Monday, December 19, 2011
Ted Ligety suggests radical changes
ALTA BADIA, Italy -- Ted Ligety has already created a storm of controversy on the World Cup circuit by leading the revolt over coming changes in ski shape rules.
Now he's suggesting a complete overhaul of the sport's format, proposing a radical switch from traditional two-run races in giant slalom and slalom to five mini knockout runs, and doing away with the two-hour break in between legs.
Ligety also would like to see all of the technical races run at night to gain bigger crowds, but men's World Cup director Gunter Hujara says the 27-year-old American needs to better understand the finances and TV contracts that determine start times.
Ligety's ideas were inspired by the Alpine Rockfest exhibition event to be held at the U.S. team's former training base in Paganella on Friday.
"I've always believed ski racing is presented and formatted poorly," Ligety wrote on his blog Saturday. "I can't think of any successful sports that have a three-hour halftime and fans only see their favorite athlete twice for a max of four minutes.
"I can't imagine going to a basketball game to watch LeBron James play for one minute then wait three hours to see him play for another minute," the giant slalom world champion added. "It would not make sense for TV or the fans. Yet this is how a ski race is run."
So Ligety wants to cut the field to 30 or 40 racers on a 30- to 40-second course with five runs where the field gets cut in half after every run -- so it could go from 30 racers to 16, eight, four and then two finalists skiing the final run to determine the winner.
"This would create constant action and if you are say an Aksel Lund Svindal fan you can see him race several runs," Ligety wrote.
Yet Svindal, the overall World Cup leader and Olympic super-G champion, isn't convinced.
"That would be show races to me," the Norwegian said. "Some of the stuff we do now is pretty good. ... This is what the sport lives on -- legendary races like Kitzbuehel, Wengen, Alta Badia, Adelboden. Those are really great races for us. And Alpine events are popular at the Olympics, so changing it around too much, that's a little extreme."
Svindal does agree with Ligety's ideas about having more night races, especially during the upcoming holiday period.
"Right now people have to choose between skiing, like we want them to do to buy the equipment, or to sit and watch the race," Svindal said. "People could go skiing during the day and then watch the races in their cabins at night or go to the event. Instead of the 500 people we have in Bormio, we could have 50,000 people."
Only about 500 people attend the annual downhill in Bormio held between Christmas and New Year's each year, whereas about 50,000 fans show up in late January for the night slalom in Schladming, Austria, lining the course with flares to create an atmosphere rivaling that of an intense soccer match.
In recent seasons, there also have been popular night races in Zagreb, Croatia.
However, according to Hujara, Schladming's attractiveness doesn't go far beyond Austria. He said it's one of the highest attended races of the year but attracts the lowest number of TV viewers because national broadcasters in Germany and Italy refuse to pick it up in place of their weekday prime-time lineup.
If the International Ski Federation lines up national broadcasters in only Austria, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Norway, Sweden and Slovakia, the total number of live viewers is about 3 million.
"Germany alone is 3 million and Italy gives you almost the same," Hujara said. "We would like to do it, and for all other disciplines, too, but we don't have the (TV times)."
Instead, FIS has set up mini parallel giant slalom city events in Munich and Moscow. The Munich event will be held on New Year's Day, and the Moscow event is scheduled for Feb. 21.
However, even the city event in Munich was moved up to a late afternoon start because of a lack of prime-time TV contracts.
"We want to have a third city event," Hujara told The Associated Press. "We were very close with New York but it failed in the last moment. You need big investors. It's a huge thing to build a ramp in New York."
Possible sites for a city event on a makeshift ramp in New York included Central Park and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens.
Instead, FIS is now looking into creating a race in downtown Montreal.
"We want to go to the east of North America because that's where we can reach more people," Hujara said. "It's a money issue and in this market there is not so much money."
The inaugural race in Moscow three years ago cost about $10 million, a big chunk of it for the massive ramp, which is 60 meters high, 36 meters wide and 210 meters long with 20 gates.
"Now it costs less because they have the ramp already and all the materials, but that's still quite an investment to do something like that. It's much more expensive than having races here," Hujara said following the annual giant slalom Sunday in Alta Badia.
Austria men's coach Mathias Berthold, who competed on the breakaway U.S. Pro Tour in the early 1990s, also would like to see more parallel races.
"It's exciting and people don't really need to understand the sport to see who is winning, and it's fair to the athlete as well," Berthold said, adding that the parallel format could eliminate differing weather conditions for racers that so often decide the winner, because skiers would only be competing against the racer beside them at the very same moment.
"And if you have a rut you switch it around and the next run the other racer has the problem," Berthold said. "I think that's the good format."
Gustavo Thoeni, the 1972 Olympic giant slalom winner from Italy, is another proponent of parallel racing.
In 1975, Thoeni edged Swedish rival Ingemar Stenmark for the overall World Cup title by winning a parallel slalom in Val Gardena.
"Parallel is good for the TV because the people see the differences between the athletes," Thoeni said. "But this is skiing. You've got the hill, the gate and the snow and it's not like you can just change everything."
Asked about his proposals, Ligety said he had not discussed them with FIS yet.
"It's not in FIS' DNA to do something that drastic and potentially good for the sport," Ligety said. "They just kind of stick to what they know, and they might be beating a dead horse but it's not really something they're concerned about as far as improving the sport."