SBJ/April 23 - 29, 2007/This Weeks News

ABC/ESPN figure skating deal thaws

ABC/ESPN ended a 43-year relationship with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, citing a steep ratings decline, concern over viewer demographics and a change in network strategy that emphasizes higher-profile sports.

The loss of ABC/ESPN is a blow for the budget
of figure skating’s national governing body.

“It’s not a good fit for us strategically at this point,” said Leah LaPlaca, ESPN’s vice president of programming acquisitions. “It was an emotional decision because of our long history with them. We have a lot of people in our office vested in figure skating.”

NBC, which holds the Olympic rights through 2012, will pick up the rights as part of a multiyear partnership that will be announced today. NBC’s coverage will start with the Skate America competition in October, and it will start broadcasting the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. The joint venture includes marketing, high-definition and broadband rights, as well.

“This new relationship has so much more potential — from broadband to sponsorship,” said David Raith, U.S. Figure Skating’s executive director. “As we look to the future, this is where we need to be.”

The loss of the ABC/ESPN deal is a huge blow for the national governing body, as the $12 million it received annually from the Disney networks accounted for more than 65 percent of its total budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006, according to its most recent tax filing.

NBC is not paying any rights fee for the programming, Raith said. NBC and USFSA will jointly sell the nine hours of figure skating per year that NBC broadcasts. USFSA’s partnership with NBC frees up the national governing body’s marketing rights, which had been held by ABC/ESPN.

Over the past several years, ABC dramatically reduced the number of on-air hours devoted to figure skating. In the 2006-07 season, it aired just 14 hours. In the 1997-98 season, there were 23.5 hours on the schedule. The number of program hours increased slightly on ESPN and ESPN2 during that time, to 10 hours from four.

“The ABC deal was an historic agreement that for 10 years was very supportive of this organization,” Raith said. “Their strategy has changed. We’re ready to move in a new direction.”

ABC/ESPN started souring on figure skating when the popular U.S. Figure Skating Championship ladies’ free skate competition pulled an average 4.7 prime-time rating on ABC in 2006, which marked a nearly 60 percent drop from the 11.5 rating ABC pulled in 1998. Both 1998 and 2006 were Olympic years, when figure skating ratings typically are higher. This year, in a weekend afternoon time slot on ABC, the ladies’ free skate championships produced a 1.9 rating.

Figure skating used to be ratings gold for broadcast networks, particularly in the mid- to late 1990s after the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding soap opera in 1994. But ABC has seen ratings for figure skating decline steadily since 1998, and though the ladies’ figure skating competition remains the must-see sporting event of the Winter Olympics, its ratings in Turin, Italy, last year finished behind “American Idol” twice and the season finale of “Dancing With the Stars.”

ABC and the U.S. Figure Skating Association discussed some scenarios that could have renewed their long-standing relationship, but ultimately ESPN decided to focus on sports that are more in tune with its coveted male 18- to 54-year-old demographic.

The audience for figure skating is nearly 70 percent female, and the sport’s ratings in the overall 18-54 demo suffered a huge drop in the past 10 years, LaPlaca said.

Two years ago, ESPN used figure skating to counterprogram “Monday Night Football” when ABC held the rights. The  strategy was to schedule programming on ESPN that appealed to women while its sister network aired NFL games.

Last year, when NBC picked up “Sunday Night Football,” ESPN abandoned that strategy in favor of putting stronger baseball, college football, college basketball and professional basketball programming opposite the NFL games.

“There are a lot of other properties that fit better with our audience,” LaPlaca said, citing “Monday Night Football,” “Saturday Night College Football,” NASCAR and the Arena Football League.

ESPN still has a deal with the International Skating Union, which runs through next season and includes the World Figure Skating Championships in March 2008. ESPN executives were noncommittal when asked whether they would renew that deal.

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