Allison Reed and Vasili Rogov of Israel warm up before their practice session on Monday, March 11, 2013 at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont., in preparation for the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships. Skaters from around the globe are preparing for the competition, which starts on Wednesday.
Photograph by: Geoff Robins, AFP/Getty Images
LONDON, Ont. — “Sobering” is not an adjective often applied to any party thrown in the fair city of Calgary, but the 2006 world figure skating championships were every bit of that.
After a decade of off-the-charts popularity, when Canadians were packing NHL-sized buildings to watch the planet’s biggest stars — 17,000-plus for a 1993 nationals in Hamilton, the same for worlds in Edmonton (1996) and Vancouver (2001) — the Skate Canada formula hit a pothole at the Calgary worlds, coming a month after the Turin Olympics.
You’ve heard of the “aha” moment? This was the “uh-oh” moment: the instant when the national federation realized that life after the judging scandal of Salt Lake City was never going to be the same, even in the skating-craziest nation on earth.
And so the world championships of 2013, seven years since the last one held in Canada, have come for the first time ever to Southern Ontario ... but not to Toronto. Rather, to London, where the seating configuration at Budweiser Gardens — home of the OHL London Knights; a lovely but decidedly junior-sized hockey arena — is just a shade under 7,000.
“We’d be lost in Toronto,” admitted the chair of the London worlds organizing committee, Skate Canada finance director Bill Boland. “Other cities expressed interest — Quebec City, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Calgary — (but) we’d have been looking at MTS Centre, Scotiabank Place ... where we’re at, we’re looking to go into facilities where we can get community engagement, which has been huge here in this city.
“And the athletes will tell you they’d rather skate in a building that has 7,000 seats but is filled than an 18,000-seat venue that’s two-thirds empty.”
It’s the same argument as the one put forward for playing a Davis Cup tie at the University of British Columbia. They could put more people into Rogers Arena or even the Pacific Coliseum, but the intimacy of a full house is impossible to duplicate in a half-filled cavern.
“My honest opinion, I don’t think it’s ever coming back the way it was, but we can move on and accept what is,” says David Dore, the former Skate Canada chief who’s now vice-president of the International Skating Union.
“I think there’s been so many changes in the sports world in general, the social media world, the ways people can access our sport now have changed.
“I’d rather see the huge excitement that’s here around a 7,000-seat building than to see us trying to fill a 17,000-seat building with half-disinterested people. I haven’t seen this level of enthusiasm and involvement in a long time — not in North America, anyway. I just saw it at Four Continents in Osaka.”
“From a revenue point of view, we have exceeded our projections,” Boland said. “Now, would we like to put 18,000 back into an arena somewhere? Sure. But that’s not the reality. Except maybe in Japan.”
Indeed, Asia has become the skating hotbed that North America used to be in the golden years, when the Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding, Tara Lipinski, Michelle Kwan succession of women’s champions lit up the American airwaves the way the Kurt Browning-Elvis Stojko duel did in Canada.
“Now, you can’t put enough [major skating events] in Asia,” said Dore, who’s the ISU’s point-man at these championships in the absence of the president Ottavio Cinquanta.
“You can put an event on now in Japan, and the tickets are all gone in 15 minutes. I did sit in Japan (at Four Continents) thinking: this really is shades of my past.”
Canada was, for a time, on a once-in-every-five years rotation as worlds host. Now, it’s been seven years, and it may be another seven.
“We’ve got to go where the money is and we’ve got to go where we will see people,” said Dore.
Here in Canada, the quality of skating is probably at a higher level than it has ever been, notwithstanding the three-medal haul of Brian Orser, Liz Manley and Tracy Wilson/Rob McCall at the Calgary Olympics.
The ice dance team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir has an Olympic gold and two world titles, Patrick Chan is coming off consecutive men’s crowns, and there is quality coming up in all four disciplines.
But something about the game has lost its mojo. No doubt, it’s a combination of the fallout from the judging scandal in Salt Lake City that eventually elevated Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier to Olympic gold — but at the cost of an enormous black eye for the sport — and the subsequent change to a point-based scoring system that audiences have been slow to embrace.
In North America, and definitely in most of Europe, where the economies have tanked, skating has never recovered its former prestige.
Early predictions that audiences would take to the new scoring system after a few years have not been borne out. The hunch is that it might take a full generation for the old 6.0 crowd to give up the ghost, and for audiences to recognize (and the ISU to more strenuously promote) record-setting skates.
In the meantime, for Canada, the bar has been set lower for revenue generation, although it’s clear, as with the Davis Cup, that those who love the sport, love it a lot.
Case in point: all-event tickets to these worlds are going for $1,130 to $1,350. That’s comparable to the ransom charged in Nice, France last March, but it was a harder sell than anticipated in London, even with as much community support and enthusiasm as a medium-sized city could muster.
“But what is encouraging is that the demographics, which have tended to be female, and older, are changing with technology, Twitter, what’s happening with the internet and a younger audience’s connection with the skaters,” said Boland.
“And we have 190,000 members in this country. We’re still the largest skating federation in the world, and that obviously includes CanSkate, which is where Patrick started and where (Carolina Hurricanes’) Jeff Skinner started — he was our juvenile men’s podium winner at one time — so that’s important.
“Will it ever come back all the way? Ever is a long time. I’d like to think so. Is it going to be the next five or six years? Maybe not. But we’re certainly on the rise. And we now have a long-term sponsor for our Canadian championships, Canadian Tire, which takes us through the next two Olympic Games, and a 10-year TV deal for national events with CTV — CBC will do worlds, because the ISU negotiated that contract — so there’s a lot of positives that 5-6 years ago, we didn’t have.”
More positives, but fewer seats.
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