Saturday, July 20, 2013

Elephant Bites pt.1: A Closer Look at One of the "Figure Skating is Dying" Claims

I’m finally back to tackle the Elephant Bite that is/was Christine Brennan’s post-Worlds article “Figure Skating is Dying, and Judges Can’t Prop it Up” (here’s the link if you haven’t read it yet). Quite a headline, right? I’ll get back to that.

I should say, at the outset, that I’m a long-standing fan of Brennan’s writing. She penned two books about figure skating in the ‘90s—The Inside Edge and Edge of Glory-- and while some die-hard supporters of the sport seem disinterested in what she had to say via those books, I was not one of them. She gets it, she enjoys it, she respects it—at least she does in my eyes. So I appreciate her continued (occasional) contributions to skating via USA Today, where she also writes about tennis and numerous other sports.

So I look at this particular piece of Brennan’s from this past March, and it pains me to find myself asking “why do I wish she’d written nothing at all?” But I do ask.

It’s not a bad article in that it’s accurate, concise, and well-written... those should be the GIVENS in journalism; they’re not, though, so when it happens it’s surely worth a mention. She discusses 2013 Worlds as a metaphor for the current state of skating itself:

·        The “tiny arena of not even 7,000 seats” in London, ON that often was not quite filled to capacity... ONE YEAR BEFORE THE OLYMPICS (a date she referred to multiple times, presumably to underscore the severity of the problem)
·        The fact that ISU Prez Ottavio Cinquanta didn’t bother to attend
·        The fact that no major U.S. TV network carried the Championships live (ignoring NBC’s week-delayed recap, for obvious reasons)
·        The controversial judging that gave Patrick Chan his third world title despite a seriously flawed free skate
·        The fact that figure skating isn’t as popular in the U.S. and Canada as it once was (guess when??)... and the all-too-familiar speculation as to why
·        The notion that what used to be embraced about figure skating is now more likely embraced by reality/competition shows like Dancing with the Stars—a notion that I, myself, covered in my book Skating on Air (still available for purchase, or at your local library!)
·        The speculation that skating “remains stuck in the past” for all the above reasons... and more.

So... never mind that the men’s and ladies finals were sold out enough that I could not buy a single ticket for the latter when I raided the London box office during my visit. Never mind that it’s unfair to expect Cinquanta to behave like a normal “president,” or person, for that matter. Never mind that the lack of U.S. TV coverage is about as “new” as a post-6.0 judging controversy.  Never mind the irrefutable skating talents taking the ice these days, and their stunning contributions to the sport thus far.

Never mind all that, I guess, when there are (still) Tonya/Nancy references to make...  (still) reminders to give that Worlds was, in that Tonya/Nancy era, able to get higher TV ratings than basketball’s March Madness...  and (still) painful glances to be taken at “skating’s dark underbelly” known as the 2002 Olympic Judging Scandal. It’s all still there, the agony and the ecstasy, waiting to be discussed again and again...

If you are an every-four-years fan of the sport, that is. But if you’re pitching to such fans, as Brennan appeared to do with her article... is the “skating is dying” theme really the one you want to go with? Aside from the obvious drama it creates, what good can possibly come from such a statement? Did she hope a high-powered Player To Be Named Later would see the article, break out the tights and cape, and vow to “save” skating from its demise? Or that it would cause current ISU members to be “scared straight”?

What if, instead, it leads some of those every-four-years fans to say “gee, that’s a shame... guess skating isn’t worth watching anymore”? And now she’s inadvertently giving an assist as skating loses even THOSE fans?

How difficult could it be to get in a lot of great digs about Speedy, and the judging, and the smaller world that skating reaches nearly 20 years after its popularity heyday... but ALSO convey the message that there is so much talent in this sport right now that makes it worth seeking out... even (gasp!) in a non-Olympic year??

Why, it’s not difficult at all. I just typed up the words on the screen, and there it is! How do you like that!

Now, if I can only get a high-powered Player To Be Named Later to convince Brennan to heed such an idea before she pens her next skating article...

NOTE: I’ll post my next ELEPHANT BITES required reading next time, amidst a sea of new program announcements from some of our favorites!


Isobel said...

I'm actually reading Inside Edge right now, and there's a chapter where she actually manages to outline all the problems the 6.0 system had even when the judges are generally honest(some, though not all, of which are actually fixed in CoP), and then goes and insinuates that only the US judges and maybe the occasional British judge are honest and all those evil Eastern Bloc judges aren't, and insists that that Paul Wylie and Nancy Kerrigan were both horribly robbed even while conceding that Wylie/Petrenko could've gone either way. I wanted to thank her and yell at her at the same time...I couldn't get through that article, I was so pissed off, but I really don't know what to do with Brennan in general.

cookie said...

I am a fan and really look forward to seeing it on tv for a cold winter's night entertainment. Last season, the airings of figure skating on network tv were so minimal. You know...if you build it, they will come...well if you show it, they will watch. (come on - the same people who like dancing with the stars would like figure skating) The whole sport needs a new agent... It needs some new juice...It needs Chris Jenner as a manager or Nancy's husband as a manager.

I will be very sad if it dies.

It really died when Michelle Kwan did not turn pro in all the glory that she she could have and do some tv specials. She and Hughs had to go off to college and ruined everything.

I think I just said it. Figure skating did die. How can we bloggers bring it back for the masses?

Vlad said...

Well, I understand what you mean Kelli. Sure, there is a big number of great skaters. We all just love to see their programs, no doubts.
But they deserve a fair play - that's the point.

From the sporting point of view S. Brennan is right. From the artistic one - I don't think so.-) There are lots of skaters, really passionate people who creates masterpieces on the ice. But the problem is that the present "system" kills skating as a sport. Brennan is also covers tennis - that is the example of how the sports should develop in modern era.

I think that not only ISU should be changed. Also, skaters must have their own profi-unions, as WTA and ATP in tennis. BTW, tennis had lots of problems in the middle of last century. When it went more profi, many problems automatically disappeared. Now, no one of national federations or ITF itself (International Tennis Federation) can "play" with athletes or decide in the manner of rus. skating fed, as it was in Menshov's case. It's hard to imagine that someone can say to Maria Sharapova: "Well, we decided that you should not compete here but you will compete there...or something like that). In tennis, athletes have a real independence and that is the key point of its successful development.

Also, lots of skating problems can be described in the following sentence: "One hand washes the other and everyone is afraid to tell the truth."

Jeff Chapman said...

Hi Kelli,

I believe the point that Christine was making was that changing the scoring rules to IJS essentially altered the sport such that it no longer attracts a popular, less technical audience. I don't think it necessarily "kills" the sport as gals and guys who are attracted to skating will still retain that desire. It may lessen audience enjoyment, true, and yet the ISU has never been terribly concerned about boosting an audience for money and sponsorships anyhow: they're not FIFA or MLB or any big outfit who manages multimillion dollar TV contracts anyway. Folks don't watch skating on TV and then go out to buy a Tai Babalonia T-shirt. In that sense skate stars are more like track or swimming athletes: they're lionized for their skills but that doesn't mean that the armchair admirer is heading out to give it a try on the weekend.

Speaking as a skating parent the change has been annoying, but not traumatic. From a viewer's perspective however it's been a disaster. Now I suffer through long hours of jump fall jump fall, with intermittent ten second displays of grace. Did IJS scoring kill skating? Not at all. Did it kill the audience? Absolutely. Should we care though? Even if we did care, does anyone have an alternative that will be fair, objective, and that still promotes "style". And then if we came up with that alternative what would be the motivation to implement it?

To some extent I'd bet ISU is between a rock and a hard place. Although it has a lengthy history and extensive culture, the sport doesn't have a particularly strong mandate, charter, or philosophical objective. It's not the Girl Scouts; it lacks a "mission". And it would be quite a challenge to put one together due to the diverse groups that it oversees.

Rose said...

I'm a bit late here, but figured I'd join in. I seem to recall discussing Brennan's column on GS or FSU when it first appeared, but I'm glad to see this take on it as well, and I very much agree with most of what you've written: I don't see what purpose this column serves. Skating is not going back to 6.0. It is not going back to the level of popularity it enjoyed when the TV and media market were far less fragmented. And Michelle Kwan and Yuna Kim aren't skaters who come along every day.

Skating is a niche sport and the question is how to best market it as a niche sport, not how to compete with mainstream sports and entertainment. ESPN will not report about Patrick Chan and Denis Ten ahead of LeBron or the Yankees.

I do think there are questions to be asked about whether the judging system and the actual judging are as good as they can be, and whether the constant tinkering with the scoring and the rules is in skating's best interests, but those aren't the questions Brennan is interested in addressing.

My one disagreement with you is that I have been less than impressed with Brennan for a long time by now. As a non-US skating fan, I find her extremely biased against many international skaters, to the point of downright nastiness (and regarding the judges as well, as Isobel's comment also indicates). Brennan may have done good work in the past, but I think one can find better reporting about skating these days in the blogs and the forums than in more traditional media.

Todd said...
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