With regard to popularity, there’s a standard boom-and-bust cycle for figure skating and gymnastics: high ratings during the Olympics and significant drop-offs during their “off” years. But in the last eight years, figure skating has experienced a more significant downturn. After the 1994 Olympics and “The Whack Heard ’Round the World,” the sport’s ratings (and the athletes’ earnings) were at their all-time peak. These types of numbers—the prime-time telecast of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan’s technical programs was, at the time, the third-highest-rated sporting event in U.S. television history—weren’t going to be sustainable unless figure skaters kept on attacking one another. Yet figure skating has continued to slip. The U.S. TV ratings in 2006 were the lowest ever for skating at the Winter Games, and things did not improve in 2010. (The sport, however, is still tops in the Winter Olympics.)
During off years, the figure skating world championships aren’t even televised in the United States. Last year, USA Today’s Christine Brennan waxed melodramatic when writing about figure skating’s downturn, explaining that “one former U.S. Olympic coach, Audrey Weisiger, [had] to find a webcast on a Latvian TV web site for the week.” There’s a lot here that’s over the top—hard times, Latvia—but it speaks to the profound sense of anxiety that fans and officials feel about skating’s change of fortune. It’s hard to go from being the most popular girl in the room to being completely ignored.
Gymnastics, on the other hand, never had its version of the post–Tonya Harding boom, so the bust part of its cycle hasn’t hurt nearly as much. And the sport is doing just fine during Olympic years. Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas was the most clicked-on athlete on NBCOlympics.com. (McKayla Maroney, of “not impressed” fame, wasn’t too far behind.) The U.S. ratings for gymnastics in London were the highest since 1996.
During off years, gymnastics still gets air time. In addition to the national championships, the world championships are shown on network TV even if the broadcast date is delayed by a few weeks. And the American Cup is shown live every year on network television. Though this doesn’t match the Olympic-year zeal, it’s still more than figure skating is enjoying at the moment.
Brennan and others blame figure skating’s decline on the new judging system implemented after the cheating scandals at the 2002 Olympics. In the wake of alleged collusion to favor Russian skaters in Salt Lake City, the sport abandoned the “Perfect 6” in favor of a more “objective” and technical method of evaluation. According to Brennan, this was a marketing disaster for the sport. But gymnastics did the same a few years later, abandoning the Perfect 10 after its own judging controversy at the 2004 Olympics. This move, while still being debated by fans, coaches, and athletes, doesn’t seem to have diminished the public’s appetite for Olympic gymnastics. And I doubt it’s the reason behind skating’s downward turn.
Skating, at least in America, has lost more than its iconic scoring system in the last decade—it has lost its stars. By contrast to America’s female gymnasts, who have been the dominant force in international gymnastics for the last decade, it has been eight years since a female U.S. figure skater has won an individual medal in world or Olympic competition.*
Figure skating had been dominated for more than a decade by a handful of champions, most notably Michelle Kwan, a nine-time national champion, five-time world champion, and two-time Olympic medalist. There were undoubtedly viewers who were more fans of Kwan than of the sport and lost interest when she retired in 2006 after a senior career spanning more than a decade.
Gymnastics never had it so good—it has always had to figure out how to create new stars every four years to drive interest and ratings. (The 1996 “Magnificent Seven” squad was unique in that the U.S. team was made up of Olympic veterans.) To do this, commentators have created a narrative to explain the previous generation’s disappearance, saying that female gymnasts have a shelf life akin to that of a dairy product. Viewers don’t come to the games expecting to see their favorites from four years ago. Rather, they’re expecting to be introduced to new athletes.
That figure skating became more reliant on a few key figures makes sense since it’s always been an individual sport. Each year, there are only two to three spots available to the United States for international competitions. With so few competitive opportunities, the “bench” in figure skating rarely gets a chance to skate in major competitions that the public sees. If the leaders are willing and healthy, they’re the ones who will compete for major titles.
Gymnastics has a team component for major competitions, which means there are always five to six slots available for athletes to fill. The more gymnasts are out there, the more choices fans have to latch onto, which gives them a reason to tune in. With larger teams, gymnastics also has the capacity to mix youth with experience more easily. This means that supporting players get to compete and sometimes become stars in their own right. For most of her senior career, Aly Raisman was considered a team athlete until she won the most medals of any American gymnast at the London Games. Ross, the youngest and least-known member of the squad, emerged to win several medals at the subsequent world championships.
The newly minted team competition might help figure skating create a bigger roster of stars and supporting players. But the way in which the teams are thrown together suggests otherwise. The slots for competitors at the Olympics are determined by individual placement at the previous year’s world championships. So a team such as South Korea, which didn’t qualify athletes in all of the categories, can’t play. This is why we have yet to see the transcendent Yuna Kim in action.
Though both competitors and fans seemed to enjoy the team event, throwing a bunch of skaters together in the kiss and cry won’t make the sport more popular in the United States. For skating to ascend once again, Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner will have to leave Sochi with medals around their necks. And if they don’t, it’ll be four more years until figure skating has another shot at glory.
*Correction, Feb. 12, 2014: This article originally misstated that it’s been eight years since a U.S. figure skater has won a medal in world or Olympic competition. It’s been eight years since a female U.S. figure skater won an individual medal. (Return.)