Can the good old days of figure skating return?


BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- For the past four decades, Tom Collins has been the most influential entrepreneur in the figure skating business, with his Champions on Ice tour of Olympic stars zigzagging the nation. He has been the most generous promoter to his skater-employees, too, some of them making $15,000 a night in the halcyon days of the mid-1990s.

But this week, Collins' suburban Minneapolis office was quiet. Too quiet.

Collins, a fast-talking, youthful septuagenarian, was talking about closing up shop. After nearly 60 years as a skater and impresario, Collins won't go on the road this year. His show, which has jumped from arena to arena in one form or another since 1969 -- and contributed $18 million to the U.S. Figure Skating Association's coffers -- is being mothballed.

No sponsors. Poor ticket sales last year. No enduring and recognizable figure skating personalities to justify $75 tickets.

As Collins fretted about the future of his sport and reminisced about his days skating with the legendary Sonja Henie and watching the electric performances of Brian Boitano and Michelle Kwan, he gazed at a large frame on his conference room wall.

Staring out at him were 10 magazine covers from the winter of 1994: two from Time, four from Newsweek, two from People, one from Sports Illustrated and one from U.S. News & World Report.

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan and Harding. They generated lots of cash. His post-Olympic tours of the 1990s grossed up to $50 million. Collins couldn't help but capitalize on the most infamous knee-whacking in sports history.

But over time, a few things happened, in his opinion. The egg of skating's golden goose was cracked by overexposure. "You could watch skating on five different channels, seven nights a week, and see Viktor Petrenko do the same number in the same costume," Collins said.

And, after dominating the tabloids, U.S. figure skating stumbled into a personality vacuum. "Michelle Kwan was really the last star," Collins said of the five-time world champ, whose last Olympics was six years ago. "We're starting from scratch."

Even worse, amid all the attention, skating became a laughingstock.

"Leno and Letterman, every night, they opened their monologue with Tonya and Nancy," Collins said of 1994. "You know what, it got embarrassing to me. I was thinking, 'Will they stop already?'"

They stopped. And figure skating has been adjusting ever since. Now, Collins -- "a bigger-than-life figure," Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton said -- is passing the torch. His era has ended.

But a question lingers: Can the good old days of figure skating return?

There's no Kristi Yamaguchi, no Katarina Witt, no Kwan. There's no Boitano, no Hamilton.

Since the 1998 Olympics, every top U.S. woman skater -- from Tara Lipinski to Sarah Hughes to Sasha Cohen -- has up and left the competitive side of the sport. Kwan, a brand-name fixture on the scene since '94, is back in college. No longevity. No stars with staying power. "No Brett Favre," as one skating agent said.

Meanwhile, in the wake of a judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, the math of scoring has changed, substituting the familiar 6.0 standard with a system that is difficult to decipher. The casual TV viewer is baffled by scores like 189.87.

Add the loss of a lucrative TV deal with ABC -- which brought in about $12 million a year -- and it looks as if U.S. figure skating is on the ropes.

"Figure skating used to have a public persona comparable to the high school homecoming queen or prom queen," three-time U.S. champ Johnny Weir, one of the favorites this weekend at the U.S. nationals in St. Paul, told International Figure Skating magazine earlier this month. "Now, our image to the public is the homecoming queen after she got knocked up on prom night and is living on the wrong side of the tracks."

Jay Ogden can't take it anymore. He reads and hears media reports that discuss the decline of figure skating, and he sees a rink that is half full, not half empty. He sees red.

"It's like the sport has become a punching bag," said Ogden, the senior winter sports vice president at IMG, the sports marketing and production conglomerate. "I don't quite get it."

Ogden, long an agent for skaters and a consultant to the International Skating Union, the world federation for figure and speed skating, was speaking from his New York office. He was just back from Japan, where figure skating's TV ratings are off the charts. He was heading to Zagreb, Croatia, where the European Championships were set to begin and where the sport thrives.

Ogden also is the executive producer of Smucker's Stars on Ice, a nightclub-like ice show in the United States that is set for 40 dates this winter and spring. It's surviving even as Collins' tour -- a more traditional figure skating show of Olympic routines -- fades.

"The sport is now global," Ogden said. "And it's cyclical."

Ogden said comparing interest today with interest in the aftermath of l'affaire Harding-and-Kerrigan -- when those Winter Games attracted some of the highest ratings in the history of television -- is "comparing it to a standard that's unmatched. You're comparing it to the soap opera."

Indeed, even though a gigantic tumble from the record-breaking Olympic ratings of '94, the 2007 U.S. nationals -- devoid of star power -- pulled down a 2.3 rating, outdrawing the Australian Open tennis matches and the NHL that weekend. In a day of diffused TV ratings, a 2.3 isn't catastrophic. And NBC, ramping up to its coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, is putting the nationals on prime-time TV Saturday and Sunday.

Ogden pointed to a poll of more than 25,000 Americans, conducted by TNS Sport, a Horsham, Pa., -based research firm. Figure skating still ranks sixth among those who say they consider themselves fans of any sport. That ranks behind only the NFL, MLB, college football, the NBA and college basketball.

Nearly 50 percent of Americans polled in 2007 said they consider themselves figure skating fans, if only a little bit. That number peaked at 61 percent in 1996 but has been rising again since a dip to 44.3 in 2005.

Ogden, too, mentioned the emergence of a new generation of U.S. skaters in advance of the 2010 Olympics. "The pipeline is filled with talent," he said.

For instance, Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu finished first and second in last year's world junior championships. "Jumping juveniles," is what NBC analyst Dick Button labeled them. Both were born in the spring of 1993, less than a year before Harding's henchmen assaulted Kerrigan.

"People are saying the sport is going away," Ogden said. "Well, it's not going away."

Sadly, Collins is. He's being honored at the national championships this weekend, this skater who started when Henie, the Babe Ruth of figure skating, was still spinning, when Harry Truman was president, when sons of gold miners escaped small-town Canada by hopping on trains to join barnstorming ice shows.

"Since I was 14, I dreamed of doing that," he said of seeking to avoid a life 4,500 feet under ground in northern Ontario, the life of his father.

Tonya and Nancy giveth. Harding and Kerrigan taketh away. Collins looked up at those framed magazine covers, wondering what's next, knowing that he and figure skating capitalized uniquely on the craziness of the 1994 Olympics.

"Without that, I'd be back in the mines of Kirkland Lake, Ontario," Collins said.

"I had a great run.''

Jay Weiner is a sports journalist based in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at jay@jayweiner.com.