Spokane is getting ready to host U.S. Figure Skating’s latest effort to increase the exposure of a sport that once regularly produced household names and now struggles to recapture its relevance.
Spokane, mostly through the efforts of Toby Steward and Barb Beddor, landed the inaugural Team Challenge Cup, which will bring some of the top skaters in the world to the Spokane Arena on April 22-24 for a team-based competition that will be broadcast around the world.
Skaters such as Peggy Flemming, Dorothy Hamill and Scott Hamilton still carry instant recognition for their decades-ago successes on the ice. But would anyone recognize the U.S.’s current leading male skater, Jason Brown, if he was walking down Sprague Avenue?
“It’s a good question. It comes back to competing and winning,” said David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating. “I think that when you do have people on top of the podium, they will become household names.
“That’s part of the reason for the Team Challenge Cup: More opportunities to compete on the international level and have that opportunity.”
The U.S.’s most recent world champion was Evan Lysacek, who won in 2009 and also won the Olympic gold in 2010. The last woman world champion was Kimmie Meissner in 2006 and the last Olympic gold medal winner was Sarah Hughes in 2002.
Ice dancers have fared much better with Meryl Davis and Charlie White winning the world championships in 2011, 2013 and an Olympic gold medal in 2014. Madison Chock and Evan Bates won a silver medal last year in the world championships.
In pairs skating, the U.S. hasn’t had medalists since 2002 when Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman won a bronze at the world championships. The last Olympic pairs skaters to medal were Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard in 1988.
But the U.S. hasn’t had a mega star since Michelle Kwan. She won nine U.S. championships, five world titles — with the last coming in 2003 – and she also twice medaled in the Olympics (1998 silver, 2002 bronze).
“We do everything we can to support our skaters, from coaching to mentoring … to win at the international level,” Raith said. “We have to push events in this country in addition to sending them around the world.”
As for the next great lady’s champion, Raith and Ramsey Baker, U.S. Figure Skating’s chief marketing officer, both believe the U.S. could be on the verge with current U.S. Champion Gracie Gold. In addition to Gold, U.S. skaters Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds are all ranked in the top 12 in international rankings.
“Gracie Gold has a marketer’s dream name,” Baker said. “Leading into the Olympics in Sochi, Gracie was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.”
But she finished off the podium in fourth place.
“I think our conversation is different if she does finish on that podium,” Baker said. “She was poised to be that household name that you are looking for.”
Gold was among the personalities, along with Olympic and world champion Kristi Yamaguchi, who came to Spokane last September when U.S. Figure Skating announced that Spokane would host the Team Challenge Cup.
What is it?
The format of the Team Challenge Cup will follow the team skating competition, which had its debut in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. It combines individual, pairs and ice dancing skaters who all compete as a team. The team with the highest combined score wins.
Skating officials will announce on Feb. 29 who will skate for team North America, which will include skaters from U.S. and Canada. In the following days, officials will then announce the skaters from Team Asia and Team Europe.
Skating already has a similar event in the odd years, called the World Team Trophy. It’s a national team event that features the six best teams.
“But in the even years … we had no season-ending event other than the world championships,” Raith said. “We believed there was a void there. We want to see this become the season-ending event.”
Instead of just six countries involved in the World Team Trophy, the Team Challenge Cup will involve individual skaters from as many as 12 countries to make up the three teams.
“We think that this will help our athletes, just in their technical ability, to learn and see how other people compete and prepare,” Raith said. “If they are together on a team, we feel that is a positive.”
Selling the product
Raith and Baker said they had no problem finding television partners for the event. The Team Challenge Cup will be broadcast by CBS and hosted by skating great Scott Hamilton. It also will be broadcast live by U.S. Figure Skating’s Icenetwork and by Nippon TV from Japan.
“In building household names, you have to build opportunities for them to be in the public,” Baker said. “The more figure skating grows, the more we are able to turn around and support the athletes.”
Raith previously worked with Turner Broadcasting and the Goodwill Games before becoming executive director of U.S. Figure Skating in 2005.
“The three sports that we had in the Goodwill Games that drew my attention were figure skating, gymnastics and track,” Raith said. “In one, there is a clear-cut winner. The other two were all subjective.
“I like that little controversy. I like where it’s not totally clear cut,” he continued. “I have no problems with gray areas.”
While neither man wanted a repeat of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident in 1994, when Kerrigan was attacked after a practice session of the U.S. championships, both said rivalries are a good thing for the sport.
“That gray area is something we have celebrated in the past,” Baker said. “That little bit of controversy is healthy.”
In the world of social media, skating officials want fans to debate who won and why.
“The more conversation you have, that’s something that can help elevate the sport,” Baker said. “The idea of rivalries … with the fact that our fans can be passionate, will take us into the mainstream and create household names.”
Raith said he hopes the next progression in ice skating’s future starts with a brand new event, which gets its debut in the Lilac City.
“We have the exposure,” Raith said. “We just need to have athletes on the podium.”
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