Frustration to acceptance: How to change the U.S. Figure Skating selection process narrative

2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.jpgWhile there were some major sponsorship successes at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, one of the main threads of contention has the makings of a brand crisis for the governing body itself.

In an Olympic year, the national championships take on a double job. Not only are skaters fighting for spots on the official team (leading to international competitions and financial support), they are competing for a spot in the Olympics. The championships are held just a month before the Games, among many Olympic Trials for other Olympic sports. 

Figure skating, however, is a far different sport, and instead of winner-take-all “trials,” the championships are only one of many competitions that factor into who goes to the Olympics. As with gymnastics, the other highly visible artistic-athletic crossover sport, skaters are evaluated on how they’ve done in international and domestic competitions in the past year. 

While it’s arguably a smart system, created to ensure the skaters with the best chance of medaling go to the games, it’s one that’s gotten U.S. Figure Skating a lot of heat in the last 72 hours. 

While more-invested viewers are aware of the other big international competitions throughout the season, Olympic years rewrite the rules. Viewership doubles, and many of those casual watchers are watching skating championships among a pile of other Olympic trials, which end simply, with Olympic slots assigned to winners. When they see a competition that strays from that formula, they are confused and frustrated.

Imagine the average viewer at home, inundated with commercials showing the simultaneous grandeur and hard work that the Olympics represent. Those commercials, played at the beginning and end of every commercial break, are carefully crafted to tug at viewer’s heartstrings. And they work- the Olympics are seen as the culmination of a dream, as the payoff for endless morning of 4 a.m.-rink shuttling and childhood sacrifices. Then, those Olympians are chosen… and they aren’t the champions.

When the governing body bypasses a “Cinderella story” athlete and send more-established names as their Olympic pick (or, in some cases, doesn’t), it’s easy for them to get painted as the Wicked Witch.

U.S. Figure Skating has the whole year to position their brand to their die-hard fans, but Olympic fans don’t see that background. U.S. Figure Skating (and all governing bodies) need to position their brand toward these casual viewers as well, or risk alienating all but the die-hards.

Recognizing that problem also offers an answer as to how U.S. Figure Skating can reposition their brand. 

Step 1: Separate the competition from the selection

While this one may be the least feasible, it would be the most helpful. Most Olympic sports have a very simple trial- the top athletes get the Olympic spots. And it can be argued that figure skating’s system is better (as an antidote to losing top-tier athletes who have simply had a bad day).

However, the vast majority of viewers are processing the Championships and the Olympic selection as the same thing. Because the selection is made within 24 hours after the winners are announced, the emotions and context of the competition are the strongest in their minds. If you announce them almost simultaneously, how can viewers separate the two? If selections were announced farther away from the competition, viewers would have had time to “cool down” from the competition and view the selection as a distinct event. A week of time to get mental and emotional distance from the competition could cut the ties between the two.

However, this is least likely to happen, as the U.S. Figure Skating Championships happen typically just over a month before the Olympics, and every day of that is key training and preparation time for the athletes. While most skaters would likely push ahead with training anyway, that’s a gamble that could come back to haunt them.

Step 2: Clarify your standards

The committee that chooses the Olympic team uses a three-tier ranking system, prioritizing more recent and international competitions over national and further back competitions. Commentators mentioned this passingly on-air, but a graphical or deeper-dive discussion throughout the competition would help establish that better in the minds of viewers. While “in the moment” watching a competition unfold, especially one as emotionally charged as figure skating, viewers aren’t objective. Adding those reminders in earlier could stave off some of that frustration.

Since there is already a somewhat-formal ranking system in place, why not create a weighted point total? It would take the control back out of the hands of a shadowy committee (another branding faux-pas in a sport that has had its fair share of judging scandals), and give fans both something concrete and a reminder of those unseen wins top-tier skaters have racked up. And while we’re at it…

Step 3: Highlight past performances

Why not replay skaters’ great performances at Grand Prix (the major international competition series for figure skating) and other international events? There is no shortage of down time in figure skating, thanks to a large field and lots of resurfacing and warmup time. Why not give the viewers a chance to connect with those past performances? Many of the routines are the same, but a “This Year with Team USA” highlight reel showing landed jumps and skaters with medals around their necks would do a lot to make the emotional argument with viewers. It would feel like a natural inclusion for the competition (as the culmination of figure skating in the US) and add more emotional context.

If performances aren’t able to be replayed, adding more highlight to the major wins in the past year would be another way to help capture that emotion. Every skater or team gets labelled with their accomplishments, but little context is given between major and minor competitions. Casual viewers (of which there are many in Olympic years) may not know the difference. Give more context; show the viewers the hours and effort that these skaters have put into international competitions.

A tumultuous championships has changed U.S. Figure Skating’s narrative and threatened its brand. With some smart moves in the coming years, U.S. Figure Skating can re-capture its public image as an intelligent, effective governing body.

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