Johnny Weir is one of the world’s top figure skaters, mobbed by fans from Seoul to St. Petersburg as he travels the globe for competitions and exhibitions. He loves fashion, and lists Louis Vuitton and Chanel among his favorite designers.
Yet Weir often finds himself facing the same hard economic choices as other Americans these days.
With his father unable to work because of an injury and his mother recently out of a job, the 24-year-old is helping support his family. Add the costs of coaching, choreography, costumes and everything else that goes with elite skating, and sometimes the numbers don’t add up.
“We don’t have huge contracts like in the late ’90s and early 2000s,” Weir said. “... There are times when I can’t afford to pay my phone bill because I have to pay my coach or pay for costumes or pay for this and pay for that.”
And he doubts he’s the only one.
“Of course the federation helps how they can ... but it’s not enough to where you can totally focus on skating,” Weir said. “I don’t know everyone’s financial situation, but I’m sure a lot of skaters, especially top-level skaters in America, go home at night and figure out how they’re going to pay their electric bill and telephone bill and go to practice the next day and pay for everything else they need to pay for.
“Right now, there just isn’t a lot of money in the country.”
As the Winter Olympics’ glamour sport, and with the Vancouver Games only a year away, figure skating is in better shape than most to weather the economic downtown. Ticket sales may be down for next week’s national championships in Cleveland and Smucker’s Stars on Ice is the only major tour again this year, but U.S. Figure Skating has not only kept its $11 million-plus budget intact, it managed to attract new major sponsors in a time when most companies are cutting back.
After not having a title sponsor for nationals last year, U.S. Figure Skating signed a two-year deal with AT&T. It reached a separate deal with Smucker’s to sponsor the exhibition, the popular finale where skaters do show programs.
State Farm, a longtime partner, is also still a major sponsor.
“It’s the most difficult marketplace out there,” said David Raith, U.S. Figure Skating’s executive director. “Not that we’re going to get some crazy numbers, but we believe we’re going to get sufficient revenues to make our budget.”
U.S. Figure Skating has also seen an increase in numbers for basic skills programs, the theory being that as parents cut back on out-of-town vacations, they look for activities close to home. Also on the rise are the numbers for synchronized skating programs, which are generally less expensive than singles skating.
Internationally, the outlook is even better. Japan’s Mao Asada and Korea’s Kim Yu-na have dominated women’s skating the last two years, allowing the International Skating Union to tap new commercial markets.
The ISU sold all of its sponsorship packages for last month’s Grand Prix Final in South Korea, said Jay Ogden, a senior vice president at IMG who negotiates sponsorships for the ISU. With the world championships in Los Angeles still two months away, Ogden said only two sponsorship packages are left.
“It depends on if you look at this from a purely domestic perspective or look at it from a global perspective. From the global ISU perspective, we’re still doing fine,” Ogden said. “Now, a lot of those sales and interest we’re having are coming from outside the United States, and that’s being generated a lot by the fact we have a lot of global stars now, not just U.S. stars.”
It wasn’t long ago that figure skating in the United States was a moneymaking machine.
The Tonya-Nancy debacle was better than any soap opera, and fans and advertisers alike couldn’t get enough. There were made-for-TV events, two skating tours that played to sold-out crowds everywhere they went and endorsement opportunities galore. Skaters who only a few years earlier had to do fundraisers or whose parents worked two jobs to further their Olympic dreams were now flush with cash.
Lots of it.
But the bubble began to burst after the 2002 Olympics. A judging scandal forced the ISU to ditch the traditional 6.0 scoring system and adopt a complicated, computer-based version that’s been, at best, confusing for fans.
“Anyone watching could flip on the TV and know a 5.9 is pretty good and a 4.1 is not very good,” said Evan Lysacek, the reigning U.S. men’s champion. “So it was easy to follow, it was easy to cheer along your favorites. ... Losing that brand has been very difficult, and I think we’ve seen that hit quite a bit here in the U.S.”
Making matters worse, popular mainstay Michelle Kwan began exploring life beyond skating and no one filled the void. Kwan was essentially a part-time skater in 2004 and 2005, and hasn’t skated competitively since an injury forced her out of the Turin Olympics. Sasha Cohen was last seen at the 2006 world championships.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.