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U.S. figure skating faces uphill fight at the worlds

January 27, 2009 |  5:45 pm

Brandon Mroz

A few post-mortems on the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland:

1.) Prospects for U.S. medals at the World Championships to be held in March at Staples Center are not very good. I would be surprised to see more than one, which would come from the men.

Evan Lysacek, winner of two U.S. titles and two world bronze medals, said after finishing third on Sunday that the U.S. men are "overall probably the strongest in the entire world," and that "it’s looking really good for one of the U.S. men to come in and win."

While there is no disputing the first half of Lysacek’s analysis, it seems unlikely that he, new champion Jeremy Abbott or runner-up Brandon Mroz will be the first U.S. man to win worlds since Todd Eldredge in 1996.

The women?

They probably will go without a medal for the third straight year, a drought that has not occurred since the three years following the 1961 plane crash that killed the entire U.S. team.

It will be a major victory for the U.S. if the finishes of its two skaters, Alissa Czisny and Rachael Flatt, add up to 13 or less -– which would secure three women’s spots at the 2010 Olympics. Chances for that seem remote, given that their best scores this season are 9th (Flatt) and 12th (Czisny) on the world list.

2.) We should know more about the women’s chances after Czisny and Flatt skate in next week’s Four Continents Championships in Vancouver. The entry list includes the 1-3-5 finishers from last year’s Worlds.

3.) The ratings slide continues. Last year’s prime-time Saturday telecast on NBC earned a 3.3 rating and 6 share. This year’s rating/share was down to 2.8/5.

Unless NBC gets rights to the 2014 Olympics, you can pretty much figure it will abandon U.S. figure skating after 2010 – and that may happen even if it continues as the Olympic rights-holder. Saturday’s production was bare bones, anyway -- no features, only one post-skate interview. Just skating, lots of commercials, scores, skating, commercials, etc.

4.) There are many reasons for the continued ratings slide: Increased competition from the

infinite number of TV channels and broadband offerings. A scoring system no one can understand. Technical requirements that have created cookie-cutter skaters. And a lack of stars recognizable to the casual U.S. viewer.

That’s why U.S. Figure Skating should make a simple deal with NBC: If the network agrees to extend the contract for a couple years, U.S. Figure Skating will arrange the judging at next year’s championships to make sure Michelle Kwan or Sasha Cohen (or both!) make the 2010 Olympic team.

That’s a joke.

I think.

5.) Many of you who took the time to comment on my recent blog post about Johnny Weir were insistent that he be put on the world team because of his past record and the belief that his presence would help the United States to earn three spots at the 2008 Olympics.

Alissa Czisny Some who commented or emailed on my post about the scoring of the women’s free skate similarly felt that Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang would give the U.S. more hope for Olympic spots than a team with Alissa Czisny.

To all of you, I say: why bother having a competition if you are going to pick people mainly on past performance?

I know the rules allow for it. And I know that I was in favor of Kwan receiving an injury waiver in 2006. She was a special case -- was there anyone else who had won nine U.S. titles, five world titles, two Olympic medals and had finished just a few points from a world bronze medal in 2005?

But I have rethought my position on it since 2006. Skating selection should be as objective as it is in speedskating or swimming. Want to include past performance? Devise a strict mathematical formula, but one that makes the U.S. championships worth at least three times as much as previous results.

(Such a formula would echo the numbers game of the new judging system. And, sad to say, skating judges still could manipulate program component scores to help the ``favored’’ athletes do well at nationals.)

If an athlete is sick or injured or unable to skate at nationals? Too bad -- even for a Michelle Kwan. What skater can guarantee that he or she won't be sick or injured the day of the Olympic competition?

6.) What bothers me most about Weir’s comments regarding how he should have gotten special consideration because of his past record and his coming out to skate (mediocre in both programs, 5th overall) in the aftermath of an illness is that he has spent a month harping on the effects of having been sick.

He mentioned it in the Jan. 6 journal entry on his personal web site, re-emphasized it in a Jan. 14 teleconference, and brought it up it his initial comments after the short and long programs at nationals.

Weir said he first started getting sick two days before a Grand Prix meet in Japan at the end of November, felt weak while there, as well as during the run-up to the Grand Prix Final in Korea. He then returned home but went back to Korea for a Christmas Day show, where he said that he became sick enough to require hospitalization.

Point 1:  The U.S. Championships is the most important event of the season, since it leads to world team selection. Why would a person who felt weak less than 10 days earlier beat up his body with another grueling trip to Asia for a show?

Point 2:  There was a month between Christmas and the nationals. A well-trained athlete does not lose his or her fitness base (or skills) in that period, and a month would seem plenty of time to get over the illness and get back to training.

7.)  For the record: I mentioned that by going through newspaper and wire service accounts back to 1986, I found only two instances in which the women’s champion had landed fewer than four triple jumps it the free skate:  Czisny’s three on Saturday and Nancy Kerrigan’s three in 1993.

Year by year, here were the numbers, beginning in 1986: 5, 4, 5, 4, 4, 7, 7, 3, 5, 4, 7, 7, 7, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 5, 5, 5, 6 and 3. Interestingly, when Czisny finished third overall in 2007, she won the free skate with five triples.

8.) U.S. Figure Skating is putting all its eggs into the basket of icenetwork.com, its wholly-owned subsidiary, while giving the back of its hand to print media that have covered the sport for years.

How? Schedules that get worse and worse as competition drags past 11 p.m. on the East Coast – which is too late for print deadlines. While print media put great emphasis on Internet content, we also like to get stories in the paper if we go to significant expense to cover them. The net impact?

Icenetwork.com will keep preaching to a limited audience of already-converted, hard-core skating fans. And papers that might reach a wider audience, both in print and online, will stop covering the sport.

(Many papers already are thinking of covering just one weekend of the 2010 championships – a.k.a. the Olympic trials – because of expense and deadlines). 

The number of eyeballs on the major papers’ web sites every day dwarfs the hits on icenetwork.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo (top): Brandon Mroz salutes the crowd at the 2009 US Figure Skating Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Sunday. Credit: Rey Del Rio / US PRESSWIRE

Photo (inset): Alissa Czisny. Credit: Amy Sancetta / Associated Press

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