How Tonya, Nancy helped their sport

While it was the Tonya-Nancy affair that fully ignited the figure skating craze, the sport had already been poised for takeoff. Scott Hamilton and Katarina Witt raised popularity at the 1984 Olympics, and it increased with the Dueling Carmens (Witt and Debi Thomas, who both skated to music from the "Carmen" opera in their long programs) and the Battle of the Brians (Boitano and Orser) at the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta.

That, plus the quality of that era's skaters, helped maintain the sport's popularity even after Kerrigan and Harding.

"A lot of it had to do with introducing skating to an audience that had not watched it, but to hold on to that audience, you had to be good," Boitano said. "It had to be something they wanted to watch. Those years were fantastic. Remember the 1970s and there were all the tennis greats, like Bjorn Borg? We had that same thing. We had all of us. The public liked all of us, and we traveled together and we performed together. It was a group effort -- it's not one person who can make a sport popular. It's a group.

"And that's what we don't have now."

Said Hughes, "When you're a young skater now, you don't really get to see people at the top of their sport." 

Indeed, Tom Collins, who owned the "Champions on Ice" tour, said bookings dropped from 100 dates a year at the peak of the skating craze to about 25 a year before he sold the tour in 2006 to Anschutz Entertainment Group (which closed the U.S. tour in 2007). In comparison to the Tonya-Nancy ratings, Saturday's women's final at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships drew a mere 0.7 rating.

What happened? Collins wonders whether figure skating simply oversaturated fans with all the shows in the '90s.

"I just wonder if maybe we didn't jam things down the American public's throat, beginning with TV almost every night," Collins said. "With the same skaters, the same costumes, the same music, the same choreography, it was just such a glut of skating on TV.

"Twenty years later, skating is having an extremely hard time now. It isn't what it used to be. It's pretty sad in a way."

That could very well be part of it, but much of the blame is due to the scoring system that was brought in after the 2002 Olympics judging scandal. Designed to eliminate cheating, the system is so complicated that you don't need "Figure Skating for Dummies" to understand it; you need "Figure Skating for Google and NASA Engineers."

Before, everyone knew the best score was a 6.0, but now, only the most obsessive fans can understand the scoring. Before the 2010 Olympics, Carroll acknowledged even he didn't know what a good score was for a short program. "I'm squinting like this and the marks come up and [men's figure skater] Evan [Lysacek] will say, 'My God, that's great!' and I'll think, 'Is it?'"

Worse, although the new scoring system is fairer to skaters, Stojko says it has hurt the sport by homogenizing the skaters and taking away the personalities.

"Now, everything has to be the same. You can put on any music to these programs," he said. "It's hard to stop and catch a moment, to take a breath and pull in the audience, and show a character and show personality -- and that's what people love."

With all the moves, jumps and footwork required to boost point totals, skaters simply don't have the room for something like Philippe Candeloro's electrifying sword-fight routine at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The sport has become skating by numbers.

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