On Friday night, when some of the world's top figure skaters take the ice for the Stars on Ice exhibition at the Baltimore Arena, the lineup will be familiar: Kurt Browning, Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt. Even Tara Lipinski, at the comparatively young age of 19, has been in the show for four years now.
These veterans are still throwing triple jumps, still skating with the beauty and talent that made them champions. But even the most ardent fans are saying something they never thought they would: It's getting a little old.
After years of overexposure, of several televised skating events a weekend, the high-flying world of professional figure skating is hitting a rough patch.
ESPN's national sports poll shows a 15 percent drop in figure-skating fans over the last five years, more than most other sports. At a professional skating competition a few weeks ago in Washington, the MCI Center was only half full. And in the last few years, the number of professional figure-skating events broadcast on major television networks has dropped by about three-quarters, said Rick Gentile, executive producer of CBS Sports during the last three Winter Olympics.
"It's been a huge drop-off," said Gentile. "It was a tough sell in good times, and it's a tougher sell now."
That's not to say the sport isn't still a big favorite. Figure skating consistently ranks along with the NFL and NBA among the most popular in the country. Elite skaters like Browning are busy year-round. Amateur skating is flourishing, and many are looking to the coming Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City to mint new stars and reinvigorate the professional ranks.
But in trying to capitalize on the charismatic skaters and dramatic story lines of the 1990s - such as the infamous Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding debacle - some say promoters and TV networks have gone too far. Viewers have become confused if not put off by competitions that create awkward match-ups of male vs. female skaters, or veterans against newcomers, with celebrity judges and inconsistent rules.
"It's completely saturated. People are just tired of it," says Tom Collins, founder and owner of Champions on Ice, a tour of amateur and professional skaters that's been operating since 1969. He said his business has dropped off considerably. "It killed the golden goose."
Television networks that once paid six-figure sums for the rights to a figure-skating event now demand that the promoters find advertisers and take the risk themselves, says Stephen Disson, president of Disson Skating, producers of network figure-skating specials.
"There was too much skating," Disson says, "and you saw the same skaters doing the same numbers, sometimes on the same weekends on different networks."
Says Mark Lund, publisher of International Figure Skating, the sport's largest magazine: "For so long, the gravy train kept running and running and running, and now, it's run out."
The positive side
But those who represent professional skaters say business is still robust. They believe the slowdown is just part of a natural cycle; that after the huge years of the '90s, figure skating was bound to come back to earth, particularly with the recent economic slump that's affecting all sports. They point to the many top professional skaters who had their own television specials this year - Lipinski, Yamaguchi, Witt, Browning and Brian Boitano.
"I'm kind of glad that everyone is tightening their belts a little bit," said David Baden, an agent with IMG, a sports management and marketing firm that represents many of the world's top skaters. "What's out there now are some of the best shows we've seen."
Figure skating is unlike most other sports. While it requires athletes to vault themselves into the air, rotate three times and land on a blade 15/100ths of an inch wide, a skater's success is also dependent on the ability to dance, interpret music, pull together a beautiful program - and win over a panel of subjective judges.
"We're individuals. We don't wear helmets with masks. We're not part of a team," says Browning, a four-time world champion. "We're these little crusaders on our own trying to stand there with costumes and music and do the best we can. People either enjoy it or respect it. That's why they connect with it."
When Browning, 35, first started competing, the world of skating was straightforward: amateurs trained hard and competed. They weren't allowed to earn a dime. If they were good enough, they got to the world championships and Olympics. Afterward, most turned professional, though there were only a few options - going into shows like the Ice Capades or Disney on Ice.