Monday, January 04, 2010

25 Years

Jan/Feb 2010 PS Magazine

The year was 1985. My first year as a performer with Disney on Ice and the year I met my wife, Jamie. You may recall the Chicago Bears won Superbowl XX that year, embarrassing the Patriots 46 – 10. In 1985, Windows 1.0 was introduced and the first .com registered. Brian Boitano won the first of his four consecutive national titles. Sandy Lamb was president of the Professional Skaters Guild of America; the first woman to hold that position. But two of the most fruitful changes of that time were the move of the PSGA from Buffalo, New York to Rochester, Minnesota and the hiring of Carole Shulman as its executive director; not only a change of address but a new beginning for the association and facelift for the newsletter.
The “Professional Skater” – PS Magazine was introduced with the March/ April Issue. In 1985, PS Magazine had a circulation of 1100, with the membership of the PSGA at 925. The two-color magazine continued to publish six times per year. Twenty-five years later, we have almost topped 6500 members and the magazine is printed in full color. It continues to be the face of the PSA and one of our more significant contributions to keeping the coaches up to date with the constant changes in our industry.
But more importantly, looking back to 1985, there has never been a greater time of growth and change in skating. Our sport transformed itself in 1990, when school figures were eliminated from all International and World competitions. Although the PSA spoke out strongly against it, by 1999 figures were gone and moves of the field were in. Also in 1990, the eligibility rules were rewritten by the ISU, allowing skaters to earn considerable amounts of income from appearance fees in shows like Tom Collins Champions on Ice, IMG’s Stars on Ice, Witt and Boitano’s “Skating” or even teaching fellow skaters (“considerable income” does not refer to teaching).
Both decisions were meant to popularize competitive skating on TV, but paled when compared to two major events that rocketed the popularity of skating to the stratosphere. First, the obvious: the “whack heard around the world” at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating National Championships in Detroit. The second, although subtle, was more discerning as CBS lost the rights to NFL football. Catching the network somewhat unprepared for the open football slots, CBS scrambled to fill the air-time with a plethora of made for TV competitions and shows, competing directly against ABC, who had been broadcasting figure skating on Wide World of Sports since 1962. The PSA’s own competition, the U.S. Open Professional Championships, was established in 1981 and first shown on ESPN in 1988, and continuing until 1995 on CBS, USA, and TBS. That year while the “amateurs” and their new TV partners enjoyed their popularity, Ice Capades quietly went out of business as their attendance fell, a consequence of skating’s novel popularity on TV, Disney on Ice, and the “Stars” and “Champions” tours. Although most industry leaders failed to recognize it, this was the first sign that the ISU’s 1990 Congress had made a grave error. Still the money and the popularity of “made for TV” skating competitions continued to rise, helping to create a building boom of rinks and skating schools. It didn’t take long for the ISU to learn, along with U.S.Figure Skating, that their “product” was being neglected as much of this new income was going to outsiders; agents and producers attracted to this emerging market.
So in 1995 the ISU introduced the ISU Champions Series, which would later change its name to the Grand Prix of Figure Skating. It was a game saving decision for the ISU, but a severe blow to the long established pro competitions like the U.S. Open, the World Professional Ice Skating Championships in Jaca, Spain and to another popular skating event, Candid Productions “The World Professional Championships.” Candid Productions, founded by Dick Button, produced the first championship in 1973. Mr. Button’s competitions, which included the World Challenge of Champions on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, continued to grow in both popularity and participation until it hit its high water mark in the mid 90’s. With the ISU’s Grand Prix and the influx of made for TV competitions, such as “The Ice Wars” and “The Rock and Roll Championships,” increased competition created havoc in an increasingly over-saturated market. At the height of popularity, U.S. Figure Skating and ABC signed a deal to televise U.S. Figure Skating events which ran from 1998 to 2007 for a sum reported as $10 million annually. Considering the run that Michelle Kwan had, I’m sure ABC was happy to pay, expecting the ratings to keep climbing.
ABC’s Doug Wilson said, “Skating is a marvelous, sweet pie. And when the popularity of it grew, a heck of a lot more people, driven by a buck, became interested. But the pie didn’t get bigger. The quality events didn’t get any bigger. So the pie got bigger with created events. Created for not necessarily the good of skating, but for the profit of those who were putting them on...”
U.S. Figure Skating was in great financial shape during the time of the ABC contract, with basic skills numbers almost doubling during that time. But there were warning signs; growth slowed considerably among the regular members with a total increase of just over 5%. Around the millennium, Nielsen ratings for professional skating competitions were declining and the TV networks were shifting towards a time-buy model. Prior to this model being introduced, producers would shop the rights to their programs, with most production expenses being picked up by the network. There was little risk for the producers as they got paid whether the network could sell the advertising or not. With the time-buy model, the producers would purchase the air time, pay for the production, and sell the ad space; they assumed all the risk and made less revenue.
While U.S.Figure Skating was on top of the world, the rest of the industry went through a phase of acquisitions and closings. Looking back at the demise of Ice Capades in February 1995, the company was sold for $10 million to International Family Entertainment Inc., whom announced plans to sell Capades six months later, and was then closed shortly after. The PSA’s U.S. Open did not have a television contract for 1996 but with their partner, Sports Marketing Marque Group, was broadcast on UPN in ’97 and NBC in ’98. There was no 1999 U.S. Open, as the Marque Group paid the PSA $100,000 and walked away, being bought by SFX for $100 million. Less than a month later, Magicworks sold to SFX for $118 million. Magicworks Entertainment, the producers of “Nutcracker on Ice” and the ill-fated Warner Brothers Family Ice Show, in 1998 purchased the largest independent figure skating management firm in the world, MARCO Entertainment for an undisclosed figure. Michael Rosenberg, MARCO president and CEO, took over Magicworks winter sports division. Rosenberg at the time represented Dorothy Hamill, Oksana Baiul, Linda Fratianne, Viktor Petrenko and Pasha Grishuk/Evgeny Platov and Elizabeth Manley to name a few. Candid Productions mirrored a similar fate. By 1999 Dick Button had also sold to SFX, who the following year sold to Clear Channel, who did nothing with the brand. Clear Channel paid $3 billion to SFX stockholders and assumed 1.1 billion in SFX debt. Kind of like buying a goldmine that you discover is pyrite. The gold rush was over.
During this same time, the PSA, under the guidance of Carole Shulman, PSA President Bob Mock and the future president, Gerry Lane, made a very bold move to purchase land in Rochester to build our own building. Dividing the land and selling two parcels of the original property more than paid for the original piece of land. In 2000 the PSA moved into the new building.
In the winter of 2002, hopes were high that Michele Kwan would finally grab her gold and lead the next wave of growth for the sport in the U.S. Unfortunately; she fell short of her goal, earning the bronze and making matters worse, a judge’s scandal of epic proportions exploded after the pair event. It’s not like anyone ever thought that there weren’t deals being made to fix competitions, but to have someone admit it was something else. The ISU made the only ruling it could choosing not to punish either team but to award them both gold medals. But the fact still remains that the people responsible went for the most part unpunished. With the popularity of the sport waning, the judge’s scandal of Salt Lake City did nothing to endear our sport to it fans.
Shortly thereafter, the ISU announced the new International Judging System. Designed to focus on the skaters rather than the judges, IJS evaluates a skater’s performance as opposed to comparing each skater to the next. Further more, the IJS judges’ marks are referred to by its detractors as “secret judging,” as each judge is anonymous. I’m sure that the ISU was hoping to take the focus off the judges, but that has not happened. Arguably, this has frustrated a shrinking fan base who have had difficulty understanding the results and no one to blame when their favorite skater doesn’t place. Fortunately, during this period of time, the U.S. Figure Skating Board of Directors recognized the current trend in ratings and determined that the ABC contract could not be duplicated, made plans to begin cutting costs and preparing for business with less capital.
In 2006 Carole Shulman retired, opening the door for myself. Carole left a legacy few could match, including the growth of the organization to over 6000 members and the building of our beautiful office in Rochester. Almost at the same time, U.S.Figure Skating hired their new Executive Director, David Raith, whose broad experience in television has allowed U.S. Figure Skating to return to broadcast television as well as launch Also during that time, Mitch Moyer was hired as the High Performance Director encouraging the growing cooperation between U.S.Figure Skating and the PSA.
Today the PSA is operating debt-free, having paid off the mortgage in 2008. Additionally, the association was able to move our investments from stocks to cash during the last year, realizing only a 7% loss of the value. The PSA continues to prepare for the future; first purchasing the current e-learning management system and developing a PSA/Dartfish.TV channel, available soon via the World Wide Web. Continuing our mission of coach’s education and accreditation, PSA added ISI as a partner. Together with U.S. Figure Skating and ISI, PSA hopes to improve the quality of coaching in the U.S. and beyond.
As Yogi Berra said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Our sport has changed enough that those “business models” that were successful in the past may not necessarily work today. That being said, the U.S. Championships will be shown on NBC live, in primetime and produced by U.S. Figure Skating and NBC; finally an opportunity to sell the sport on our terms. Looking back, the biggest decision made, debatably a mistake, was cashing in on the popularity of the sport with the ABC deal and if I were in that same position with the cash offered, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t make those same decisions. I think an interesting point to make is that by the time SFX sold itself to Clear Channel, they had acquired over 200 entertainment companies worldwide. SFX, who had no background in skating, had come along and spent at least $218 millions dollars to buy up Candid Productions, The Marquee Group, Magicworks (MARCO); three major players in the skating industry who cashed in and walked away.
Regardless, as we all know, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The PSA is prepared to grow; we are prepared to ride out the current storm, ready to catch the next big wave forward. So too I believe are ISI and U.S. Figure Skating. We are in control of our destiny and as our motto says, “Teamwork makes the dream work!”