U.S. individual figure skaters left the Olympics without a medal for the first time in more than three-quarters of a century, costing the athletes million-dollar annual earning potential and the American program a building block for the future.
The last time the U.S. failed to win an Olympic medal in men’s or women’s figure skating was 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Since World War II, when the 1940 and 1944 games were canceled, the U.S. has won 34 individual figure-skating medals, more than the next two closest countries combined: Russia/U.S.S.R. with 14 and Canada with 13.
Figure skating, which generally draws the highest television ratings during the Winter Games, has made household names of Americans such as Dick Button, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton and Tara Lipinski. Not having anyone to shape into a post-Olympic idol means a missed opportunity for this year’s skaters and the future of U.S. Figure Skating, according to those with knowledge of the sport and the business opportunities it creates.
“We didn’t deliver,” said Rick Burton, the former chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “We didn’t take advantage of all the eyeballs that were there for figure skating.”
In men’s competition that concluded Feb. 14, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan won the gold medal, Canadian Patrick Chan took the silver and Denis Ten of Kazakhstan the bronze. In the women’s event that ended Feb. 20, Russian Adelina Sotnikova won gold, South Korea’s Kim Yuna the silver and Carolina Kostner of Italy the bronze.
Russia led the medal count in Sochi, Russia, with 33, including 13 gold, the most of any country. The U.S. was second with 28 medals, including a gold by American ice-dancing duo of Meryl Davis and Charlie White and a bronze in the team figure skating event.
The top American male skater in Sochi was Jason Brown, a 19-year-old who finished ninth. Jeremy Abbott, a 28-year-old four-time U.S. champion, was 12th. The U.S. women showed more promise as 18-year-old Gracie Gold was fourth, 22-year-old Ashley Wagner was seventh and 15-year-old Polina Edmunds was ninth.
U.S. Figure Skating couldn’t have done anything differently and faced poor timing in Sochi, said Lipinski, who won gold for the U.S. in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, and was a broadcaster for Comcast Corp.’s NBC during the games.
“You have to live through these cycles,” Lipinski said in a telephone interview. “What if the Olympics were six or 12 months away? It would have been good for Gracie. Next year would’ve been her time.”
One bright sign for the future is that all three American women reached the top 10, Lipinski said.
“This is the start to something better for the U.S.,” she said.
She was less optimistic about American men’s skating.
“We need a little bit of new blood,” Lipinski said. “We need someone who will live up to the technical demands.”
While any medal would have helped the U.S. cause, a gold would have “massively” benefited U.S. Figure Skating over the next four years, Burton said.
“Gold matters enormously,” Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, said in a telephone interview. “In our culture, where winning is everything, you invoke Vince Lombardi or Adam Smith and capitalism, it’s hard to build a marketing campaign around bronze or silver, because you’re not really talking about the best athlete in the world. Every product wants to say it’s the best in its category.”
A figure-skating gold medal can lead to about $1 million in annual off-the-ice marketing opportunities, with sponsor bonuses, appearance fees, book and endorsement deals, and other revenue streams such as reality television shows, according to Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
“Obviously, personality, looks and charisma will make that figure larger or smaller; as will staying power in the form of multiple Olympic appearances,” Dorfman said in an e-mail.
U.S. figure skaters “left a lot of money on the table,” especially during the six-month window after the Olympics, according to Matt Delzell, a senior director at Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based brand promotion company that measures celebrities’ popularity.
“Especially the younger Olympic athletes, you have a chance to ride that wave,” Delzell said in a phone interview. “If you win gold and are the darling of the Olympics you can ride it a little longer and take it into a non-Olympic year, which is hard to do.”
Of those who were familiar with Gracie Gold before the Olympics, 90 percent said they liked her to some degree, ranking her 599th in the Marketing Arm’s Davie Brown Index of more than 3,000 celebrities. That’s on par with baseball Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr., tennis great Chris Evert and Fleming, the 1968 figure-skating gold medalist.
However, just 15 percent of U.S. consumers were aware of Gold, much less than the 55 percent who knew Bode Miller, the skier who earned a gold in Vancouver four years ago and won his sixth medal, a bronze, this year. Gymnast Gabby Douglas, the all-around gold medalist at the London Games in 2012, is known by 75 percent of U.S. consumers.
“There will be a very dramatic spike in awareness for about two to three months after the Olympics,” Delzell said. “It will start to drop off pretty significantly after that and in the non-Olympic years it will drop almost back to a level where she was before the Olympics.”
When an athlete becomes an endorser it helps boost the image of his or her sport as well, providing a less immediate but noteworthy value, Burton said.
“Had a female figure skater won gold and turned into a super pitch woman, we have to imagine that that would have put that figure skater on a pedestal,” Burton said. “A lot of little girls would have said, ‘I want to become a figure skater.’”