NEW YORK (AP) — The ice show must go on — anywhere you can find a rink.
Even as Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were competing at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994, with the figure skating scandal in full bloom, tour promoters and arena managers were making deals. And more deals.
“It was all the business we could handle, and we did, from 1994,” says Tom Collins, who created Champions On Ice in 1975 and ran it for three decades. “We went from doing mediocre business to doing multiple shows and putting out not just one show, but two. We couldn’t handle all the cities that wanted the show and wanted to see all these Olympics and world figure skating champions.”
Collins’ tour, and Scott Hamilton’s Stars On Ice, featured the top skaters of the 1980s and ‘90s. Fans’ appetites were whetted by the Tonya and Nancy soap opera. It didn’t matter to them that Harding was banned for life for her role in the attack on Kerrigan at the 1994 national championships. Nor that Kerrigan was only an occasional participant in the ice shows.
There were dozens of stars to sell, even though they were offshoots of the saga that once dominated the headlines.
“I remember there were definitely more eyeballs, people knew when we were on tours, that we were in town,” says Michelle Kwan, who, at 13, was an alternate for the Lillehammer Games. “It was like Lady Gaga or Madonna is performing. We were rock stars. I remember following Nancy around and she had to put on a wig and sunglasses; she was on every cover of every magazine.
“We had the sold-out shows for 100 shows. It was great for us; in some ways I think I benefited from the attention, the media and the coverage, and the popularity in our country and overseas,” said Kwan, who became a millionaire many times over before her 18th birthday. “Exposure? The sport definitely got the most it ever had in history.”
Kwan went on to win nine U.S. titles and five world championships, plus Olympic silver and bronze. Yet she was Champions On Ice’s opening act early on, an up-and-comer who was followed by a deep array of established stars.
Byron Allen, who produces Stars On Ice as IMG Worldwide’s senior vice president, had a stable of famous skaters from Hamilton to Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt to Gordeeva and Grinkov to Torvill and Dean — Olympic champions all.
Yet Allen knew that the Tonya and Nancy story drove much of the interest.
“It was leading the news every day, and we were on tour, and we would get on a flight and then had reporters meeting us at the airport in the next city and telling us what the latest was,” Allen said.
“Media were interviewing Paul Wylie and Kristi, and Scott as the voice of skating on the Olympics, if you will, and the questions were about (Tonya and Nancy),” he said. “It was a crazy period of time where people tracked us down.”
The shows would tour for months on end in the United States, then go to Canada, Asia and Europe.
Years earlier, tours would wind up anywhere that an arena would open its doors: Abilene and McAllen, Texas; Erie, Pa.; Butte, Mont. But after Tonya and Nancy, 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano saw something he never imagined.
“After that Olympics,” he said, “we were doing domes on tour. DOMES!
“We did the Superdome in New Orleans with 40,000 people. I could not see the top person in the stadium. From the dressing room to the ice rink, we had to take golf carts because it was so far. We did the Carrier Dome (in Syracuse), the St. Pete Dome (in Florida). It was rock ‘n roll, it was really cool for us, just a fantastic time to be in skating.”
But it wasn’t sustainable.
Figure skating didn’t have the foundation, with the International Skating Union that governs the Olympic-eligible competitions often at odds with the tours. As the bigger names got older or stopped performing to have families — or lost their attractiveness to fandom — not enough new ones emerged.
And the new ones who did, such as Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, were gone before fans — particularly American ones — became invested in them.
“Actually, I think skating may be as popular or more so than it ever was, it is just that it has become global, and right now, the biggest stars are not American,” Kerrigan says. “This is no different than sports like tennis that have stars from all over the world. So we see skating (shows and competitions) doing well in Korea and Japan and Russia.
“But in the U.S., like everything else, skating is star-driven, and for the past few years we haven’t had a star who has caught the public’s imagination.”
And, as the years went on, the pull of the Tonya and Nancy saga lessened.
“Maybe we did saturate the market,” Boitano says, noting how he and Kwan toured through places such as Wichita every year. “After the fifth year, people were saying, ‘We have seen them already.’”
Boitano and others made a lot of money, but the sport didn’t establish itself for the long term.
“Everyone was trying to take in as much as they could,” he said. “It couldn’t last.”