Icing on the Cake

June gloom is fading, the schools have emptied and the beaches again are the stuff that picture postcards promise. So why is Brian Klavano's crew getting ready to install a huge sheet of ice in Santa Monica Airport's Barker Hangar?

Come July, the massive hangar will be transformed into a winter scene where Target Stores will shoot its second "Snowden on Ice" figure skating television special. Last November's initial show captured its Friday night time slot, and Target executives expect equally strong ratings for this year's show.

Whether in television shows such as Walt Disney Co.'s recent "Mulan" special starring Olympian Michelle Kwan or at live, nightly performances by Los Angeleno Tiffany Chin at Sea World's San Diego park, consumer demand for creative displays of figure skating is skyrocketing.

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As figure skating is drawn into the broader world of entertainment, the industry is changing. New skating formats allow athletes more freedom of expression, and there are more opportunities for endorsements and deals--witness Kwan's recent four-project deal with Disney. Skaters' business agents are likely to be allied with larger companies that handle show production, and shows can be staged just about anywhere.

"We're busier this summer than any summer I can remember," said Klavano, production manager for Willie Bietek Productions, a Santa Monica-based company that provides temporary ice rinks for television shows, commercials, movies and touring shows. "With America having a successful Olympics in Japan with our two little princesses, demand is soaring."

The one-two finish in the Nagano Winter Games by American skaters Tara Lipinski and Kwan reignited interest in the sport. And the tight-knit industry expects interest to remain strong as television networks crank up publicity for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games that, unlike the tape-delayed Nagano Games, will be broadcast live into U.S. homes.

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Consumers gobbled up more than 160 hours of televised figure skating shows last year. Many of those shows were staged competitions with titles such as "Battle of the Sexes" and "Ice Wars: USA vs. the World." But even the made-for-television specials aren't enough for sophisticated fans who are demanding alternatives to singles and doubles competitions staged before judges in huge arenas.

At the same time, advances in ice-making technology are making it cost-effective for skating to glide into smaller arenas and Broadway-style stages.

"Everyone is looking for different venues, for ways to make skating unique, to present the sport in different manners," said Michael Rosenberg, whose Palm Desert-based Marco Entertainment Inc. represents more than 50 top skaters. "And what better way to do that than by tying ice skating to music, theater and different themes?"

Rosenberg is planning a holiday tour featuring top athletes skating to live performances by Mannheim Steamroller, the nation's top-selling Christmas music group. Negotiations are also underway to pair figure skaters with Broadway-style staples such as "West Side Story" and "Grease" and the music of Frank Sinatra.

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But as skating pairs with other types of entertainment, agents who represent athletes are increasingly likely to be affiliated with large companies such as New York-based IMG, which, in addition to representing athletes, produces shows such as the popular "Stars on Ice" tour that travels to 60 U.S. cities and six foreign countries.

Two weeks ago, Rosenberg sold his agency to Magicworks Entertainment Inc., a publicly traded company whose production credits include "Riverdance," "Evita" and Janet Jackson's upcoming Velvet Rope Tour. Magicworks plans to incorporate Rosenberg's roster of top skaters into entertainment projects that are difficult for smaller companies to tackle.

"As an agent, you can think of a single project that's a potential winner, but the risk is $500,000 or $1 million," said Rosenberg, who now heads Magicworks' winter sports division. "And as a small company, you sweat blood thinking, "Lose a couple times and you can easily go bankrupt.' "

Magicworks Chief Executive Brad Krassner says figure skating has been caught up in the same powerful forces that are forcing a consolidation in the entertainment world. "For years, live entertainment was an industry made up of little, niche businesses where there was very little crossover," Krassner said. "Now, you see synergies, like a star athlete crossing over to host the MTV awards program.

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"To us, talent is talent, so whether you're a superstar fashion model or a superstar athlete, people are coming to see you in order to be entertained. And, with skating, we envision a blending of two cultures--the athleticism and grace of skating with live music."

That blend is evident in skating shows presented by themed entertainment parks such as Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park and Sea World, with its "Rhythms on Ice." "It's a full theatrical production . . . with skaters, gymnasts and acrobats," said Sea World spokeswoman Corrine Brindley. "There are champion ice skaters, but there's also props, wonderful choreography and dramatic lighting."

Klavano said interest in skating is worldwide. "We sent a live touring show into the Mexican state of Tabasco last year for a state fair. And this year, they built a bigger venue with 10,000 seats to house a bigger show."

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When Rosenberg signed on 18 years ago to represent Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill, a full year for the world's best-known skater included two televised skating competitions, an Ice Capades tour, a handful of commercials and a guest shot on a television show such as "The Love Boat." Skaters now can stay busy for 40 weeks or more with competitions, tours and live performances, Rosenberg said.

Skaters enjoy the new order because live tours and televised productions give them the opportunity to incorporate graceful and sensual elements of skating that don't always fit into traditional competitions. And, as Rosenberg notes, there are new and profitable opportunities for skaters who have relatively brief careers.

Kwan, who finished second in Nagano but is the reigning U.S. and world champion, is a case in point. She recently signed a contract to perform in four prime-time specials for Walt Disney Network Television. She'll continue to skate competitively and plans a return to the Olympic Games in 2002. But observers say she's equally comfortable with the artistic and athletic challenges in Disney productions like the recent "Mulan" special, which featured elaborate costumes and choreography along with sophisticated lighting and props.

Observers say Disney spent freely on the special, which co-starred two-time Olympic Bronze winner Philippe Candeloro and actor Pat Morita. The show was part of Disney's elaborate introduction of the new "Mulan" animated movie that's based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese folk legend about a young girl who helped save her homeland from an invasion.

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Paul Villadolid, senior vice president of specials and nonfiction programming for Walt Disney Network Television, describes figure skaters such as Kwan as a natural element of Disney specials.

"What we really enjoy most about these specials is that figure skaters are artists who are so impressive with both their athletic and artistic abilities," Villadolid said. "In a competition, you tend to see only one side of a skater's performance. . . . With these programs, we're giving skaters the chance to stretch themselves creatively beyond what they can do in competitions."

But, as the "Mulan" special proved, a famous skater, Disney's proven production expertise and a link to a major motion picture don't guarantee success. Nielsen Media Research reports that the "Mulan" special was viewed in about 4.7 million households--far fewer than the 14.7 million households that tuned into last November's Snowden special.

"The 'Mulan' show brought viewers fabulous entertainment," one industry observer said. "But the ratings were poor. Many people thought it was suicide to do a show in the middle of June. But, still, no one has seen anything as lavish as 'Mulan' in recent years. It was wonderful."

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