Figure Skating's Popularity Decline
In 1993, Figure Skating was the SECOND most popular spectator sport.
In the 1993 National Sports Study II, considered by the Associated Press as the largest study of spectator sport popularity in America, ladies' figure skating was the second most popular spectator sport in America, just behind NFL football out of over 100 sports surveyed. The 1993 study found that three figure skaters – Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming, and Scott Hamilton were among the eight most popular athletes in the United States, out of over 800 athletes surveyed. Dorothy Hamill was statistically tied with Mary Lou Retton as the most popular athlete in America. The Tonya Harding scandal in 1994 increased interest in figure skating. The first night of the ladies' figure skating competition in the 1994 Winter Olympics achieved higher TV Nielsen ratings than that year's Super Bowl and was the most watched sports television program of all-time, to that date.
In 2001, figure skating was the 4th most popular sport beating out college basketball.
Now, figure skating does not even make the top ten.
What happened and what can we do to change this?
i think a lot of it has to do with the judging system as much as i prefer it to 6.0. to a spectator who doesn't know much about skating it's difficult to understand the rules and numbers. i also think it's because airtime on TV has gone way down. i've seen footage on youtube of when they used to show sectionals on channels like ESPN. only in my dreams would that happen again. now they don't show hardly anything, and the only competitions that are televised are the final groups of the LP on the GP series and nationals, and worlds. maybe 4CC but can't remember off the top of my head...they can't even show short programs anymore. they have made more room for other "real" sports according to the public eye. a lot of people don't think skating is a sport and i'm sure that also has something to do with it. it makes me very sad that this sport is dwindling in more than just popularity. i very much like the idea of the new system, but it also needs to be simplified in a sense to make it easier to understand. 6.0 was very unfair in a lot of situations (i've had first hand experience). but i really miss the airtime skating used to have...now all i can rely on is IN and youtube.
Seeing lots of empty seats (on TV) in the Omaha arena during Nationals was depressing.
Six Point Zero
It could be due to a combination of many factors. Perhaps generational differences, changes in judging systems, reduced air-time, though for the last it's hard to say if it originally caused the decline or is merely a consequence thereof. Luckily figure skating is taking off in Asia and just needs to take root in China. It's already pretty big in Japan and growing in Korea. China needs its own figure skating star to rapidly boost the sport's popularity there. Shen/Zhao are pair skaters so the appeal is limited, and Chen Lu was a bit ahead of the times and achieved her World title and Olympic medals when China was still a poor, moderately developing country. The time is just about right for a Chinese girl to grab the spotlight after Sochi, especially as the next Winter games after Sochi are in Asia (Korea). So I think figure skating per se still has a good future, but in Asia, not North America.
As for figure skating in the United States, there's not much hope, I feel, of reviving its popularity and appeal. It might moderately get more airtime with a new star who can consistently deliver (maybe Gracie?), but it won't be anywhere near where it was in the 1990's. The combination of stuffy artistry and technical complexity (especially after IJS) just doesn't have much wide appeal in the U.S. to begin with.
Figure Skating's Popularity Decline
I agree the lack of television broadcasting has affected interest in Figure Skating, but I don't think lack of understanding of the scoring system is as influential as many people seem to believe. I think back to the time before I became a Figure Skating fan. I didn't understand how they would calculate a score of 5.7, nor did I care. All I needed to know was that 5.8 was better than 5.7. Today they can get scores like 165.45, but the casual fan only needs to know 165.46 is better.
If a skater wins with two falls over someone with one fall, then a casual fan would think that was just wrong. A casual fan doesn't understand about the finer points of Figure Skating like footwork, deep edges, etc. But that reflects a lack of understanding regarding Figure Skating itself, not the details of the scoring system.
Last edited by rvi5; 01-31-2013 at 10:28 PM.
I think that the decline in the U.S. is also due to the over-saturation of the sport on TV and news outlets throughout the 90s and early 2000s at the Nancy-Tonya saga/fiasco/***-was-that; as suggested in a book by Christine Brennan, I believe. Suddenly, skating was so much more interesting because of an entirely different reason. There were just so many cheesefests, pro-competitions, cheesy competitions, and fluff pieces that whatever channel you flipped through, there it was. Naturally, people became tired of it and as there was no clear and absolute front-runner after Michelle and Sasha left the amateur ranks and many pros retired, so skating quickly went on the back-burner.
Of course, the changed judging system doesn't help matters much, but I really, really doubt that that was the only factor. Also, I'm pretty sure figure skating is the most, if not one of the most-watched Winter Olympics sports there is.
I would take issue with the last paragraph just a little.
Originally Posted by Krislite
You acknowledge that skating's popularity in Asia is on the ascendant (and still has upside potential), despite the stuffy artistry and technical complexity. The only thing that separates the situation in Asia with that of North America, it seems to me, is that the established ice queens happen to be Asian at this juncture.
Or are you arguing that Asians are just better at math than Americans, who need remedial classes in arithmetic to learn how to count IJS points?
Last edited by Robeye; 01-31-2013 at 11:56 PM.
The judging system is partly to blame. The simple fact is that you could hear "5.8" and know its relationship to 6.0 meant that the skater had done very well, and if you heard "5.1", you knew that skater had not done as well. So if skater one got the 5.8 range, the casual viewer knows "that may be a medal winner" and when skater two got 5.1 range, they knew it probably wouldn't hold up for the podium. Those of us who are serious fans know what range in IJS means an excellent score versus a mediocre one, but someone looking for something to watch on Sunday afternoon does not. They have no idea what "108.34" indicates, because there is no top number to relate it to.
A friend who last watched skating some time around the 2002 Olympics went to the junior ladies short program with me in Omaha last Monday. She said that her family stopped trying to watch after IJS because "it never really made sense". She has a better idea now from watching the competition with me. But she is still a bit befuddled by the whole thing and not planning to tune in again unless it is convenient and there is nothing else to watch or do.
I read elsewhere around the net that this could be fixed by television commentators "educating" fans. I'm not sure about that. The "casual fan" looking for weekend entertainment doesn't want to work at understanding that entertainment. Being educated is not really relaxing on a Sunday afternoon in winter. Spectator sports are chiefly entertainment whether serious fans of any sport like it or not. We can all watch the Super Bowl and understand the basics--everyone in America can identify when a touchdown is scored even if they do not know the finer points of offensive and defensive schemes. Skating has lost the first part of the equation--the basics of who will be at the top and who will not is no longer easy to identify without understanding complex scoring matters like under rotations, edge calls, levels and features, etc...
I have to agree that the judging system has become way too arcane. I can't explain skating to my friends and sometimes can't explain it to myself. But I still love it, though I regret the trough American ladies and men seem to be in. I don't know whether an American lady superstar would boost the sport's image in this country. Strictly on those terms, I think Gracie is the go-to skater, but she's got to live up to her hype.
I can't imagine how Kardashians, who exhibit no talent whatever, manage to make themselves so visible on TV and on magazine covers, while skating can't catch a break--we do, after all, have the glamorous Meryl and Charlie--but maybe some smart PR person can figure out a way to give skating some traction, without creating a scandalous, trashy image. Or is that asking for too much?
Off the ice
Is there a reason this thread is called "Figure Skating's Popularity Decline" without the "In the US" added on the end? I realize it's frustrating for US fans to get less and less coverage, but to generalize these difficulties as though they hold true for every country is really inaccurate and, as a non-American fan, kind of annoying.
As for the US: skating is a niche sport and there is a lot more to choose from on TV these days. It's no longer expected that girls/women only go for traditionally feminine sports, so that probably doesn't help. Less TV coverage on mainstream channels. Commentators who not only don't really explain the scoring system well (at best) and moan about how difficult it is to understand (at worst) - seriously, it's not rocket science, if people can follow a football game and understand sabermetrics, figuring out what GOEs are isn't beyond them. No America's ice princess in a country where there has always been less interest in the three other disciplines. Yuna kim being Korean rather than Korean-American. Take your pick, they're all true.
Basically figure skating has always been a niche sport and never was as popular as football or basketball here in the US. Now with trashy reality shows in the last decade and the internet it simply can't compete. We like drama and skating is just to civilized and quiet for the masses.
Good points, Buttercup, about its being mostly in the U.S. that skating has declined in popularity and that following the skating judging system is no different from following football rules. (Except for folk like me. I have to say that I don't follow football at all, and I've had people try to explain it to me with diagrams on clipboards. I'd do better with rocket science, or at least some aspects of it.)
The lack of an American ice princess (nay, ice queen!) is definitely a factor. Fortunately, I found myself to be more flexible than I had assumed about this aspect of skating. I am devoted to Takahashi, thrilled to tears with both Mao and YuNa (and delighted that both are in the mix for Sochi), and in awe of S/S in pairs. And surprised as heck that my favorite ice dancers in the entire world are from the U.S., of all places. Go, Meryl and Charlie! (Though I'm just a smidge less in love with Tessa and Scott and rejoice in every gold they win.)
Last edited by Olympia; 02-01-2013 at 12:48 PM.
Off the ice
Being from a country not exactly known for its skating prowess, I've always been in that position - I never had TV commentators pushing anyone on me or felt compelled to support people from my own country for the win. So it's worked out well for me. I think being a fan is much more interesting and enjoyable when you're not tied to skaters from your country. I do tend to prefer European skaters, but I have favorites from other places, too.
Originally Posted by Olympia
What can be done to increase the popularity of American skating? Let me think ....................
A good start might be for the judges to start judging what they see on the ice, and not what happened 2 months ago.
I agree with this. However, there's nothing standing in the way of the ISU taking away more points for a fall, perhaps 3 instead of 1. The better skaters will still win if they are clean or have minor mistakes but this could give the sport a bit more credibility if programs with visual errors place below those with mistakes that are less noticeable.
Originally Posted by rvi5