Vince Mcmahon could not have orchestrated it better: Two tag teams battling for a championship crown become embroiled in a public tempest that includes charges of shady judging and favoritism…not to mention an unsportsmanlike sprinkling of trash talk. But this wasn’t The Rock strutting around a flashy ring, bellowing scripted insults at a hapless jabroni. This was the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City — and the biggest figure-skating brouhaha to rock the graceful sport since 1994, when Jeff Gillooly’s goons made the iron-pipe strike heard round the world.
Canadian figure-skating pair Jamie Sale, 24, and David Pelletier, 27, and their Russian nemeses, Elena Berezhnaya, 24, and Anton Sikharulidze, 25, have captivated viewers since their Feb. 11 face-off, the subsequent decision to give the gold medal to the Russians, and the Feb. 17 awarding of a second gold to the Canadians. (About 66 million viewers tuned in for at least part of the Feb. 11 broadcast, the highest Monday-night rating in nearly four years.) With this latest smackdown, the sport has practically become a more female-friendly version of the WWF.
Will the controversial rinksmanship heat up the ratings for future skating competitions? History suggests that viewers are drawn to scandal like a Zamboni to ice. The 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer at the height of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding mess drew a Super Bowl-comparable 48.5 percent of all viewers, and this year’s Sale-Pelletier drama added further ratings fuel to the second-highest-rated Winter Olympics since 1980. ”Figure skating, from a television ratings standpoint, is the most popular [Olympic] sport, summer or winter,” says Kevin Sullivan, VP of communications at NBC Sports. ”And it’s the only Olympic sport — other than basketball — that will still deliver pretty strong ratings outside of the Olympics.”
It’s unclear how long the snow-dusted luster will last. Viewership of non-Olympic skating events on network prime time has been in decline since the sport’s mid-’90s post- Nancy-and-Tonya peak, with only eight prime-time skating events airing in 2000, down from 22 in 1997, according to an Initiative Media report. But now that the world has seen Sale and Pelletier’s stoic faces as they accepted their silver medals — and their happier expressions as they displayed golds six days later — the pair could be the hottest skating commodities to hit Madison Avenue since a Reebok-loving Kerrigan limped home from Lillehammer. At press time, Sale and Pelletier had not firmed up any new deals. But their agent, Craig Fenech, has reportedly fielded more than 1,500 calls, including two for possible TV movies.
Some marketing experts say the pair shouldn’t be doing triple flips just yet. ”On the surface it seems like a great opportunity,” says Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports & Celebrities, which lines up endorsements for athletes. ”But the reality is that advertisers predominantly hire U.S. citizens. And advertisers have predominantly favored individual gold medalists as opposed to a team.” Adds sports agent Peter Carlisle: ”There’s still a lot of negativity tied to the scandal and the skaters and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” Nonetheless, Williams estimates the pair will earn $250,000 to $1 million from endorsements. (Potential promotional champs Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes had not completed their event at press time.)