Friday, April 24, 2009

Weekly Op-Ed: Where did all the pros go?

Where have all the professional skaters gone?

Let's rewind a decade or so. There were more pros it seemed (obviously not the case but it seemed that way) than eligible skaters.

Even the Lillehammer Olympics had a bevy of skaters that returned from the pro ranks back to the eligible ranks thanks to a cool rule the ISU passed special for those games. These days it seems like we need some of the eligibles skaters to turn pro!

The pro competitions! Weren't they on everyday? The Ultimate Four, World Professional Championships, Starlight Challenge, etc., etc., etc. Every station had some sort of pro competition they concocted. Even ESPN had a competition (I remember one year Tonya Harding actually competed and it was a big deal because it was her first competition since being banned from eligible skating...what was the name of that competition?).

But between then and now something happened. Sure, overall interest in skating here in North America has diminished, but that doesn't account for the shrinking ranks of pros.

Sure we have our Stars on Ice Cast, but even that production is being propped up by guest appearances by eligible skaters. The headliner, Sasha Cohen, IS an eligible skater.

We also have to recognize the fact that Hamilton, Browning, Wylie, Witt, Sumners, etc., etc., etc., are retiring (or at least slowing down) and doing other things with their lives.

But the weird bit is there aren't many replacements for those iconic pros. Why?

An unusual thing started happening post 1998. Up to that point in time (often anyway)you competed, won your National-World-Olympic medals, and became a pro. Every Olympic cycle we expected the vast majority of the skaters to become our new pros. The 1998 Olympics was the last time we really saw was also the first Olympic cycle where we 'didn't' see it.

For all the skaters that turned pro after the 1998 Olympics, there were as many that didn't. Sure, there were those that threw up their hands and said..."I'm done!" Kulik, Bonaly, Cousins, Candeloro, Lipinki, Lu all among them.

There was the Todd Eldredge pseudo retirement...which basically was a year or so off to try to get the quad under his belt. He did a couple of eligible events for a couple of years and returned to major competition in 2000. His Canadian counterpart, Elvis Stojko, kind of spit and sputtered through competition between 1998 and 2002 never really recapturing his former glory.

In 2002, hardly anyone turned pro. Todd Eldridge did but he didn't want to. He got into a scuff with U.S. Figure Skating about eligibility requirements. Elvis Stojko did, then he didn't, then he did...clearly a decision he struggled with. A few pairs and ice dance teams did, but this was the real beginning of the demise of pro skating.

After 2006 there was again few skaters that turned pro. And most of the cast of characters in that event will be in Vancouver, trying to get to Vancouver, or only retired because of injury.

To be fair, there have been some nice recent additions to the pro ranks. Our friends up north have given us brilliant new pros in Jennifer Robinson and Jeffrey Buttle. We also have the reigning Olympic Ladies Champ Shizuka Arakawa from Japan.

But more and more skaters are pulling a 'Kwan.' That is, they never retire! With the pro-am competitions all but gone, you have eligible skaters either doing eligible competitions, an occasional show, or nothing. The big question is why are more skaters choosing the non-retirement option? Do they still have the desire to compete...just not now? They don't like pro skating? Is it profitable to remain eligible even if you aren't competing?

Is the lack of top level pros adding to the current slump in skating?

I guess this isn't so much a post of opinions but rather questions!


Sharon said...

You are so right! Where have all the pros gone? The stars of the 90s are aging and having babies and coaching! The biggest shock I ever got was Bourne and Kraatz breaking up in 2003...I thought they would have enjoyed a pro career. Well, Shae wanted it anyway...but now there just isn't as much pro things to do, is there? I can only hope the Olympics in Vancouver stirs things up for the US. At least it's in our neck of the woods!

Ice Charades said...

Love your wrap-up ... I think all of those quasi-competitions and "skate with the next-to-sink-in-the-ratings pop star" helped do the "pros" in.

Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen know better than to get messed up with those shows. Brian, Kristi and Katarina seem immune to them.

I think the blurring of amateur/professional (it used to be such a clear delineation in the 80's - hello Dorothy turning pro? If in the 90s - she would have had so many more options on the table ...) has hurt ice shows too. How many times can I report Ice Capades demise?

How can we get skating back on the upswing?