Why Olympic figure skating is hot TV -- Despite scandal, NBC is enjoying high ratings in Salt Lake City
Winter 2002
Credit: Olympics: Lionel Cironeau/AP/Wide World

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 Salé, 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 Salé-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.”