Alexandra Trusova (RUS) 2018 ©International Skating Union (ISU)

ISU’s Junior Grand Prix free live streams boost figure skating views around the world

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Hi, Ted,

I’m Laura from Peru. I like figure skating so much; perhaps it’s not very popular in my country. I wanted to thank you for your comments on the events. They are very useful for people like me who just started to follow this sport.

–Email sent to Ted Barton during one of this season’s Junior Grand Prix events

 

Laura Quinto Castro spent her childhood in Tarma, a city at 10,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, where there was no ice rink. When Quinto Castro moved 150 miles west to coastal Lima, at age 11, she found what had been the lone permanent rink in her country, but that facility now has become itinerant in Peru’s capital for lack of funding.

Quinto Castro, 27, still managed to develop a strong attraction to figure skating by watching ESPN Latin America’s telecast of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Like many people worldwide, she was mesmerized by the exploits of 15-year-old Russian Yulia Lipnitskaya. A couple years later, Quinto Castro wondered what had happened to Lipnitskaya, the darling of the Sochi Winter Games.

So Quinto Castro began searching YouTube, which recommends videos based on the subject of the searches. One day, a video from the International Skating Union’s Junior Grand Prix Skating Channel on YouTube popped up. She subscribed to the channel and found that it does streams of the JGP competitions that are available free and live throughout the world everywhere but Japan and South Korea, where TV networks have bought rights to the junior events.

Quinto Castro, a one-time roller skater, now is among the 66,754 subscribers to the channel, which will do its final live broadcasts of this season from the Junior Grand Prix Final Thursday through Saturday in Vancouver. Twelve-month streaming data (August-to-August) of Junior Grand Prix events on the YouTube channel, both live and archived, show viewer hits grew from 3.1 million for 2014-15 to 14.1 million for 2017-18 and could reach 15 million in 2018-19. The totals increase as people watch archived video.

Viewers to date this season have come from 83 countries. And Peru, which is not an ISU member country, is just one of the unlikely places where people are watching.

“We’re very proud of bringing the sport to countries where people could never have seen it,” said Ted Barton, the Canadian who does commentary on the streams.

Ted Barton interviews U.S. ice dancers Rachel & Michael Parsons after their win at 2015 JPG in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Courtesy Rob Dustin)

Barton has asked viewers to send him their comments and suggestions via an email address given verbally and shown on the live streams. Quinto Castro was among those who responded. Other emails came from Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, Iran (“A very odd country for figure skating world, but we do love figure skating. Though we are not member nation of ISU, we have quite great figure skaters at our tiny rink in Tehran!”) and Brazil, where a 15-year-old named Camila wrote:

“I’m watching the JGP stream now, thinking ’bout how I’d like to be a figure skater myself, but, living in Brazil, there’s not really much hope for that. Still, I really love the sport, and watching it makes me just so happy. I wonder if other people out there feel like me.”

That others clearly do is reflected in the viewership statistics. Half the views come from Russia, whose young women have dominated junior singles for several years, and Japan, which has both top junior singles skaters and the most popular active skater in the world, two-time Olympic men’s champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

“We always believed it was going to be a successful project,” said Selina Vanier, the ISU Communication & Media Manager. “The more visibility we give the sport, the better it is.”

(The ISU also streams its senior events, but those are geo-blocked in the countries with TV rights-holders, which means most of the world. Some of those broadcasts are free over-the-air, but many require a paid cable or streaming service subscription, such as the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold, which will give its subscribers live streams of the entire senior Grand Prix Final competition this week.)

MORE: How to watch the Grand Prix Final

While the junior numbers remain decidedly modest by comparison with other sports, they nevertheless reflect substantial intangible value on an ISU annual investment believed to be around $450,000. (The ISU declined to give an exact figure for JGP stream funding, part of the ISU Council’s projects budget, which was $3.2 million in 2017.) It is unimportant that the ISU revenue from the YouTube hits amounts to nickels and dimes at this point.

For a sport increasingly challenged by its viewer demographics (largely older) and competition from other forms of entertainment, the venture can be called a success, especially as a way to engage the generations who consume much of their entertainment on mobile phones.

“The streaming aspect is critically important to reach not only new fans but a younger demographic,” said Ramsey Baker, U.S. Figure Skating’s chief marketing officer. “That aspect alone makes it worth the investment.

“The Junior Grand Prix is a nice starting point for someone to get into watching the sport. And it provides the ISU with data that can help them develop media partners in new territories.”

Caitlyn Chen, vice-president of Chinese digital media colossus Tencent (an ISU rights-holder in China), told an International Basketball Federation summit this fall that market research showed of the 160 million Chinese born between 2000 and 2010, over 70 percent “say they are following closely at least one sport. From this, we can see they are not just using phones or smart media to play games.”

For the world’s hard-core skating fans, the free Junior Grand Prix streams are manna from heaven, especially because Barton is a big part of feeding their appetite.

It is fitting that Barton has an integral role – if, by his own estimation, an improbable one – in the success of the project.

Barton, 64, a native New Zealander who moved to British Columbia, was Canada’s national junior men’s singles champion in 1973 and finished 16th at senior worlds in 1976. Beginning in 2002, when the ISU began implementing a new judging system in reaction to the Salt Lake Olympics pairs judging controversy, Barton was involved in implanting the video replay that became a key part of the new system.

When U.S. Figure Skating created icenetwork in 2007, it realized the video replay camera used at competitions could serve another purpose: providing the content from the sectional, regional and national (junior and below) events it wanted to stream to icenetwork subscribers. Baker said there eventually were discussions among ISU officials about ways the international federation could use the video footage from its replay camera at ISU events, and that led in 2011 to the first Junior Grand Prix streams, which used a single camera.

“Live streaming was still knives and bearskins at that point,” said Rob Dustin, a longtime figure skating producer on various platforms.

In the 2013 season, the ISU had 1.5 million YouTube views of the rudimentary streams, according to Dustin. At that point, the ISU hired him and his company, Red Brick Entertainment, to provide a real production using five or six cameras but keeping costs down with what he calls a “high-speed, low-drag approach” that includes just four or five production people at an event. One big cost saving comes from being able to process and encode the stream on site and doing it without paying what Dustin said would be $150,000 for a “legacy” broadcast replay system.

The coverage includes every skater in every Junior Grand Prix event, not just the elite shown in many network broadcasts of senior competitions. That can mean two dozen skaters in men’s and women’s singles, but it guarantees fans in, say, Indonesia, will see their nation’s lone competitor. For those who want to watch only that athlete, Dustin and his team provide that individual video within minutes of the skater’s group having finished.

“The ISU wanted us to be the voice of those skaters,” Dustin said. “The ISU is doing this for exposure, not for revenue.”

Best of all, the coverage has been reliable: by Dustin’s count, the JGP live stream has been down for less than an hour in approximately 1,000 hours of streaming over the past five seasons.

The Red Brick Entertainment Junior Grand Prix crew visiting Moscow’s Red Square before heading to a 2017 JPG event in Saransk, Russia. Left to right are cameraman / editor Austin Boylen, digital specialist Alex Metzman, director Tom Wherle, cameraman / editor Tim O’Laughlin, executive producer Rob Dustin and commentator Ted Barton. (Courtesy Rob Dustin)

From viewers’ standpoint, the best thing Dustin did was to bring on Barton as commentator, no matter that he had no training or experience for the role. (His real job is executive director of Skate Canada British Columbia / Yukon.)

“I was without question horrible at the beginning,” Barton wrote in an email Monday. “I hated doing it (at first) but knew if the streaming was to be successful, I had to make it something different – but most importantly something people would respect and maybe even learn some small details from.”

What Barton brought to the table was in-depth knowledge of the judging and scoring systems, a refusal to make himself the center of attention and a decision to comment honestly but not disparagingly about the skaters. He talks only during the replays, which he chooses, and his restraint is noticeable: even a history-making successful quadruple Lutz by 14-year-old Russian Alexandra Trusova this season, first by a woman in international competition, did not bring a verbal exclamation point from Barton but rather a simple acknowledgement of the jump having been fully rotated.

“People would very quick to criticize the ISU if I did what everyone else does and speak too much,” Barton said. “So, I decided there would be no commentary during the performance. I wanted to be respectful of the work of the skater and coach/choreographer and… reserve thoughts/opinions to after the performance.”

He then prefers to explain technical reasons for mistakes rather than to focus on how badly the mistakes damage a performance.

“Ted has a different way of looking at a skater who has gone ker-splat,” Dustin said.

So this is what Barton had to say after Marina Asoyan of Armenia, in her international competition debut at age 15, fell three times and had just one positive grade for 11 elements in the free skate at the Junior Grand Prix in Armenia:

“Marina wanted so badly to skate well in front of her hometown fans. Maybe she was just a little too excited… You could see her disappointment at the end of the program… There’s the double loop (a fall), and she’s not on top of her feet at all… It was just one of those frustrating times when nothing seems to go right.”

Figure skating fans generally favor such a kid-gloves approach to commentary, especially where a young and/or inexperienced athlete is involved. (Barton is more self-critical, promising to improve his sometimes-botched pronunciations of names.) And many fans complain vociferously on social media about commentators who talk throughout the performance.

“When I began to see the emotion, both positive and negative, on the faces of these young skaters I then knew I had to support their successes and help them through their failures,” Barton wrote. “Just be honest but sensitive in the delivery and encouraging in some solutions.

“I know what parents go through emotionally just watching their sons and daughters perform, let alone what they (the skaters) have to deal with on social media, so I wanted to try and be a voice of reason and encouragement. I would say for the most part we have been successful.”

The vituperation on social media, even where juniors are involved, reached the point where it was decided before this season to turn off the live chat during streaming on the YouTube site.

MORE: Yevgenia Medvedeva responds to social media criticism

The skaters speak for themselves in post-competition interviews, some requested specifically by the rights-holders in Japan and South Korea. It is a sort of informal media training for what may lie ahead at the senior level, and it introduces their personalities to viewers.

It also fuels the interest of viewers like Quinto Castro, who said in a recent email to me that she has become “a big fan of the Russian ladies” while following the junior events since the 2016-17 season, and she wishes she did not need a cable subscription to watch more senior events live. (Peru – and every South American country but Brazil and Guyana – falls under ESPN’s rights agreement for South America.) Exposure cannot always trump revenue, and rights-holders want a return on their investment.

At least it is easier to watch figure skating in Peru than to practice it.

“In the future, I would like to go live in another country and try to do figure skating for adults,” Quinto Castro wrote.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Nathan Chen may need to ante up at Grand Prix Final

Chloe Kim, David Wise among X Games headliners

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The X Games return to Aspen, Colorado, this week at Buttermilk Mountain. A marquee event on the yearly snowboarding and freeskiing calendar, the X Games will feature a handful of Olympic gold medalists and notable names in action sports. Below are a few storylines to watch for this week:

Nearly full field of Olympic gold medalists will compete in Aspen

All four freestyle skiing gold medalists in X Games events (halfpipe, slopestyle) and five of six Olympic snowboarding champions (slopestyle, halfpipe, big air) are expected to compete in Aspen. Among them is Chloe Kim, who has not lost a contest since the Olympics. She finished last season with a win at the US Open, and has three victories already this season, including at the Dew Tour in December. Since the Olympics, Kim’s star has only grown: she’s thrown out the first pitch at a Dodgers game and become an awards show regular, but her ability to crush her competition on the pipe remains unchanged.

In addition to Kim, the three other U.S. gold medalists from 2018 should all contend: in men’s ski halfpipe, two-time defending Olympic gold medalist David Wise has continued to impress this season, but as in previous years, he’ll be challenged by his teammates, Aaron Blunck and Aspen native Alex Ferreira, who would skip school as a kid to watch the X Games in person. Snowboard slopestyle gold medalists Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson are both podium threats as well.

After missing Olympics, can Sildaru sweep in Aspen?

Three years ago, a quiet and unassuming Kelly Sildaru won her first X Games title at 13, becoming the youngest ever winner in a winter event. Pegged early as a star for the PyeongChang Games in both slopestyle and halfpipe, the Estonian teenager missed the Olympics with a torn left ACL. Sildaru, who hails from a country with no mountains, will attempt a rare triple in Aspen: she’ll compete in slopestyle, halfpipe, and big air. No winter sports athlete has ever won three gold medals at the same X Games contest. Sildaru missed last year’s event due to her knee injury and has looked sharp so far this season: she won the U.S. Grand Prix in halfpipe and the Dew Tour in slopestyle. Sildaru has four X Games medals in total: two in slopestyle and two in big air.

White’s protégé awaits his big moment

Toby Miller learned from the best: the 18-year-old was mentored by three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, who brought Miller to PyeongChang as his guest. White hasn’t competed since the Olympics, focusing instead on skateboarding, while Miller is having a notable season of his own: he finished third at the Dew Tour and second at the U.S. Grand Prix. The U.S. halfpipe contingent remains deep: Olympians Jake Pates, Ben Ferguson and Chase Josey are all contenders on any given day, though PyeongChang bronze medalist Scotty James will likely be the favorite.

Big tricks

The X Games are often a staging point for new tricks: in 2017, Norway’s Marcus Kleveland became the first to land a quad in competition, only to be topped by Canadian Max Parrot, who won the event with a quad of his own. Chloe Kim and PyeongChang big air gold medalist Anna Gasser have been at the forefront of innovative tricks this season. Kim, a four-time X Games winner, is still far ahead of the field with back-to-back 1080s, which she used last weekend at a World Cup event in Laax. In October 2018, she became the first woman to land a frontside double cork 1080, though she has yet to execute it in competition. Kim can win easily with the arsenal of tricks she already has – but she’d make a bit of history if she decides to go for it.

In November, Gasser became the first woman to land a cab triple underflip, though like Kim, she has not done so in competition. Known for her progressive approach to the sport and impressive arsenal of difficult tricks, Gasser could attempt the triple at the X Games.

James, Cipres ahead of pairs’ field at Europeans

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They entered as one of the favorites and left the ice in first place: France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres won the short program of the European Championships in Minsk, 2.65 points ahead of second place Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov from Russia, and 2.85 points ahead of Italy’s Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise, who are standing in third before Thursday’s free skate.

Results: Pairs’ short program

Many thought that Russia’s Alexandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, who had skated earlier in the evening, would shake up the podium. They are standing in a close fourth position, 1.12 points behind the podium.

Skating first in the last group, James and Cipres fulfilled the contract they had made for the day: emerge in first, after the flaws they experienced earlier in the season with that same short program. The performance they delivered was flawless, from their opening triple twist to a perfectly synchronized side-by-side triple toe and ample throw triple flip. Their lift was particularly impressive, as they moved from one intricate position to the next with an incredible flow. They received a +1.75 points GOE (Grade of Execution) for it. Most of their other elements were rated above 1.0 points.

“We needed to change a few things to gain more speed, when we need it through the program, especially after the twist,” James explained.

“We made adjustments with Guillaume [Cizeron, who choreographed their program] during Christmas, and he found the way to overcome our problems,” Cipres added.

“We’re very happy we made these changes,” James offered, “but we need to keep going!”

Cipres reminded everyone jokingly: last year, the team had dropped from first to fourth after the free.

The Grand Prix Final gold medalists cracked their season’s best to amass 76.55 points for their short program.

Tarasova and Morozov succeeded the French team on the ice. They returned to the spectacular program to Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto they skated to last season, and displayed the unique and amazing power they have to offer. Their triple twist was incredibly high, and their throw triple flip was impressively ample. Tarasova underrotated the triple toe of the pair’s side-by-side combination. The crowd quickly understood that the hope of a superlative program had eluded them. They nonetheless garnered 73.90 points, with an artistic mark up-to-par with that of the French team (35.40 points for the Russians, and 35.40 points for the Russians).

“Going back to last year’s program was our common decision,” Tarasova explained.

“It’s more impressive, more powerful in terms of skating, it includes good transitions and great speed. Everything in this program is bigger than in the previous one. It allows to show the strong side of our team,” Morozov added.

Della Monica and Guarise took the ice after the Russians and delivered a beautiful and inspired routine to Joe Cocker’s “Never Tear Us Apart.” Their side-by-side triple Salchow was in perfect synch, and Della Monica landed her throw triple flip in full speed and control.

“We push every day at our maximum,” Guarise emphasized after the competition was over. “Our coaches keep telling us ‘stronger, faster, stronger, faster, push, push, push’ … And we keep falling and falling. And then one day comes and you manage to stay on your feet. From then on you start to show good skating, and also your emotions. That’s the only way we know!”

Boikova and Kozlovskii certainly put the strongest energy into their program, at a level only the Italians could match. They amassed 72.58 points, a new season’s best for the fourth-place team.

MORE: Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 1

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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