Philip Hersh on figure skating: 10 things I know, and you should
CLEVELAND -- Ten things I know, and you should, about the state of U.S. figure skating as the national championships head into the weekend:
1. The worst of times, the worst of times: U.S. Figure Skating, the sport's national governing body, may be able to handle the economic downturn with minimal dislocation because it already had to tighten its belt severely after 2007, when its $12-million-a-year deal with ABC ended. The current financial crisis has dropped the USFS foundation's worth about 20%, or about $10 million, which means the foundation also generates less income. USFS executive director David Raith told me in an interview before the annual state-of-the sport news conference today that annual budgets already were cut over the last three to four years from about $18 million to $11 million to $12 million. "That whole exercise has allowed us to be more frugal, and the plan is to keep next year's budget in the $11-to-$12 million range,'' Raith said. "If we were still at $18-to-$20 million now, we would be in deep trouble. We are not.''
2. AT&T's investment in the sport after signing a two-year deal as title sponsor of the U.S. Championships may be as much promotional as financial. "They are going to do things in stores, things on their website, activate their sponsorship to equate AT&T with figure skating, whereas for a lot of the ABC sponsors it was just a media buy,'' Raith said. "We're happy with the money we are getting in the deal, but the activation is worth more.''
3. The International Skating Union, the sport's global governing body, is becoming more dependent than ever on its share of International Olympic Committee TV revenues -- about $6.5 million a year. As for ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta: "He better hope the IOC gets more money from the Olympics because he is no longer getting that kind of money for his own product on television in the United States or Canada,'' Raith said.
4. Skate America returns to its roots for the 30th anniversary edition. This year's event will be in its original home, Lake Placid, N.Y., where it took place three times from 1979 through 1982 (there was no competition in 1980). There will be one significant change, however, this time around:
traditionally the first event in the Grand Prix Series, Skate America will be the fifth in 2009, running Nov. 13-15, which gets it away from the World Series. The entire GP season is advanced two weeks next season because of the Olympics.
5. There are significant concerns in U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters about having competition at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships -- a.k.a. the Olympic trials -- drag over 10 days (with three competition days in each of the consecutive weeks) in Spokane. USOC folks are worried about the organization and flow of an event that actually will go on for almost two full weeks, since some skaters will arrive two or three days before senior competition begins Friday, Jan. 15. The change was made to accommodate NBC. Because U.S. Figure Skating does not call the event an Olympic trials, it does not have to cede any control (or revenue) to the USOC.
6. Six of the seven Grand Prix events this season were shown in the U.S. only on icenetwork.com webcasts, but Raith hopes to have a cable TV outlet for them in 2009. An obvious choice would be the new NBC subsidiary, Universal Sports.
7. There will be just two hours of over-the-air television from the World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles. NBC will show only the women's final. The cable network Oxygen will do 14 hours (10 live). But Cinquanta signed off on a ridiculous competition schedule for worlds, with events ending past 11 p.m. in L.A., which means four of the live Oxygen hours will be from midnight to 2 a.m. on the East Coast and a fifth from midnight to 1 a.m. So the needed boost in the United States that figure skating could get from a worlds on home turf will be diminished. Said Raith: "They [NBC] made their deal with Ottavio, and it was they would televise the women's final. I'd like to see more of it on network [over-the-air] television.''
8. Something for nothing: Cinquanta will give away TV rights for his major events because ISU deals with rink signage sponsors are dependent on exposure.
9. I couldn't do an entire skating Blog without a swipe at the New Judging System. This one comes from two-time U.S. pairs champion John Baldwin, talking about the emphasis on downgrading in the minds of the officials who call the elements: "The callers really want to give negatives.'' Just what a sport in trouble needs.
10. Warmest, fuzziest anecdote, so far, from the U.S. Championships: Rachael Flatt, second in the women's short program, was smiling the smile of a 16-year-old who got her braces off 3 1/2 weeks ago. She immediately ate a caramel apple -- the treat her orthodondist gives all patients to celebrate the occasion.
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Rachael Flatt skates during the ladies short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Thursday. Credit: Amy Sancetta / Associated Press