12:37 PM EDT, October 28, 2011
Just before he began preparing for a comeback into competitive figure skating, reigning Olympic men's champion Evan Lysacek switched agents from International Management Group to Creative Artists Agency.
And CAA, long known as one of the most powerful entertainment agencies in the world, seems content to let the reigning Olympic champion hang out to dry in what apparently boils down to a dispute over money between the agency and the U.S. figure skating federation.
I asked Lysacek about the agent switch a month ago but didn't feel what he said was noteworthy until U.S. Figure Skating announced Oct. 14 he had withdrawn from Skate America -- and the entire Grand Prix circuit this fall -- because, in a statement on his web site, "a suitable agreement could not be reached between US Figure Skating and myself by the entry event deadline."
Lysacek would not identify the root of the disagreement. U.S. Figure Skating spokesman Barb Reichert said it was financial. Neither side will say how much money is involved. USFS chief executive David Raith said in a statement, "We will continue to support Evan as he works toward the 2014 Olympic Winter Games."
The skater's new agency, CAA, actually has said nothing. His agent, Jeff Jacobs, did not respond to an email seeking comment sent the day of the USFS announcement or another sent Monday in which I asked, "Would you care to comment on why CAA has been silent on Evan's withdrawal from GP circuit?"
I sent the second email because NBC's commentators, Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic, had plenty to say about Lysacek's withdrawal during the network's Saturday telecast of Skate America.
In the absence of any new comment from Lysacek -- whom Hamilton said declined an interview -- or his agents, the NBC commentary left the impression the skater was being a greedy bad guy.
But NBC had nothing to say about how USFS continued to advertise Lysacek's presence at Skate America despite having no firm commitment from him.
Bezic: "You can't do it for financial gain, and you can't do it for the wins. . .your motivation has to be pure."
Hamilton: ". . .if you're coming back to competition, compete. You know, I mean, whether you have an agreement with U.S. Figure Skating. . .the business of skating has changed."
Were those comments a fit of pique on NBC's part, since its live Saturday show including the men's free skate should have attracted more viewers if Lysacek competed?
Someone familiar with CAA told me its lack of comment was to be expected and part of the agency's modus operandi. Go to its web site, and you will find nothing more than a home page; go to its presumably official sports web site, which appararently has not been updated recently, and you will not find a single figure skater listed.
Ironically, when I asked Lysacek in September about the switch to CAA, he answered, "I just really kind of wanted an agency based in Los Angeles that I could have a more personal connection with and could be with me physically at more of what I am actually doing, to kind of have a little stronger support system."
In this case, CAA's lack of stated support did no favors for Lysacek, left to handle a difficult situation on his own (at least publicly), which he did on Twitter, his web site and a text message to me in which he said, "I am in the best shape of my life. I'll continue to train with the hope an agreement can be reached by the U.S. Championships (in January)."
Lysacek, who grew up in Naperville, lives in L.A. and owns a house in Las Vegas, has until Nov. 23 to tell U.S. Figure Skating whether he intends to compete at nationals. The federation confirmed it pays neither prize money nor appearance money for the U.S. Championships.
After taking last season off from competition, Lysacek decided in June he wanted to return to serious training and allowed USFS to enter him in two Grand Prix events, one in the U.S., the other in France. He did not talk publicly about the comeback until my Sept. 23 interview with him, when he said both the ultimate goal was the 2014 Olympics, and he was still unsure about going to Skate America a month later.
Meanwhile, the men's competition at Skate America was awful -- and it ended with no U.S. man on the awards podium for the first time in the 30-year history of the event.
But let's get back to the core issue, which Hamilton alluded to when he said, "the business of skating has changed."
One question is how well CAA understands that. The agency has had minimal relationships with figure skating and figure skaters -- especially compared to IMG, which has been intimately involved with the sport (sometimes too intimately) for years.
Although Bezic's remark about financial gain was ridiculous (why shouldn't a skater with Lysacek's career record profit from it?), the business has changed so much that it would be hard for the U.S. federation to pay Lysacek anything near what it did Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes, Kimmie Meissner, Sasha Cohen, Timothy Goebel and Michael Weiss from 1997 through 2005.
Each of the skaters in the previous paragraph (other than Lysacek) made in excess of $100,000 from appearance fees (the totals also include prize money funneled through USFS) during one of those years, as the federation reported in its tax filings under the category of the top five independent contractors making $100,000 or more in a year.
Kwan, the most decorated U.S. figure skater in history, earned $6.3 million from 1997 through 2005 (best year: $899,000 on the 1998 tax filing).
Cohen made from $315,000 to $473,000 from 2002 through 2005; Weiss pulled in $505,000 in 2003, Hughes $518,000 in 2002, Goebel $353,000 in 2002, Lipinski $433,000 in 1997.
(FYI: Tax filings are for a fiscal year, so Lipinski's 1997 earnings, for instance, were from July 1, 1997 through June 30, 1998 -- the months following her U.S. and world titles and including her 1998 Olympic title).
And the tax filing had to list only the five highest earners. There were others making six figures.
They were in the right place at the right time, when ABC was throwing money at the sport.
For the big earners, the bulk of the money was appearance fees to guarantee they skated on ABC shows like Skate America and the pro-ams U.S. Figure Skating once ran. Those fees came out of the TV revenues, which reached $12 million annually in the final eight years of ABC's contract with USFS.
In the two most recent USFS tax filings, through June 30, 2010, no skater is listed among independent contractors earning more than $50,000 a year (the IRS lowered the reporting level).
(World champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White will show up on the 2011 filing because they made $128,500 in prize money during that period.)
The explanation for the huge drop in skaters' incomes is simple: a huge drop in television money.
ABC did not renew after 2007, when interest in skating had dwindled to the point USFS settled for an NBC deal with no rights fee to keep the sport on over-the-air television. It is basically a profit-sharing arrangement.
ABC had been paying the USFS $4.5 million a year in a four-year contract negotiated just before the Tonya-Nancy soap opera leading to the 1994 Olympics turned the sport into a cash cow. When a new deal was struck in 1997, it gave USFS a $10.5 million annual net from television for several years.
The difference since then is enormous.
In 2008, the USFS independent auditor's report said the net television revenue for the 07-08 fiscal year (the transition year to the NBC deal) was $231,000. The numbers for 2009 and 2010, listed as "broadcasting and licensing," were $1.8 million and $2.4 million, respectively, with 90 percent of that coming from broadcasting.
Those numbers show encouraging growth but also make it abundantly clear that the federation doesn't have the funds it once did for skaters like Lysacek, no matter how much he deserves such largesse. The federation says it now gives no skater or couple more than $50,000 a year, and that is for training expenses based on past performance.
USFS told me that had Lysacek signed the standard current athlete agreement, he would have received $40,000 to fund his training and other expenses. That is the maximum USFS gives to a singles skater in its "A" tier, for which just the two reigning national champions qualified this season. Three ice dance couples qualified for team compensation up to $50,000.
Maybe Lysacek is asking for so little extra, relatively, that USFS seems silly not to give it to him. (If that's the case, CAA should be making it for him.) But if the federation gave Lysacek more, it would have to do the same at least for Davis and White, who were unbeaten last season. And maybe reigning Grand Prix Final and U.S. champion Alissa Czisny, fifth at 2011 worlds, also would want more.
The federation undoubtedly thinks it made a concession to Lysacek in allowing him to skip the pre-season "Champs Camp" mandatory for all U.S. athletes scheduled to compete on the Grand Prix circuit. USFS spokesman Reichert said Lysacek was excused after having made the federation aware "in advance" of a prior commitment.
The question of who owes whom and what is complicated.
Some argue Lysacek is being an ingrate after years in which the federation provided some financial support for his training.
I say he repaid that investment -- with interest -- by winning world, Olympic and Four Continents Championship titles; two other world medals; three world junior championship medals; and 12 medals in his last 12 appearances on the Grand Prix.
Among the current U.S. entries on the Grand Prix circuit, just one, Davis and White, has a resume approaching Lysacek's. Only one other -- ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani -- ever has won a medal at the senior world championships.
Could Czisny, Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt or Jeremy Abbott -- all U.S. champions -- become a world medalist in the next couple years? No one would bet on it, even if one of the women could make the podium this season, when reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim of South Korea will not compete, and reigning world champion MIki Ando of Japan has said she may be finished with Olympic-style skating.
Beyond Davis and White, whose free dance to music from the Strauss' operatta "Die Fledermaus" looks like an instant classic, the big deal in U.S. skating so far this season has been Brandon Mroz's landing a quadruple lutz jump in a minor event last month.
After reviewing film and documentation, the International Skating Union announced Wednesday that Mroz will go into the record books as the first to have done the quad lutz successfully in competition.
That's "inside baseball" to anyone but the sport's passionate followers. Mroz needs to become known for something other than a jump only a couple hundred people witnessed. After finishing second in his senior national debut three years ago, he fell to 6th and 7th the past two seasons.
And what do the previous five paragraphs have to do with Lysacek?
They are evidence that U.S. skating needs him as a competitor and as an athlete with a high enough profile to reach beyond the sport's hard-core audience.
But he needs the spotlight of competition as well, having reached the point when the post-Olympic glow is fading, when his brand will be refreshed and his visibility increased by the attempt to get to the 2014 Olympics he has publicly vowed to make.
When Lysacek reached his fame apogee by finishing second on Dancing With the Stars just after he won the 2010 gold, I asked marketing consultant Marc Ganis of SportsCorp whether the skater would be worth more to potential sponsors if he kept competing with an eye on the next Olympics.
"Without question," Ganis replied. "Sponsors can then feel they have time to build `equity' in him going towards the next Olympics, as a number did with Michael Phelps."
For U.S. Figure Skating and its broadcast partner, NBC, the potential for a rematch between the 2006 (Evgeny Plushenko) and 2010 Olympic champions on the Russian's home soil at the 2014 Olympics is an easily exploited story line.
So here's the bottom line: The impasse between Lysacek and the federation is hurting both.
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