EVERETT — Figure skating brought Morry Stillwell to five Winter Olympic games, ritzy resort towns and scores of world capitals.
The former U.S. Figure Skating president, who helped land a big TV rights deal for the sequin-spangled sport a decade ago, never dreamed it would one day bring him back to his hometown, Everett, where in the late 1940s he was a competitive roller skater.
In just five days, though, Skate America is expected to bring some of the brightest stars in the universe of figure skating to Comcast Arena in downtown Everett.
That’s just one block from the former roller rink where Stillwell laced up his skates and learned to jump and twirl so many years ago.
“I’m very surprised and I’m very happy,” Stillwell said last week from Jackson, Wyo., where he was judging regional figure skating championships.
The 2008 Skate America competition Oct. 24-26 is the first of the International Skating Union’s six-event Grand Prix series, which continues in Ottawa, Beijing, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo.
The three-day, Olympic-style event is expected to draw close to 60 elite skaters from 17 countries and have segments broadcast in the United States, Canada and Japan.
Olympic gold medalist and skating commentator Scott Hamilton will join NBC Sports for a live broadcast of Olympic-eligible skaters competing in the ladies free skate event next Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. The network will also broadcast taped portions of the men’s free skate and the ladies short program.
Scheduled competitors from the U.S. include Kimmie Meissner, Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt, Evan Lysacek, Johnny Weir and pairs Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.
Organizers anticipate a worldwide television audience of 2.4 million people. Japan’s cable network tv asahi, which has closely covered the career of the 2007 world figure skating champion Miki Ando, is expected to fly in a crew of 60 people.
“This is an international event. It’s not just like you’re going to see local kids,” said Scottie Bibb, spokeswoman for U.S. Figure Skating. “These are big name skaters from all over the world.”
Hosting a successful event could bode well for Everett and the 10,000-seat publicly-owned Comcast Arena.
Besides the direct economic impact from thousands of visitors who are expected shell out $2.5 million and fill up area hotels and restaurants, boosters also are hoping for economic spinoff in the form of future events.
Spokane hosted its first Skate America in 2002, selling a record 28,664 tickets to events over three days. It leveraged that success by landing the 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which also set a new ticket sales record for that competition of 146,311 over eight days of competition.
Spokane Arena, which holds up to 12,638 people for concerts, will again host the U.S. Championships in January 2010. The event serves as the U.S. trials for the following month’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.
Barb Beddor, who along with her husband, Toby Steward, submitted winning bids and organized the ice skating events in Spokane, said Skate America is a terrific opportunity for Everett.
An event of this stature “can put you on the map, can be a launching pad,” Beddor said. “It’s also a great opportunity to showcase a community that the nation might not be aware of.”
Television coverage in Spokane included scenic shots of the Eastern Washington city.
In Everett, more than 150 reporters and photographers traveling to Skate America were invited for tours of the Everett-based aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the Future of Flight Aviation Center and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection. Planned tours of Boeing Co.’s Everett jumbo jet factory — the world’s largest building by volume — were cancelled because of the Boeing machinists strike, which is in its 44th day.
U.S. Figure Skating, the national governing body for figure skating based in Colorado Springs, Colo., cites community support as one of the key reasons Everett’s bid was successful.
The organization won’t say exactly which communities Everett competed against.
Snohomish County pledged to give Production Sports, the local Skate America organizers, $100,000 from a hotel-motel tax account to market the event outside the area. The tax money could only be used for tourism promotion. Everett’s bid also included letters of support from various government and tourism agencies as well as hoteliers.
Production Sports plans to spend the bed-tax money primarily on television advertising in Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Ore., said its co-founder, Steve Baker of Edmonds.
“They are no longer just looking for a venue, now they’re looking for community involvement. More of an experience as opposed to a competition,” said Baker, a former English figure skater whose wife, Sharon, skated for Great Britain in the 1988 Olympics.
Jennifer Comeaux, a 32-year-old accountant from New Orleans, is among the figure skating fans who will travel great distances to attend the competition. She plans to stay in an Everett hotel. Her mother, sister and a friend also plan to attend.
Comeaux, who visited three of the past four Skate Americas and the last seven consecutive National Championships, said her experience in Spokane was unparalleled.
“It felt like the whole city revolved around the event,” said Comeaux, who added many of the same fans turn out to various events. “We felt welcomed and people were excited, in restaurants and stores.
The entire staff of Comcast Arena spent Thursday in work clothes with dusters and paint brushes getting the five-year-old facility spic and span. The city, meanwhile, has pressure washed sidewalks and is hanging up fresh flower baskets and banners welcoming Skate America visitors.
“If we can knock the ball out of the park on this one, we can certainly stand to see more of these in the future,” said Kim Bedier, general manager of the sports and entertainment complex.
Earl Dutton, president of the Everett Public Facilities District, the public board that oversees Comcast Arena, has a connection to Stillwell, the Everett native who headed U.S. Figure Skating from 1995 to 1998.
In the final week of their senior year at Everett High School in 1946, the two drove to compete at the national roller skating championships in Cincinnati, Stillwell said. They stopped briefly in New York City, then rushed back for graduation ceremonies, driving three days and nights, with a single pit stop in Wisconsin to replace a blown engine, Dutton said.
The two have remained friends ever since.
After high school, Stillwell switched to ice skating and moved to California where he met his wife, Elda, at a Hollywood ice skating rink. His skating career didn’t go far, but he stayed involved with the sport and became president of U.S. Figure Skating the year after Portland, Ore.-area native Tanya Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, attempted to knock Nancy Kerrigan out of the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Stillwell was in Detroit just a few feet away from the curtains where Kerrigan’s knee was clubbed with a collapsible baton.
The sport’s biggest drama off the ice helped spark a ratings bonanza. The ladies short program at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, had the sixth-highest ratings in television history, and was the third largest all-time audience for a sporting event, behind Super Bowl XVI and Super Bowl XVII.
Three years later, Stillwell and other U.S. Figure Skating officials signed a lucrative 10-year broadcasting rights contract with ABC. The deal steered $120 million into the sport and generated enormous publicity.
In recent years, the popularity of figure skating has fallen, in part because of judging scandals and competition from other sources of entertainment.
Gone are stars with household names. The Peggy Flemmings, Dorothy Hamills, Michelle Kwans, Kristi Yamaguchis and Brian Boitanos were of a different era.
Rosalynn Sumners, a 1984 Olympic silver gold medalist from Edmonds who is now a King County real estate developer and retail store owner, will be a notable no-show at next weekend’s Skate America competition. She’ll be in Egypt vacationing with family.
Sumners, 44, hung up her skates a few years ago at the age of 40. She had grown tired of a grueling schedule and the lifestyle of professional skating that she says “consumed her life” for 20 years. She said today’s skaters tend to be more technical and don’t seem to stick around as long as her peers who stayed with the sport for decades.
Sumners had a street named after her in Edmonds after winning the world title in 1983.
“I’m completely out of the loop with the sport,” she said. “It’s the first time that I don’t know about the young kids. There are so many new little ones that keep creeping up around the corner, there’s so much talent out there.”
Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.