NBC or will Universal be the only TV outlet?
A. Again, that's a TBD. It might make sense to have some TV coverage of worlds on the NBC network and some on Universal Sports.
Q. Will the [foreign] Grand Prix events on TV be mostly live or delayed.?
A. Where we can pick up a live signal from abroad of high-enough quality, we will go with it live. If we're not as comfortable with it live, we will at worst do it on a same-day delay. Our preference is to make this available live, certainly online, and then maybe have higher production qualities on a slightly delayed basis for TV.
To those who have problems in getting Universal Sports: the network is becoming available on more and more cable systems nationwide. Those viewers without cable, for economic or other reasons, rightfully feel shortchanged because some of these broadcasts used to be on over-the-air TV, but the market doesn't support that anymore.
I have asked Universal producers why they can't show the stuff in hi-def, and the answers have to do with cost, bandwidth, and availability of high-def broadcasts.
Memo to Universal: figure it out. A live Internet stream followed by a delayed broadcast in hi-def would be a pretty nice combination -- and likely as good as figure skating fans can hope for unless another Michelle Kwan or Tonya Harding comes along to regenerate interest in the sport beyond its hard-core faithful. I would also like commentary on the webcasts, currently accompanied only by the skater's music.
Of course, this all could change with the Comcast purchase of NBC Universal. If Comcast wants to make its Versus network a rival to ESPN, the man-cave network, maybe Comcast will shift some live skating to Versus when the deal goes through.
Speaking of skating and NBC: Rachael Flatt, the leading U.S. woman singles skater this season, is among the athletes who took part in a 16-part NBC Universal series called "The Science of the Olympic Winter Games."
A collaborative effort among NBC Learn, the educational arm of NBC News; NBC Olympics; and the National Science Foundation produced a series that will answer such questions as, "How does angular momentum help Flatt achieve the perfect triple toe loop?" and "How does elastic collision help three-time Olympic hockey player Julie Chu convert a game-winning slapshot?"
The series will be available Wednesday on nbcolympics.com/science and will also be offered to schools as an educational tool. The Wednesday "Today Show" will air one of the pieces.
-- Philip Hersh