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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Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

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Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

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Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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