FS: Why Figure Skating Will Never be Mainstream Popular
I wrote this blog entry awhile ago and decided not to post it. But today, after I saw what the ISU is planning to do with the Scale of Values (SoV) which becomes effective July 1, 2018, this blog entry became more relevant to how I feel, frustrated. I will be writing a blog entry about my thoughts on the other new rule changes once the decisions are officially published next month but for now, here are my thoughts on why figure skating will never be a huge sport, and in fact, why I think the sport destined to remain only a once in every 4 years popular Olympic event.
As much as I love the sport of figure skating, it will never be mainstream popular with the masses like team sports. Is it trying to be? Perhaps no. The addition of the team event at the Olympics is meant to draw more viewers, however, it does not attract any additional people to become fans of the sport year round, it is just another medal event once every 4 years.
Aside from during the Olympics, the sport of figure skating just doesn’t have the power of mass appeal behind it. Sure, inside skater fandoms you have fans who live and breathe every moment of the athletes lives, but these are not the masses. Now, my opinion may be a bit biased because I am based in North America and where I’m from, the most popular sports are major league team sports. Ice Hockey (NHL), Football (NFL), Basketball (NBA), and Baseball (MLB) are the premium sporting events (and soccer of course).
In a rare event, a sport will get a diamond like a Yuzuru Hanyu who has mass appeal. However, as popular as Yuzu is, both in Japan and worldwide, you still cannot say that Yuzu has helped popularize the sport. Sure, Yuzu has attracted and increased the size of his own personal fanbase, but a lot of these fans are fleeting and follow Yuzu (the skater), not the sport of figure skating itself. Will these band wagon fans stick around once Yuzu retires? I suspect not as many have said as much. The spike in the interest in figure skating will continue to be generated only once every 4 years when the Winter Olympics roll around.
In light of the upcoming ISU Rule Changes expected during the 57th ISU Ordinary Congress meetings June 5-8, I personally don’t think that any of the changes that the ISU decides to make will increase the appeal of the sport to new fans. In my opinion, the proposed changes will do nothing to attract new figure skating fans, only aggravate existing long time fans like myself. Again, more on this later, once the rule changes have been officially announced.
Why will figure skating never be a huge sport with mass appeal? Here are the main challenges that I see.
- Number of games/events:
- Team sports generally have many games in a season in which fans can follow their progress. This frequency generates rivalries and interest in the sport.
- NHL: 82 games plus preseason per team
- MLB: 162 games plus preseason per team
- NBA: 82 games plus preseason per team
- NFL: 16 games plus preseason per team
- The figure skating Grand Prix series consists of 6 Grand Prix events which culminate in the Grand Prix Final where only 6 skaters in each discipline make the final. Skaters generally only attend 2 of the GP events in hopes to make the final.
- While Figure Skating is not a league with tons of games (home and away), how does a regular person become a fan of the sport when they barely get to see it? Only 1, maybe 2 GP events per year are within a reasonable time zone to watch. Not enough for fans to develop a serious interest in the sport.
- Availability of mediums to watch the sport:
- The International Skating Union (ISU) – while the ISU does provide live streams of their events, the key issue with their live streaming is the geo blocking. Due to television rights in certain countries, the ISU streams are not available if your country televises some of the events.
- Sports channels in North America do not show the entire event on tv. I understand in the case of the World Championships, trying to televise a 5-6 hour event (SP or LP) is cost prohibitive for them and a bit boring, however generally the tv coverage only shows last 2 groups of skaters. Then, to add insult to injury, sometimes the events are tape delayed and shown a week later. How is showing a live sporting event taped delayed, effective in growing the viewership?? I do not want to watch the Stanley Cup final or the Superbowl Championship a week later!
- The tv channels in my country have slowly started to increase the amount of live streaming they provide, finally showing both the short and long programs. However, this usually happens only in the couple of years leading up to the Olympics. My point is, if you don’t show the entire event on tv, and if the tv rights contract impacts the ISU streaming access for your country, then I believe that the tv stations that hold those rights should have to provide the streaming for the full event in lieu. Note: CBC is getting better on this – hopefully they keep moving forward with this during all the non-olympic years.
- Time zones in a global sport are an issue. Casual or aspiring fans are not yet invested enough or do not want to stay up until 3am to watch the events live. This is where I might understand tape delayed broadcasts, however the tv stations could still televise the event live if it is early morning programming with low viewership anyways. With most people having PVR’s they could record and watch at their leisure.
- The final alternative for aspiring fans is to watch videos on Youtube. Yet tv stations are pulling videos off of Youtube for copyright infringements, again limiting the amount of availability and exposure for new and existing fans.
- Not enough promotion. With the exception of Japan, the only time I have ever seen real promotion for skating events in North America is during the Olympics. However in between Olympic years, the events are not heavily promoted and unless you are part of the sport, you would not know about the events. The ISU (and it’s member nations) have to wake up and start working with major media networks worldwide (not just in Asia) to develop interest (or recapture lost interest) and promote visibility of the sport!! Even in non-Olympic years, there are plenty of interesting narratives they could build and promote! Educate the viewers, promote your athletes and fans may watch the sport more often!!
- Complexity of the sport:
- New fans have a lot to learn in order to understand figure skating, a lot more than other sports. This is a pretty big barrier to becoming a new fan of figure skating.
- Technical elements (jumps, spins, footwork etc) are straight forward if you grew up with them. However, the elements of figure skating (edges, takeoffs and landings) are a lot harder to decipher for a casual viewer, than say a touchdown in football, or a home run in baseball.
- The judging system is very complex. Trying to understand Base Values, and Grades of Execution are one thing, but the problem is that judging is that it is very subjective.
- The base values of elements are currently being changed, and to add more confusion to potentially new fans, the ISU is now telling potential viewers and future fans that the difficulty of doing a quad axel is only worth a single point more than a quad lutz. How does this help attract fans when such ridiculous statements in the scoring system are adopted?
- It is a judged sport
- People want something tangible to support, not just something that is so subjective. When a hockey game is over, the winning team won because they scored more goals than the other team did. In Basketball, the winning team sunk more baskets that the other team and in Baseball, the winning team drove in more players across home plate. In figure skating, every judge has an opinion of whether they liked a skater or not. Not everyone can agree since it’s based on a persons’ likes/dislikes and taste.
- As long as figure skating is a judged sport, there will continue to be controversies, and no changes in rules will make any difference. What looks amazing to one person doesn’t appeal to another. This is the root of the problem. All fans, all people have different preferences.
- Ease of participating in the sport
- I once read a question that made me stop and think: why isn’t the NHL as huge as Soccer, NBA, NFL and MLB?? The answer was: because you need an extra skill, you need to be able to skate. This is very much the same problem with figure skating.
- People get interested in a sport that they can be involved in, in some shape or form. Many fans become fans through having families or close friends involved in the sport.
- For sports like soccer, baseball, and basketball, all you need are a pair of running shoes, and generally, every kid in the world can participate and enjoy themselves. If you cannot skate, or do not have a local ice rink to go to, then sports like figure skating and hockey are a bit out of reach.
- Rule changes:
- The proposed changes; Reducing the length of programs, limiting the number of quad jumps, etc., definitely will not draw in new fans. Changing the GOE ranges from +/-3 to +/-5 will not attract new fans. What drives me insane is that the ISU is not looking at the root cause of the problem, the subjective nature of judging (for example, PCS marks are inherently subjective).
- Changing the minimum age is not a the key problem the ISU needs to address!!!! They are concerning that the young kids are scoring too high, well, take a look at the actual issue, the judging. Issuing a high PCS score for a technically strong program that has no skating skill is the problem, not the age of the skater! If I was a new fan and not invested in the sport yet, these inconsistencies in judging would drive me to stop watching. Seriously.
- I’m not saying that crazy rule changes are only made in figure skating. Other major league sports have rule changes and those are controversial as well. But when a sport is fighting for a fan base, the impact of any changes are amplified. Changes need to make sense. When they don’t, a sport runs the risk of driving away more fans!
Moving Forward (my venting is over for now):
Bottom line – if you want to grow a sport, you have to make it accessible to the people you are trying to reach. You have to make it exciting to watch. Limiting the skaters potential in every aspect of the sport will not achieve this goal!! I think figure skating is just destined to be a very popular Olympic sport with nothing in between.
Even for myself, who has grown up in the figure skating world, I am starting to question what the ISU is doing to the sport. The pending rule changes are making even die-hard fans like me question whether I will enjoy watching the sport when they’ve torn it apart.
Go Yuzu Go!!! Doki Doki!!