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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Commentary: NBC’s mandated extension puts skaters in bind

Philip Hersh Chicago Tribune

Figure skating has a scoring system only a computer could love.

The judging accentuates the negative by nitpicking performances and demands technical requirements that lead to tediously repetitive routines.

As if that hadn’t damaged the sport enough, here comes another turnoff:

This year, the U.S. Championship that begins today in Spokane will drag across two weekends – with three dark days in the middle – to satisfy NBC’s programming demands.

Not only has that forced many cash-strapped fans and media to make a choice about which part to attend – pairs and men this weekend, ice dance and women next – it has created a conundrum for the men and pairs skaters who do well enough to earn a spot in the Jan. 24 exhibition.

Do they go back to their training base during the days off, which could mean tiresome, extra coast-to-coast travel with at least one connecting flight, or do they hang around in Spokane, where the results will determine who skates in the upcoming Olympics?

Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, who trains in New Jersey, called the two-weekend schedule “so stupid.”

“It’s just a hassle, especially this close to the Olympic Games,” said Weir, who plans to travel home during the break.

Reigning U.S. pairs champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker are planning to stay in Spokane 13 days because they did not want the extra flights – even from relatively close Southern California.

Jeremy Abbott, the defending men’s champion, will return to train in Detroit and is not concerned about the two long trips so close together – the second only three weeks before the Olympic competition begins.

Several major news organizations that always have staffed the entire championships, including the Washington Post and Boston Globe, are skipping one weekend.

That means less coverage for a sport in need of more.

U.S. Figure Skating has no choice but to do what NBC wants, since no other network was interested in the sport when the federation lost its long-term ABC sponsorship in 2008.

At least Spokane seems likely to greet these U.S. Championships as passionately as it did the five-day nationals the city hosted in 2007, when the event’s record total attendance (154,893) was 23 percent higher than any other nationals in history. Advance sales this year are over 140,000.

“In 2007, the audience was incredible,” Weir said. “The rink is a perfect size (10,000 seats), and they filled every event.”

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