TOKYO — The poor U.S. performance at the world championships that ended Saturday could not have come at a worse time for the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. and the International Skating Union as they try to negotiate new TV contracts with U.S. networks.
The USFSA contract with ABC, worth $12 million annually, expires this spring. The ISU contract with ESPN, a $5 million-a-year deal, ends after next season. At this point, there isn't much talent for U.S. skating to sell to TV, even as U.S. interest in skating could grow with the 2009 World Championships scheduled for Los Angeles and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
The U.S. team limps home from Tokyo with just one bronze medal, its lowest total since 1994. Its women won no medals for the first time since 1994 and only the third time since 1970.
Of the U.S. skaters who competed, just three are creditable 2010 medal contenders -- Kimmie Meissner, Evan Lysacek and dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.
The next U.S. generation, headlined by 13-year-old sensations Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu, who finished 1-2 at this year's junior worlds, could be factors at the next level in time for the 2009 senior worlds. Coincidentally, both are from the Los Angeles area, which could make a compelling story if ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta stops acting like the kid who threatens take his ball and go home.
Frustrated by growing U.S. TV disinterest in figure skating, Cinquanta warned last week at a news conference that the 2009 worlds had been awarded to Los Angeles on a provisional basis only.
"Without TV coverage, we cannot assure our contractual obligations," Cinquanta said.
He seemingly backed off that stance enough Saturday that the USFSA was able to say the ISU has reaffirmed the 2009 worlds being in L.A, although the ISU statement on the issue never said point-blank no change was possible.
"The allotment of the championships to be held in Los Angeles demonstrates the acknowledgment by the ISU of the great contribution by the U.S. skaters and movement to the development of the sport of figure skating," the ISU said.
Cinquanta described himself as "furious" about figure skating's uncertain TV future in both the U.S. and Canada. The Canadian TV contracts for both domestic and ISU events are up after this season.
U.S. television interests have been equally frustrated by Cinquanta's intransigence on matters big and small.
There are a number of reasons for the decline in U.S. ratings, including the fragmentation of the TV market, ESPN's decision to fob off its telecasts as counter-programming to football, a lack of network promotion and the absence of attention-grabbing stars such as Michelle Kwan. The sport's new judging system also is a factor. Although it has made skating scoring less subjective, audiences are faced with wading through more numbers than a tax accountant on April 14.
While Cinquanta and his cohorts have focused on judging, they have failed to address the bigger issue of talent development worldwide.
Even Japan, the sport's new dynasty, expects a few lean years after the 2010 Olympics.
The sport may have all but disappeared from TV by then.
\o7Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune\f7.