When figure skating audiences will tune in to watch Skate America on NBC on October 26, they will have a surprise in store. The veteran skating commentator team of Scott Hamilton, Sandra Bezic and Tom Hammond, fixtures on network TV for a few Olympic cycles, will not introduce the next skating competition, nor any that will follow it. Replacing them as primary figure skating commentators in prime time will be the fresh and less conventional duo who proved their mettle during the live broadcasts at the Winter Olympics back in February: Johnny Weir, a three-time national champion, and Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion. NBC’s Terry Gannon will also join them as part of the commentator team.
While many in figure skating seemed stunned, judging by social media posts, the only things to be stunned about is that we all failed to see it coming. This transition is the most rational thing for NBC Sports to do in light of current circumstances. The only reason skating fans and insiders did not expect it because it is such a rare occurrence in television and figure skating politics to overturn the status quo, especially when big names are involved. But what could make more sense?
To begin with, TV ratings for figure skating have been moving south at an alarming rate for many years. Granted, little if any of that can be blamed on the commentators when the sport’s overall popularity has declined in every measurable way. But when the ship is sinking, anything that may keep it afloat must be given a chance. What’s more, both ratings and skating chatter indicated that Weir and Lipinski outperformed the veterans: Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion, and Bezic, the choreographer and former Canadian skater. This assessment is not necessarily a measure of the older team’s popularity, but of their ability to deliver what fans expect on the air today. Despite Weir and Lipinski’s unique on-camera style, which lifted more than a few eyebrows during the event, the young duo delivered a calm, well-informed, factual, but not overstated commentary, which contrasted sharply with Hamilton’s much more effusive, even dramatic style. Weir and Lipinski did their homework, educating audiences about the judging system, the skaters, and performance elements, rather than reacting emotionally to the performance.
Extra testimony to the young duo’s on-air popularity was their assignment not long thereafter to review outfits at the Kentucky Derby, of all things. While this job required a very little subject matter expertise and pointed instead to their off-ice talents, it served to further raise their profile, and might have been a clue that change was in the air.
Adding to Weir and Lipinski’s appeal is also the generational change among skating fans, which Hamilton and Bezik could not help. In addition to the natural influx of younger fans over the years, figure skating has undergone dramatic changes over the last decade that go over better with younger people than those who followed the sport over the decades, a fact that might have hastened the generational shift in the skating fandom. As such, it is only natural for younger people to be more familiar and comfortable with Weir and Lipinski. While Hamilton is no stranger to any fans, chances are Bezic resonates with few among the younger generations.
Weir and Lipinski’s main weakness may be their limited knowledge of ice dance, a very specialized discipline even for skating experts. But Tracy Wilson, who won the bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics with Rob McCall, has been a member of the NBC team for many years and will stay on to help, in addition to providing a measure of continuity.
The decision to make this dramatic change is not risk free. Weir has had his share of controversy over the years over his no-holds-barred statements and extravagant personal and dress style, which may not go over well with everyone and all generations. His over-the-top interest in everything Russian may annoy some fans, but it is also proving to be an asset at a time when Russian figure skating is reasserting its dominance. The fact that Weir is openly gay is highly unlikely to be an issue with skating fans, but is nonetheless a first in skating commentary. Once the audience moves past the glitter and occasional feathers, however, they seem to appreciate a couple of experts who can fulfill the role of sports commentator in its most traditional sense.
All in all, the pros of this decision far outweighed the cons, and skating fans may well be drawn to a new look and feel in the way skating is presented on network TV. The worst con, in fact, is having to say goodbye to the team that sat in those commentator’s chairs for so long, and to whom much of the audience has very grown attached. But even most of them appear to be ready for a new beginning.