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Skaters glide on popularity

For decades, a heavy schedule for a figure skater meant four events, perhaps five in an Olympic year. In the brave new world wrought by Tonya vs. Nancy and soaring television ratings, Brian Boitano will compete in six events before he even begins touring in his ice show.

And Boitano won't even be the busiest competitor. Kurt Browning, Viktor Petrenko and Paul Wylie all have more events on tap.

Suddenly, figure skating has taken on the look of tennis, with competitions springing up throughout the United States, Europe and the Orient for big purses. And lots of TV coverage.

"This is a natural progression of the sport," said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, who will skate in "a few" events when he isn't doing analysis for CBS. "It all stems from the popularity our sport has gained. We've never had this kind of support."

The dividing line between amateurs and professionals virtually has been erased. The Olympics were the first sign of that, with the remaining amateurs sweeping the individual medals. Now, with corporate sponsorship and television backing, the big-name pros such as Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt don't need the Olympic seal of approval.

"This is the next step for skating," said Browning, four-time world champ from Canada. "You'll probably see even more competitions each year, leading up to the next Olympics."

The Tonya-Nancy saga drew CBS ratings of 48.5 for the women's technical program and 44.1 for the women's final at Lillehammer, Norway. That ranked fourth and sixth among all TV shows _ not just for 1994, but forever. Those ratings helped CBS draw the biggest audience for any Olympics, with 84 percent of Americans watching some part of the Games.

"It's important that we take advantage of this popularity," Browning said. "The more skating events with top names, the more accepted those competitions will become."

So Browning will be all over the place, from Long Island to Massachusetts to Ontario to Landover, Md., for the World Professional Championships, one of the few established pro events. Boitano, Witt, current world champion Yuka Sato and most of the top pairs will be just as busy.