Ashley Wagner strikes a pose during her free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating… (Jared Wickerham / Getty…)
There was an evening at the recent U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston when it felt like a time warp.
The crowd for the Saturday night women's final, the marquee event at the nationals, made the big arena feel full. Even though the 13,980 in attendance fell about 3,000 short of the TD Garden capacity, it was the largest single-session crowd at the nationals since the 18,035 in Los Angeles for the women's final in 2002.
TV ratings were up more than 20% over last year.
"I feel skating is poised to make a huge comeback," 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie said.
His is a rare voice of optimism about the future of competitive and show skating as spectator events in the U.S., where the sport's heath is in serious decline.
"A dinosaur," said Ashley Wagner, two-time U.S. champion and 2014 Olympian. "I am definitely worried for the sport from a business standpoint."
"Close to death," said 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano, one of skating's superstars.
"We have lost our audience," said Peter Carruthers, 1984 Olympic pairs silver medalist. "I see a slow death happening."
That the Boston nationals briefly defied those dire views was not unexpected. The city is a U.S. cradle of the sport, and the well-connected Skating Club of Boston was all in to help U.S. Figure Skating celebrate its 100th anniversary championships.
"We are back to the point where an audience shows up every four years," said two-time Olympic champion Dick Button, whose TV commentary helped build the sport's popularity.
The 2.7 TV rating for the 2014 U.S. championships women's final was 20% lower than it was in the previous Olympic year. Ratings for that telecast in the 18-to-49 demographic have hovered between 0.5 and 0.7 for five years.
Attendance at the three previous nationals, in Omaha, San Jose and Greensboro, N.C., was far below capacity, with U.S. Figure Skating releasing only aggregate totals for each. Skate America, the U.S. piece of the international Grand Prix Series, rarely fills half the smaller arenas it uses.
It seems appropriate the title sponsor of skating's only TV series of entertainment shows is Oxytrol, a bladder-control product used mainly by older women.
"That's our demographic," said one skater, very grateful for the sponsorship.
ABC was paying USFS a $12-million annual rights fee when its contract expired in 2007. NBC, which took over, pays no rights fee, with USFS getting a share of whatever profit exists. In the most recent tax filing available, for the tax year ending June 30, 2012, USFS reported 12-month broadcasting and licensing revenue of $1.97 million.
The Champions on Ice Tour, which played 70 cities per year in its heyday and was a major income source for many athletes, folded in 2007. The Stars on Ice tour, which had 65 U.S. shows in the 2001 season and 41 in 2010, was down to six last year. It is scheduled for 20 this spring.
"We actually feel bad for these skaters now," Boitano said. "They don't know what it was like when skating was rock 'n' roll."
In 1995, there actually was a made-for-TV event called the Rock 'n' Roll Figure Skating Championships, with nonskating celebrities judging the competitors, and it got a 13 rating. That was during the brief Wild West era that followed the Knee Whack Heard 'Round the World, when associates of Tonya Harding put a hit on rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics.
That affair elevated the sport onto the covers of national news magazines and into the lead story of newscasts for nearly a month. It produced a 48.5 rating for the women's short program at the 1994 Olympics, right up there with Super Bowl numbers, and it meant TV could not get enough of ersatz and real skating competitions.
"We are very thankful for the opportunities we had, but it may have killed the golden goose," Boitano said.
How golden? In a five-year deal for U.S. rights to international skating events that ended in 2004, ABC paid $22.5 million annually to the International Skating Union, the global governing body of figure skating and speedskating. ABC then covered the women's final at the world championships on a live or same-day basis.
Now NBC pays no rights fee. This year it will recap the worlds in a broadcast two weeks after the event.
Comparing anything against the immediate post-1994 bonanza leaves a false impression that figure skating had no audience before then. The truth is the sport began to attract U.S. fans with three-time Olympic gold-medal winner Sonja Henie's ice shows and films before World War II and grew steadily in popularity before the 1994 explosion.
The final 20 minutes of the live telecast of the Battle of the Carmens (Katarina Witt vs. Debi Thomas) at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary got a 46 rating. The women's final at the 1992 Olympics, shown on same-day delay, drew a 25 rating in the U.S. The same telecast from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, live in most of the country, had a 13.6.