As another figure skating season begins in earnest Friday with the first of seven senior Grand Prix events, a sport that has been sliding slowly out of general U.S. consciousness will be losing traction among even its hardest-core fans.
The pricing and programming dispute between Universal Sports and major distributors including Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T means about 67 percent of the 100 million U.S. cable/satellite/telco home subscribers no longer can get live coverage on their TV or computer of the Grand Prix, World Championships and most other figure skating events.
That also affects subscribers to icenetwork.com, U.S. Figure Skating’s website, which previously streamed Grand Prix events live.
This week’s Skate America in Kent, Wash., is an exception. Through the end of the 2012-13 season, Universal owns U.S. rights to everything but Skate America and the U.S. Championships, both belonging to NBC. Universal has cut deals with Dish Network and Direct TV, which account for about the other one-third of home subscribers, but its programming is shown on those distributors’ premium sports tiers — further limiting the audience.
“This is definitely not our preference, but it is this season’s reality,” USFS spokesman Barb Reichert said. “We have made every attempt to get more extensive live coverage. … We will continue to work with the International Skating Union and whoever holds the rights beyond this year to make sure that we have the widest possible distribution of these events in the future.”
NBC will air same-weekend, two-hour wrap-ups of every Grand Prix event after Skate America except Cup of China. Icenetwork will provide video on demand to paid subscribers starting seven days after each Grand Prix.
To get live skating if they no longer have access to Universal Sports, the most dedicated U.S. fans will seek out foreign video streams that sneak past “geoblocking” — the term used for preventing coverage that dilutes the value of a rights-holder’s investment in a particular country.
That is why, for instance, NBC’s Olympic video streams were not available on computers and other devices in other countries where a domestic network owned or was assigned rights.
Until this year, anyone could buy a subscription to Universal’s figure skating coverage (as well as its coverage of sports like track and field and skiing.) Then it switched distribution policy in mid-July.
“All online live events and replays on demand are available exclusively to satellite and cable customers who have Universal Sports as part of their television package,” Universal said.
That change meant third parties, like icenetwork, no longer can stream the content owned by Universal.
As for Skate America, NBC has one telecast, Sunday from 1-3 p.m. That includes one hour live — the final group of the women’s competition.
The most interesting part of that show may be one of its commentators. With the NHL lockout, NBC’s wondrously informative and entertaining hockey voice, Doc Emrick, will be doing play-by-play.
The real Skate America highlight was to have been reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek’s return to competition after a two-season absence, but Lysacek has withdrawn because of a groin injury.
The men’s field still is solid, with three-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott meeting the latest Japanese star, 17-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu. He was bronze medalist at last year’s worlds, where Abbott (eighth) underwhelmed, as he has in every global championship.
Icenetwork will be streaming the men’s final free to registered users. Unfortunately, thanks to the usual nonsensical scheduling of West Coast skating events outside NBC’s purview, it begins at 9 p.m..
The live afternoon women’s telecast Sunday features another U.S. champion, Ashley Wagner, against a field with two good Russians: inconsistent Alena Leonova (second at worlds, seventh at Europeans) and 16-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, who won her first of three senior national titles at age 12.
See it now. After that, skating is pretty much out of sight, out of mind for U.S. viewers the rest of 2012.