Top Olympic Skaters Hit the Road and the Jackpot
By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 1994; Page F1
They come to town like a collection of well-groomed, extremely polite rock stars, living the nomadic life, making the outrageous money.
They are the figure skaters, Nancy and Oksana, Elvis and Brian, fresh off the ice in Hamar, Norway. Once competitors, they are now performers, turning sport into show before adoring fans in one packed arena after another for three months each spring.
By and large, what they do, how they live and what they make has been one of professional sports' last untold secrets.
And then came Tonya Harding.
Harding is not part of the Campbell's Soups 1994 Tour of World Figure Skating Champions, which makes its Washington stop today and Saturday at 8 p.m. at USAir Arena. (Tickets sold out almost as soon as the show was announced.)
But Nancy Kerrigan is here, as are Oksana Baiul, Elvis Stojko, Brian Boitano and almost all of the medalists from the recent Winter Olympics. They are along for a 59-city, 70-show ride the biggest tour in figure skating history, and there are lots and lots of figure skating tours out there that began last Monday (April 11) in Orlando and ends July 12 in San Francisco.
If invited by tour owner Tom Collins, they came. And here's why: Few three-month ventures anywhere in sports are as lucrative for the participant as this one.
"A headliner can make $750,000 to $1 million or more on my tour," Collins said the other day.
For Kerrigan, Baiul, Stojko, Boitano and Viktor Petrenko, emphasis should be placed on the "$1 million or more," said one insider who asked to remain anonymous.
"Unquestionably, the top five are all making $1 million, at least," the source said.
That's a little more than $14,000 per show. Which is why one top skating star said, "The majority of my money comes from touring. Endorsements? Endorsements? Forget the endorsements. If I want to make money, I'm going to skate for three months."
Minimum wage on the show is $2,000 per skater per night. A pairs or dance team gets $4,000. More than 70 shows makes that a very nice living, with all expenses paid in the finest hotels, and most afternoons free.
The reason Collins, a former musical tour promoter who has been running figure skating events since 1969, offers such lucrative contracts is because he can't help but get rich by selling figure skating to the masses.
"The entire tour is sold out," Collins proudly exclaimed. "We're going to draw more than 1 million people this year."
Figuring an average price of $50 per ticket, well, you do the math.
"People are crazy about figure skating," agent Michael Rosenberg said yesterday. "They get to see in person the people they were fascinated with on television."
And the TV ratings for the Olympics, world and national championships always go through the roof, leaving head-to-head competitions such as the recent NCAA men's basketball prime-time telecasts in the dust.
Said Collins: "Who can explain it? The TV exposure helps more than anything. It's a clean sport, the demographics are terrific, it's an affluent audience. And it's still an untapped market."
Figure skating tours have such potential because they go largely unnoticed in the media. Fans snap up tickets, but there's almost no coverage in the papers or on radio or TV.
"It's not like major league baseball, in the papers every day," said Jerry Solomon, Kerrigan's agent at Arlington, Va.-based ProServ. "People in Washington, D.C., are not necessarily aware that, in a month, the tour goes, say, to Buffalo."
His client, the Olympic silver medalist, skates third-from-last in this show. Only Boitano and Olympic gold-medalist Baiul, who skates the finale, have higher billing.
"It's based on Olympic protocol," said Collins.
For Kerrigan, the most recognizable skater on earth outside of Oregon, the tour is a welcome relief from a grueling couple of months that included the Jan. 6 attack plotted by Harding's associates.
"One of the things that has always motivated me is performing for the public, and this is a great opportunity to do that," Kerrigan said yesterday. "We get a great reception wherever we go. A tour like this is really the highlight of the year because of that. ... It's the music, people having fun with it. That's what it's all about, to perform and entertain."
Hence, triple jumps, such an integral part of Olympic competition, become a luxury during the tour.
"It's a little more relaxed," said Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist who finished sixth in Norway. "You don't have to freak out the whole day for one performance."
And yet, there is a subtle sense of competition that creeps into every skating tour. Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas, neither of whom is on this tour, were both in a show in Europe a while after their 1988 Olympic battle that ended with Witt winning the gold and Thomas the bronze.
"Neither of us had competed in a while and we were not in shape," Thomas said. "One night, in Italy, I didn't do any triples, but I did a double Axel. She came after me in the show and, of course, she did a double Axel too.
"The next show, I said to myself, 'I'm feeling okay, I'll do a triple toe.' So I did it and said, 'Yeah, I've got one up on her.' But she sees it and, boom, she does a triple toe too.
"Later on, we come back to the United States and do a show in Cincinnati. I add two triples to my program. And guess what? She adds two triples too."
"It can become very competitive," said Boitano. "Skaters really pay attention to who hit more jumps that night. Everybody is watching everybody to see who's doing what jump."
Said tour owner Collins: "When they're done, they take their skates off and they watch each other. Since triples came into prominence, the kids in the show have been trying to outdo one another. They want to see who can do the most triples."
"Plus," said Boitano, "people expect you to do great things, and you know that."
Although figure skating tours have been wildly popular for years, this year's Collins tour is different, most agree. For one, the sellouts came quicker, Collins said, and the early audiences have been extremely receptive.
At a different show last weekend in Richmond, Kerrigan received standing ovations before and after she skated.
The Kerrigan-Harding saga obviously has left its mark. For the first time ever, Collins has hired security personnel to travel with the skaters.
"This many celebrities in hotel lobbies," he said. "We've had to beef up security."
And he said he never considered inviting Harding, even before she pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in the Kerrigan attack.
"She wasn't in our plans before all that happened, and once things started happening, I didn't want to put people at odds on the tour," Collins said.
On June 18, the tour goes to Portland, Ore.
Said Collins: "Even without Tonya, we sold out."
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