SBJ/Feb. 14-20, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Movie, unique distribution raise U.S. Figure Skating's profile in a non-Olympic year

When U.S. Figure Skating Association Executive Director David Raith first considered developing a documentary honoring the 1961 figure skating team that died in a plane crash, he wanted to do more than the traditional made-for-TV special he’d seen other sports organizations develop. The movie lover wanted a film worthy of the big screen and a major cinematic release.

Thursday, Raith will see that desire become reality when the movie “Rise,” which was developed for $1 million, premieres at more than 500 theaters nationwide during a special, one-night-only screening. In addition to the movie, theatergoers will see a live broadcast from New York’s Best Buy Theater in Times Square that features NBC’s Matt Lauer interviewing Olympic figure skaters.

"Rise" documents U.S. skating's return after a plane crash killed the national team in 1961.
The event is the result of a partnership U.S. Figure Skating struck with NCM Fathom, the company that has brought the Metropolitan Opera and FIFA World Cup to theaters nationwide. Raith hopes it both raises the profile of figure skating and raises money for the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund, which honors the 1961 skaters who lost their lives.

Fathom and U.S. Figure Skating signed a revenue-sharing agreement for the film and will share ticket revenue after costs, with proceeds going toward the Memorial Fund.

A DVD and Blu-ray production is in development and is expected to be released later this year in conjunction with a television broadcast of the film, which tells the history of figure skating in the United States by talking about the 1961 team and the generations of skaters that followed them.

“I’ve been asked, ‘When it’s over, what do you want to happen?’” Raith said. “Besides writing a check to the Memorial Fund, I want people to go out and skate.”

National governing bodies often struggle in non-Olympic years to keep their sports on the national radar. The development and unique distribution of “Rise” have helped U.S. Figure Skating overcome that a year after the Vancouver Games when awareness of the sport would usually be at its nadir, Raith said.

Fathom’s partnership with AMC, Cinemark and Regal cinemas meant trailers promoting “Rise” were shown on more than 17,000 movie screens nationwide. Raith estimated the value of that exposure was worth more than $1 million.

“We don’t have the money to do that ourselves, but that’s part of our arrangement with Fathom,” Raith said.
Fathom Vice President Dan Diamond expects the film to attract an audience and perform well at the box office.
“If there wasn’t a profit opportunity in all of these programs, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Diamond said. “The key is finding passionate fans and offering them a chance to bond and connect in an affordable way they couldn’t otherwise.”

The film is being released at an important time for U.S. Figure Skating. The organization’s $12 million-a-year marketing and broadcast deal with ABC ended in 2007, forcing the organization to control its expenses, find a new broadcast partner and sell its own sponsorships the last three years.

Through partnerships with NBC for broadcasts and Van Wagner Sports for marketing and sponsorship sales, the national governing body has rebuilt its business, now operating on a $10 million annual budget, Raith said.

The organization is in the process of a long-term strategic review. It hopes to increase membership from the 176,000 members it had last year to more than 200,000 members in the future. It also hopes to continue to expand its portfolio of partners, which currently includes Alka-Seltzer, AT&T, State Farm and Smucker’s.

Raith sees the release of “Rise” as a critical step in U.S. Figure Skating’s effort to achieve those goals. He doesn’t know if U.S. Figure Skating will ever return to the zenith of the Nancy Kerrigan days of the 1990s, but he’s confident that the sport is well-positioned for the future.

“Every sport is cyclical,” Raith said. “We’re moving in the right direction and doing the right things. Our future’s now.”

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