PSA 2001 Skating: For Love, Money, or Both?

The last session I attended was today's panel discussion with John Nicks, Carol Heiss Jenkins, and Peter Dunfield on "Skating for Love, Money, or Both." There was a punchy, occasionally stand-up comedy quality to this panel which was due partly, I think, to it being the last serious one of the conference, and partly to John Nicks' wry presence upon it. His take on coaching for love rather than money: "You must be joking. House payments, car payments, boat payments, wife's charge card, long-overdue retirement savings..."

In counterpoint to Nicks' presence as the conscienceless one who merrily referred to sentimentality as "disgusting," Carol Heiss Jenkins was the romantic who teaches for some money, but mostly love; and Peter Dunfield the humanist, who stated, "Coaching is only part of it. I'm trying to make them better people. People." If he were only a skating coach, he said, without wanting to help young people develop into good human beings, he would consider his existence on this earth to be futile.

Dunfield noted that if you don't start out coaching for the love of it, you will not be able to make money at it.

Then Tom Zakrajsek asked the panel what they thought of skaters, currently eligible, skating for the money they can earn. Nicks was in favor of it; compared to the past, it makes it so much easier for the families to bear the costs of training. But the downside is that most of the money is going to the few at the top; he and the others said they would like to see it funnel down to the skaters who really need it, perhaps at the regional level.

Heiss Jenkins said that after the Squaw Valley Olympics, she had no choice but to go pro and make some money -- her father had $145 in the bank. But it does worry her now to hear parents telling eight-year-olds, "If you do really well and win, you can be a millionaire at 15."

In general, though, said Dunfield, skating came into money fairly recently and the situation isn't too bad. What worries him is when the skater makes enough money for an agent to enter the picture. The agent will not quite understand the things that the coach needs to control, especially the schedule that is necessary for training. Everyone must make sure the lines of responsibility are clearly outlined.

An audience member asked the panel what they thought of elite skaters staying eligible longer because the money is better, making it harder for up-and-comers, "such as Sasha Cohen," to rise to the top. Nicks said athletes have the right to stay in the sport as long as they want to, and can hack it. Their presence raises the ante.

Frank Carroll, though not an official presenter at this year's conference, has been an appreciated presence throughout. Whenever he is in attendance, the presenters have deferred to him respectfully and asked him questions, understanding his role as a knowledgeable and experienced master teacher. He said he and Michelle Kwan do block out training periods, but sometimes lucrative offers do threaten to interfere with her training, and as a coach, it can be hard for him to stand his ground against a team of 3-4 other people who might want to do it.

Dunfield said that the bottom line is, the coach must remember the main objective. If it's an Olympic year, they have to understand that training time must be blocked out, and that the coach is the final voice. "Easier said than done," we heard from the Nicks corner.

Heiss Jenkins said it can feel like two against one -- the agent and the parent wanting to say yes to the money, while the coach wants time for the skater to train. It's a lot of pressure to put on the young person, to cast the deciding vote. She looked toward the powerful coaches in the audience and issued an imperative: this generation is the first group of coaches negotiating where coaches come in when a skater earns well. Future generations will base themselves on the precedents being set now. "So, do a good job," she charged.

Nicks said he will not take on a skater who has an agent while eligible. When they go pro, he will arrange an appropriate agent for them, and take a 7.5% commission, which he feels is fair, as the average agent takes 10-20% and an off-ice agent usually 25%. He feels he can negotiate most contracts himself, and his attorney does the rest. This policy has cost him a few students he regrets, but he sticks with it, since conflicts are inevitable between coach and agent.

Heiss Jenkins has had three skaters with agents -- Kwiatkowski, Goebel, and Parker Pennington. She does not negotiate except for pro-ams, for which she and her partner Glyn Watts receive 2.5% apiece.

Dunfield said the thing that was on my mind the whole time: choosing the agent is critical. The agent's personality has to coordinate with the skater's and coach's, and the agent must understand the needs of the skater. He urged coaches to meet and talk with whatever agents are out there and weigh the choices carefully. Choosing an agent is hard for a skater or parent to do, he warned; it's really up to the coach.

Alex McGowan asked David Shulman (PSA past president and current legal counsel) about signing contracts with underage students. Shulman said you should have the skater sign, even though contracts with children are not enforceable, and then have their parents sign also. He said if you do not take full payment for coaching at the time, that gives you a basis later to claim future payments. But most of all, he noted the inherent conflict of interest in contracting for a percentage of your student's earnings: if the skater is offered a fee of $300,000, say, which way is the coach pulled? Toward sticking to the training schedule, or saying yes and receiving some of that money himself?

Nicks said that his philosophy is to keep lesson fees and negotiation fees entirely separate.

On the other hand, Carroll interjected, you do have to think: if you're offered $50,000 for an event, how many sessions of teaching would that translate to, freezing your butt out on the ice? It is something the coach must consider. He added that in the case of taking on a top skater who already has earning potential, he would always draw up a contract between his lawyer and the skater's lawyer.

Zakrajsek asked if anyone present had ever told their skater not to do a tour because the money they'd make would be small potatoes, compared to the greater long-term payoff if they spend the time training and winning the following season. Carroll brought up Skate Canada '97, when he did not accompany Kwan because he felt she shouldn't be there with her toe injury. He said he didn't know her motivation for wanting to go, but it may have been financial.

Heiss Jenkins told a beautiful story. When Kwiatkowski missed the Olympic team in '98, she had an opportunity to earn pro money right away. But Heiss Jenkins said she only had four or five weeks left in her life to be eligible, and to stay in because she'd certainly be called to Worlds as an alternate. So she and her parents listened, postponed the earnings, and are now grateful because for the rest of her life she'll have the way she went to Worlds and came in 6th, and no money could have equalled that. Heiss Jenkins added that the USFSA was so grateful to Kwiatkowski for earning three spots that year that they invited her to stay eligible for another year.

Nicks closed the session by saying that he recently sent a pair team to an event and took his 7.5% -- of their $500 fee, which came to $37.50. Not a huge amount out of their earnings, but enough to make the point. I felt that Nicks got across an important message to today's audience: money is not a dirty thing. Money is motivation, which he defines as "getting people to do what we want them to do." Everyone needs different motivations, whether hugs, shouting, money, encouragement -- everyone's different -- and money, he said, is part of that.

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