Figure skating and gymnastics are obscure sports for the few. Gymnastics persists on subsidies from taxpayers provided by schools and on profitable private training centers. Figure skating lacks the schools and depends upon ice rinks with higher costs and lesser profit margins. Its athletes for the first half of last century were mostly daughters of the wealthy who also played tennis and became at age 18, debutantes. Their families could afford it.
Television of the Olympics put figure skating and gymnastics on a larger map. An attack by Olympic hopeful Tonya Harding’s husband upon rival skater Nancy Kerrigan anticipating the Olympics put the sport up front on the TV screen for the ensuing decades, bringing millions of dollars in TV rights fees to the producers of the competitions that the public enjoyed.
But a small sport with a handful of performers worth watching cannot hold the massive TV audience forever. That audience tired of seeing the same few skaters doing the same few things and began to drift away. Ratings fell and TV rights fees vanished.
The sports’s governors meanwhile dealt with a judging scandal by scrapping its scoring system in favor on one awarding points for the accomplishment of specific tricks, an approach borrowed from gymnastics. To little surprise, tricks became everything and the music and dance qualities built into the sport by its ballet dancer originator Jackson Haines, faded. Seeing little to entertain anymore, the audience faded as well.
Meantime, the big ice shows disappeared with TV interest and there is no longer any post-competition career to justify the investment and sacrifice needed to reach the top of the sport. Now, most competitions involve skinny juvenile girls built for high revolutions in the air and for low audience interest. Few boys bother. And rinks are running afoul government policies aimed at restricting energy use and legal assaults over injuries.
The gymnasts have noticed that their points per trick judging system has produced too many unsuccessful attempts and reduced their audience; gymnastic officials are remarking upon the need for change. Figure skating officials with their parallel problem, remain silent. But figure skating fans are not silent; they are pointing to the gymnasts’ remarks and expecting a response from their own sport. The theory is that a return to more artistic performances will return the audience.
It will improve the appeal of the sport, but the audience is gone; it will not return. Its members are aging and fewer and there is nothing to put more artistic performances before new generations in large enough numbers to return the impact of the days of yore. The sport costs too much, is too difficult and offers too few prospects after competing so the quality of performances is not sustainable. Its avoidance by boys further restricts its appeal. The rinks upon which it depends are financially marginal. These are existential issues.
Certainly, returning the sport to its more artistic roots will improve its appeal but too few will notice to matter much. It needs to be less difficult so more can contend successfully, it needs to find a way to interest boys and it needs to reduce the cost of training to enlarge its base and thereby, help to keep the rinks it needs, open.
In the meantime, joining gymnastics in correcting the mistaken adoption of a trick-oriented judging system will be an improvement. We and the other die-hard fans still extant, will notice. Few others will …