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Latest Scandal May Be Good for Business

FIGURE SKATING

August 11, 2002|NANCY ARMOUR | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dream up the wildest scandal possible, and odds are figure skating has survived it--and thrived.

Fans keep tuning in, and sponsors keep signing up.

Tonya and Nancy and the whack heard 'round the world gave rock-star status to a sport that already was the showcase of the Winter Olympics. The Salt Lake City pairs controversy led to more magazine covers and big TV ratings.

So as stunning as the accusations that a reputed Russian mobster rigged the Olympics might be, this latest scandal won't necessarily be bad for business.

"Absolutely, it will survive," said Michael Rosenberg, a former agent who represented Tonya Harding and Dorothy Hamill. "Some sports are bigger than any scandal, bigger than any personality. And figure skating is one of those sports."

Figure skating is more than just elegance and flashy costumes, triple axels and quadruple jumps. It's big business.

With a fan base that cuts across gender, age and economic lines, skating's top events are a strong television draw.

Companies across the world--Chevrolet and State Farm, Lalique and Adidas, to name a few -- spend millions of dollars each year for a tie-in to the sport and its athletes.

Just how big is the business? Consider that Michelle Kwan is a millionaire several times over, while Todd Eldredge owns a bevy of luxury sports cars--and neither is an Olympic champion.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association has a yearly operating budget of about $16 million, with sponsorship agreements and its TV deal with ABC accounting for $11 million of that.

ABC is paying roughly $100 million over 10 years for the rights to broadcast five events a season. Yes, only five. And that doesn't include the world championships or events outside the United States: There's a separate deal with the International Skating Union to cover those.

"It's beautiful entertainment," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now an independent consultant. "It's a very special sport, and I think it will not lose the attention of viewers.

"I think viewers understand the athletes have not been compromised," Pilson added. "The athletes were really innocent victims and I think, in a way, the public will continue to support the sport because it will support the athletes."

With so much money at stake, though, no one's taking any chances. Lloyd Ward, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, sent a letter to major sponsors last week, assuring them the USOC had asked the International Olympic Committee for an investigation and pledged its cooperation. He also urged sponsors to call him if they had any questions or concerns.

So far, there hasn't been any backlash, said USOC spokesman Mike Moran.

"I think the jury's out in terms of the public reaction until such time as the IOC or the ISU or law-enforcement agencies get to the bottom of it," Moran said. "I think the public wants to see how you ultimately deal with it."

The USFSA talked to its sponsors more informally, but didn't get any negative response, either, spokesman Bob Dunlop said.

Zoe Younker, a spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance, the title sponsor of the national championships, said her company is still committed to skating.

"Obviously it's a desire for us for the sport to reflect the highest integrity," she said. "But State Farm will still continue to be associated with the U.S. Figure Skating Association."

Even when skating and integrity don't go together, it doesn't seem to matter. When the crew of bumbling misfits connected to Harding attacked Nancy Kerrigan at the U.S. championships in 1994, the public couldn't get enough of it. It was the Ice Princess vs. the Ultimate Bad Girl, the pinnacle of drama and camp.

And it produced an explosion the likes of which sports has never seen. The women's short program--the Tonya-Nancy showdown--and the free skate at the Lillehammer Olympics drew the fourth- and sixth-highest ratings of any TV shows up to that point.

Not just for 1994. Ever.

The touring ice shows were sellouts and TV networks clamored for more skating. The USFSA's membership jumped from almost 110,000 in 1992-93 to more than 156,000 in 2000-01.

"It's amazing. All the various things that have happened in the ice skating world, and it seems to thrive and do well under controversy," said Tom Collins, creator of the Champions on Ice tour that features most of the Olympic medalists.

"You can knock it, tear it to pieces and still people would go to it."

So just imagine the possibilities with this latest uproar.

"This scandal will benefit the TV people and show organizers, since it helps raise the public interest in figure skating and increases attendance as people want to see these 'mobsters on ice,' " Russian pairs skater Anton Sikharulidze said bitterly.

He and partner Elena Berezhnaya, of course, had to share their Salt Lake City Olympic title with Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

As distasteful as it might be, controversy is an undeniable part of skating's charm, said Rosenberg, the former agent.

In a country that thrives on talk radio and conspiracy theories, what's more entertaining than watching a sport where the next big scandal might only be a sit spin away?

"Whether you're talking about a woman working for Xerox or a guy working as a security officer, they all know about the Canadians and the Russians in Salt Lake City," Rosenberg said.

"The soap opera aspect of the sport is appealing. The subjectivity which lends itself to endless arguments is appealing," he added. "Those two factors are pluses, not negatives, in the overall scheme of things."

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