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Is figure skating in a death spiral on TV?

Kimmie Meisner

KAI RYSSDAL: I bet if I asked you what the following people have in common, you'd come up with the answer pretty quickly. Here you go: Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hammil and Michelle Kwan.

Right, famous American figure skaters. Now try this one: Kimmie Meisner

.

If you're drawing a blank, join the club. Figure skaters aren't such a hot property anymore. Not even the brand-new U.S. champion, Kimmie Meisner. What was once television gold has moved down the podium a bit.

Our business-of-sports analyst Diana Nyad's got the figure skating news. Hi Diana.

DIANA NYAD: Kai, what's going on?

RYSSDAL: Well, I have a confession to make.

NYAD: What?

RYSSDAL: I'm a sports fan, and I didn't even know that figure skating was this past weekend.

NYAD: But do you usually watch figure skating?

RYSSDAL: I do.

NYAD: You do . . .

RYSSDAL: I like to watch it. And I especially like to watch the women, just because it's graceful and nice to watch and all that stuff. But it's a little embarrassing to say I read in the papers Sunday morning that Kimmie Meisner

had won.

NYAD: Yeah. This used to be one of the, you know, we call it the jewels . . . of American sports, anyway. And the U.S. championships were in Spokane, Washington . . .

RYSSDAL: Right.

NYAD: . . . last week. And I'm . . . you know, not to denigrate Spokane, great city . . .

RYSSDAL: Lovely town.

NYAD: It's a mid-sized city. Usually, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships are taking place, you know, in Madison Square Garden, because they have a huge, huge, you know, crowd coming in. And to be fair, they set attendance records in Spokane. That town went crazy. They loved having the championships there.

RYSSDAL: But nobody's watching on the tube. And if nobody watches on the tube, then there's not a whole lot of money.

NYAD: Yeah. The numbers were way down. I mean, if you take the numbers from the Torino Olympics were . . . exactly a year ago now.

RYSSDAL: Right.

And that's usually, you know, it's the star. It's what sets the advertising rates for the Olympics. The ladies' long program, especially that event. Well the ratings were down by 50 percent in Torino from the previous Olympic games, Salt Lake City.

Now we just come forward one year, they're down another 50 percent. And, you know, advertisers are looking out there saying, "It's not only the numbers that are down, but what's the pocket of people watching?"

RYSSDAL: Let me ask you about something we were talking about just before we turned the microphones on, and that is the audience for figure skating. Skews older, skews female . . .

NYAD: 70 percent women . . .

RYSSDAL: And one would think that they've got more disposable income than some 24-year-old guy who the only thing he wants to watch is the X Games.

NYAD: You know Kai, I've got to sit down with a Madison Avenue guru and say, you know, come on. Don't tell me that women my age after working, you know, all these years, don't have more disposable income and don't have more power in the retail marketplace than, as you say, a post-college 24-year-old boy. I just don't believe it.

RYSSDAL: You know, networks charge advertisers based on how many people are watching these games. So obviously, companies aren't willing to pony up now, either.

NYAD: No, it's plummeting. ESPN has the first right to refusal. In a couple of months, U.S. Figure Skating will negotiate with them. Well, guess what: there isn't gonna be a negotiation. ESPN wants the X Games, and wants those young-guy sports. And so they don't even want to pay the rights fees, about

12 million a year on the last deal. So they may say to figure skating you know what, we'll cover you, we'll put it on the air, maybe we'll draw a few people. That's fine. But, we're not gonna pay you any rights fees.

RYSSDAL: So how much of this is U.S. Figure Skating's fault for not marketing it the right way?

NYAD: Well, I think one big thing they did wrong in markteing was they put on a bunch of made-for-TV events. I know when I travel, I get into a hotel room . . . whether it's mid-afternoon, late at night, I turn on for the last few years: figure skating, figure skating, figure skating. Most of it is Skate America, Skate with the Stars . . . and it doesn't mean that that's not beautiful, but that's not sport and competition. We don't care who wins, we don't care who falls. You know, so, the Olympics coming every two years, staggering them . . . you know, it used to be every four years, and it was build up. Who's gonna win? And we'd sit on the edge of our seat, who's gonna make that triple axel? Well now it's like every two years, it's almost like we . . . we got oversaturated, I think, with figure skating.

RYSSDAL: Seems to me, though, that the Winter Olympics have just become more crowded. I mean, you've got snowboarding and extreme snowboarding, and all these other . . . not quite alternative sports but skewing younger sports that . . . I would guess take attention away from some of the more main line.

NYAD: They have not only taken attention away, they've obliterated the attention, honestly. It used to be, I mean, always . . . if you look through the years, who was the star of every Winter Olympic games? Who wound up on the cover of the Wheaties box? It was Peggy Fleming

. It was Dorothy Hamill

. And now, who came out of Turino? What's the name, remember? Shaun White

, the Flying Tomato.

RYSSDAL: The red-headed kid.

NYAD: Yeah. And he's great, but he ain't no figure skater.

RYSSDAL: All right, well, Vancouver 2010, I guess. Diana Nyad. Thank you, Diana.

NYAD: Thanks Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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