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Go Figure

Source: Rochester Democrat & Chronicle Weekend
Date: March 21, 1996
Author: Kathy Lindsley

They make it easy. It isn't.

The skaters in the Discover Card Stars on Ice tour will perform in 55 cities in three months. Tonight they'll flash their blades before a sold-out audience at Rochester's Community War Memorial.

When Scott Hamilton originated this show a decade ago, the nine skaters performed in five cities. It was a departure from the ice shows of the past, with less chorus-line glitz and more emphasis on competitive-level skating.

The following year, the tour included 30 stops. The current tour is the longest ever.

"It's a hard job," says Canadian Kurt Browning, the four-time world men's figure skating champion who's making his second Stars on Ice tour. The day we talked on the telephone, Browning was in Roanoke, Va. Although his fiancee from Toronto was visiting - or maybe because of that - Browning sounded just a wee bit homesick.

"It's a tough time right now," he said, "not close enough to the end to see the light at the end of the tunnel." Being on the road takes a mental and physical toll. Little things become problems.

"I'm trying to break in new skates and they're not working," he says. "If I were home..."

Not that he's complaining. It's a great time to be on ice.

Skaters have become media stars. For example, Oksana Baiul, the teenage sensation from Ukraine, reportedly earns $3 million a year. (She will appear in Rochester next month in the almost-sold-out Campbell's Soups 1996 Tour of World Figure Skating Champions.)

According to ABC, television coverage of figure skating has expanded from 18 hours in 1990 to 107 hours in 1995. It's especially attractive to female viewers - a much sought-after audience.

Of sports on TV, only football has more fans. That explains the growing number of ice competitions and exhibitions on TV - like the Fox network's two-hour Rock 'n Roll Skating Championship in January. Browning was a commentator last year for the first one, and came back as commentator and competitor "because it was so much fun." The show captured 20 million viewers.

Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt, another Stars on Ice headliner, had her own HBO special last Sunday, Ice Princess (it repeats at 2 p.m. Saturday and at 1 and 10:45p.m. on March 29 on Time Warner Communications Channel 14). And Browning has had two prime-time specials and a home video.

This week, fans are focused on the skating world's biggest annual event, the World Championships, taking place in Edmonton, Alberta. ABC reportedly is charging $125,000 for a 30-second commercial during the prime-time broadcasts tonight and Saturday (see accompanying story), a price that is just under the rate for Melrose Place.

Browning, whose hometown of Caroline, Alberta, happens to be halfway between Edmonton and Calgary, says he doesn't miss the Worlds or even Olympics competitions at this point in his career.

"I sort of did that," says the first skater to successfully complete a quadruple jump at the Worlds. Right now, he's happy with the way his career is taking off. "I've always wanted to be a professional."

He enjoyed his stint as a skating commentator. "I was surprised," he says. "You're involved not only in your own performance, but in everybody's performance."

Because skating hovers between sport and art form, many of the new programs are competitions. But one of the most memorable recent events - for skaters and for viewers - was last month's tribute to Sergei Grinkov, who died last November. The nationally televised program featured the first solo performance by Ekaterina Gordeeva, Grinkov's widow and partner, since his death. Browning, who toured with the Olympic gold medal-winning pair last year, performed along with other members of the Stars on Ice cast.

"It was pretty powerful to be there," he says. "We all get a lot of strength from her."

Browning believes interest in skating hasn't peaked yet. But, he says, skaters and promoters must generate "new products for different markets" to keep their audience. That puts a lot of pressure on skaters. Between touring and appearing in television specials, it's difficult to find time to develop new routines.

"It's a Catch-22 in a way," he says. "Exposure is good, but it's tough to come up with new material.

"But we're really excited. Our market is growing."