By Steve Keating
LONDON, Ontario (Reuters) - With figure skating on the decline in North America it was hoped that the return of charismatic South Korean skate queen Kim Yuna to this week's world championships would give the sport a badly-needed jolt.
But any boost her comeback gives the sport will be ephemeral with the Olympic champion set to hang up her blades after she defends her gold medal at next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi.
While it may not match the intensity of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding rivalry from the mid-90s, Kim's battles with Japan's two-time world champion Mao Asada remain one of figure skating's all-time greats.
Still, even the prospect of another showdown between the two 22-year-olds this week has not been enough to fill the 7,000-seat junior ice hockey arena chosen to host this year's worlds.
"The arena wasn't as full as I expected," lamented Kim after winning the ladies short skate on Thursday. "I just kept trying to think that this was another practice session and I focused on that."
While there are many seats available inside the Budweiser Gardens it has been standing room only in the media center where a battalion of Asian press have been camped out for the week-long competition.
Their presence, coupled with a lack of interest from North American media outlets, emphasizes the seismic shift figure skating's popularity has undergone over the last decade.
Not long ago, major figure skating events in North America were reserved for the biggest of venues, the three previous three worlds held in Canada (1996, 2001 and 2006) all staged in National Hockey League (NHL) rinks.
But those days are over and never coming back, according International Skating Union Vice-President David Dore.
"Everyone wants to come back to the big huge arenas and I don't think we are going back to that," Dore, a former chief of Figure Skating Canada, told Reuters. "I'm not so sure that we have lost the people so much as people are watching the sport in a different way.
"Maybe we are in a smaller venue but reaching a broader audience then before with social media."
Skating officials insist they see more upside to holding an event in a packed smaller venue than half-full NHL arenas. But the fact the a world championship featuring Kim and local ice skating celebrities and Olympic and world champion ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have not filled the Gardens has shocked many.
It is not hard to pinpoint the reasons behind the drop in interest in North America and figure skating's rise in Asia where attendance and television ratings are soaring.
In the glory days of the sport in North America, Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinksi and Debbie Thomas were household names but this week Americans would be hard pressed to name the two U.S. female representatives in London - Ashley Wagner and Tracie Gold.
"For North America you need homegrown stars, homegrown personalities, homegrown winners," David Raith, the executive director of U.S. Figure Skating told Reuters. "Finishing second, third is great but the public wants the winner. It's not just winning a world championship, it's winning an Olympic Games.
"We need to develop new personalities to come to the fore.
"What we have seen the last five, six, seven years is a lack of consistency from the top athletes with a couple of exceptions, Kim Yuna being one.
"She was a star going into 2010 (Olympics) became a star then disappeared, and when an athlete disappears that star power disappears with them."
Like Katarina Witt, Kim is one of the few skaters whose popularly has extended well beyond their own borders.
Following her spectacular victory at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Kim's appeal spiked, transforming into her a global celebrity and marketer's dream.
She remains an A-list celebrity in her native Korea but slipped off the radar screen in North America after stepping back from the sport for almost two years before returning to competition in December.
"I was in Japan recently and it was amazing, it was a throwback to 10 years ago," said Dore with a hint of wistfulness. "They embrace it a different way.
"It is a little bit of luck and little bit of everything coming together but Japanese officials have found a way to package very well."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)