Figure skating glides to the top

By Dave Karger and Jessica Shaw
Updated March 08, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

It was the kneecapping heard round the world. The 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan knocked the sequined, soap operatic world of figure skating into the national spotlight. But while the Kerrigan-Tonya Harding scandal has faded into the past, figure skating itself has kept its hold on the public. ”We have so much [figure skating] on television these days it’s like having our own sitcom,” says Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie. ”People just got hooked… and it doesn’t seem like it has sloped off at all.”

In short, figure skating has become a huge entertainment sensation. In the ratings, skating now ranks only behind football as TV’s most popular sport, and it easily surpasses golf’s viewership — which explains why there hasn’t been a weekend without ice escapades since Oct. 27. Considering that the Kerrigan/Harding Olympic showdown was the sixth-highest-rated TV program ever, it’s no wonder that a 30-second commercial spot for the world championships, which will air on ABC beginning March 21, costs $125,000 — just under the going rate for the equivalent time on Melrose Place. And all the networks are sharing the wealth: ”We love figure skating here,” says Robert Correa, vice president of sports programming at CBS, which turned to skating to bolster its sports lineup after losing its NFL rights to Fox. ”It gets solid numbers wherever you put it. It’s pretty much competition-proof.”

Meanwhile, promoters are doing triple axels to satisfy the demand. New competitions, such as CBS’ Too Hot to Skate, a flashy made-for-TV blade-athon, appear weekly, and specials like Katarina Witt’s March 17 Ice Princess on HBO are in constant demand. Even the publishing world has fallen for TV-bred skatemania: Kerrigan’s autobiography will be released in mid-March, and Olympic gold medalist Ekaterina Gordeeva, whose husband and partner, Sergei Grinkov, died of a heart attack in November, recently signed a book deal with Warner in the $250,000 range.

”The networks want more and more. They’re pitching events for May,” says Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton. ”Hellooo? I’m playing golf in May.”

Not if promoters and network executives have their way. Top personalities like U.S. champion Michelle Kwan and Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano are highly sought after, and some, like Kerrigan, command upwards of six figures for a single event. A breakout star, like 18-year-old reigning Olympic champion Oksana Baiul, can pull in $3 million a year. Her celebrity is such that Seventeen and TIME documented her changing hairstyles. ”Little kids start crying when they see me. They say I’m their idol,” Baiul says. ”It used to be frightening, but now I understand: It’s my life.”

Baiul and her managers are sifting through endorsement offers and other deals. ”I’ve had a lot of invitations,” Baiul says with the aplomb of a Hollywood veteran. ”I want to do scary movies, but a little later.”

Ironically, the skater who put the sport on the front pages appears to have hung up her unlaced boots. While Kerrigan, cast forever as the victim, continues to skate (though less often), scandal queen Harding has withdrawn into obscurity after abortive attempts at acting and singing careers. ”Tonya doesn’t want to talk about skating anymore,” says Merrill Eichenberger, Harding’s agent. ”She just wants to live.”