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Icing on the Cake

With TV Specials and Live Shows, Figure Skaters Are Gliding Into Show Biz

June 25, 1998|GREG JOHNSON

June gloom is fading, the schools have emptied and the beaches again are the stuff that picture postcards promise. So why is Brian Klavano's crew getting ready to install a huge sheet of ice in Santa Monica Airport's Barker Hangar?

Come July, the massive hangar will be transformed into a winter scene where Target Stores will shoot its second "Snowden on Ice" figure skating television special. Last November's initial show captured its Friday night time slot, and Target executives expect equally strong ratings for this year's show.

Whether in television shows such as Walt Disney Co.'s recent "Mulan" special starring Olympian Michelle Kwan or at live, nightly performances by Los Angeleno Tiffany Chin at Sea World's San Diego park, consumer demand for creative displays of figure skating is skyrocketing.

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As figure skating is drawn into the broader world of entertainment, the industry is changing. New skating formats allow athletes more freedom of expression, and there are more opportunities for endorsements and deals--witness Kwan's recent four-project deal with Disney. Skaters' business agents are likely to be allied with larger companies that handle show production, and shows can be staged just about anywhere.

"We're busier this summer than any summer I can remember," said Klavano, production manager for Willie Bietek Productions, a Santa Monica-based company that provides temporary ice rinks for television shows, commercials, movies and touring shows. "With America having a successful Olympics in Japan with our two little princesses, demand is soaring."

The one-two finish in the Nagano Winter Games by American skaters Tara Lipinski and Kwan reignited interest in the sport. And the tight-knit industry expects interest to remain strong as television networks crank up publicity for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games that, unlike the tape-delayed Nagano Games, will be broadcast live into U.S. homes.

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Consumers gobbled up more than 160 hours of televised figure skating shows last year. Many of those shows were staged competitions with titles such as "Battle of the Sexes" and "Ice Wars: USA vs. the World." But even the made-for-television specials aren't enough for sophisticated fans who are demanding alternatives to singles and doubles competitions staged before judges in huge arenas.

At the same time, advances in ice-making technology are making it cost-effective for skating to glide into smaller arenas and Broadway-style stages.

"Everyone is looking for different venues, for ways to make skating unique, to present the sport in different manners," said Michael Rosenberg, whose Palm Desert-based Marco Entertainment Inc. represents more than 50 top skaters. "And what better way to do that than by tying ice skating to music, theater and different themes?"

Rosenberg is planning a holiday tour featuring top athletes skating to live performances by Mannheim Steamroller, the nation's top-selling Christmas music group. Negotiations are also underway to pair figure skaters with Broadway-style staples such as "West Side Story" and "Grease" and the music of Frank Sinatra.

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But as skating pairs with other types of entertainment, agents who represent athletes are increasingly likely to be affiliated with large companies such as New York-based IMG, which, in addition to representing athletes, produces shows such as the popular "Stars on Ice" tour that travels to 60 U.S. cities and six foreign countries.

Two weeks ago, Rosenberg sold his agency to Magicworks Entertainment Inc., a publicly traded company whose production credits include "Riverdance," "Evita" and Janet Jackson's upcoming Velvet Rope Tour. Magicworks plans to incorporate Rosenberg's roster of top skaters into entertainment projects that are difficult for smaller companies to tackle.

"As an agent, you can think of a single project that's a potential winner, but the risk is $500,000 or $1 million," said Rosenberg, who now heads Magicworks' winter sports division. "And as a small company, you sweat blood thinking, "Lose a couple times and you can easily go bankrupt.' "

Magicworks Chief Executive Brad Krassner says figure skating has been caught up in the same powerful forces that are forcing a consolidation in the entertainment world. "For years, live entertainment was an industry made up of little, niche businesses where there was very little crossover," Krassner said. "Now, you see synergies, like a star athlete crossing over to host the MTV awards program.

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"To us, talent is talent, so whether you're a superstar fashion model or a superstar athlete, people are coming to see you in order to be entertained. And, with skating, we envision a blending of two cultures--the athleticism and grace of skating with live music."

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