Ice Network

Boston provides memorable backdrop for worlds

Local organizing committee spared no expense; Fans packed TD Garden
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Max Aaron was feeling the energy from the fans after his free skate at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2015-16 Person(s) of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Sarah S. Brannen.

As a lifelong Bostonian, I wondered how the city would respond to a local World Figure Skating Championships. Boston is a sports town, for sure, but with all the passion it has for the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots, I questioned whether locals would even notice a figure skating event at TD Garden.

My worries proved needless: The turnout for the event was everything[] the local organizing committee could have hoped for. The ladies and pairs free skates sold out, and the men's free skate and exhibition were near-sellouts. I have never, in half a lifetime of attending figure skating events, heard crowds like those at the Garden; Ashley Wagner's music may rise to fortissimo, but it was completely inaudible over the fans' screaming.

Evan Bates said that, as an ice dancer, he doesn't often get to skate for such a raucous crowd.

"I remember how loud they were, how excited they were," he said. "I remember, just 45 seconds into our free dance, skating around the corner and feeling the applause like a wave. They were completely with us. It was just wonderful to see that kind of response to figure skating."

"I've produced a number of U.S. championships, and I do feel that this event was exceptional," event director Doug Zeghibe said. "A large part of this was the Boston audiences. They know good skating, and they created a bond with the athletes. The experience they had out on the ice with the audience makes me proud to be a Bostonian. This city embraces all sports."

The crowds didn't just cheer for the Americans, either -- although most Team USA skaters enjoyed the unforgettable experience of a full-throated standing ovation draped in stars and stripes. The generous audience also rewarded brilliant skating from skaters of many countries, including the triumphant Canadian pair Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford.

"I feel so grateful to the audience in Boston," Duhamel said after their winning free skate. "They carried us through from start to finish; they were absolutely unbelievable. When we feel their energy, and they start cheering for a spin, or the exit of a lift…it really inspires us to want to give more to them."

In fact, anyone who skated really well got a standing ovation. And the local crowd was joined by fans from all over the world: 30 percent of the all-event ticket buyers came from outside the U.S. That includes around 1,000 visitors from Canada and about 500 who made the trip from Japan.

"What really helped is this arena and the fans," ladies champion Evgenia Medvedeva said through a translator. "It was probably the biggest audience that I have ever faced, and I heard a lot of shouts in Russian supporting me, which was an incredible experience. … I'm truly thankful for the fans to be here and support me."

Every single skater I talked to that week said the competition was the best worlds they had ever been to. My choice for icenetwork's Person(s) of the Year is the people of Boston and, in particular, the local organizing committee and its team of volunteers.

Zeghibe had the experience for the job: He has served as the event director for six U.S. championships as well the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles, the last time the event was held in the U.S. He put together a very effective marketing plan, making extensive use of social media and reaching out internationally, particularly to Japan.

The committee, working in partnership with U.S. Figure Skating, was an experienced group. Zeghibe's advisory board consisted of Skating Club of Boston president Joe Blount and SCOB vice president Alisa Plazonja, plus honorary chair Ben Wright, a local legend and former U.S. Figure Skating president. Tammy Perlman aided Zeghibe with marketing and ran the website and communications, and Tammy Thierwechter headed up the large hospitality effort. Tammi McManus was in charge of competition services.

"We had an outstanding committee," Zeghibe said. "It was virtually the same committee from [the 2014 U.S. Championships]. They're seasoned. They knew what they were doing. Folks were primed to fix any mistakes from 2014 and take it to the next level."

A big part of the marketing strategy was to create a vibrant online presence, through the event website and various social media platforms.

"Our focus was to show the Skating Club of Boston as a leader in figure skating in the U.S.," Perlman said. "We wanted to be sure we were the best reflection of U.S. Figure Skating. We knew if we got the fans excited, they would come."

One goal was to bring the event forward into the present as much as possible. The #Worlds2016 social media presence was notable, including a "Live Story" on Snapchat on April 2.

"Our 'live story' was pushed to basically everyone who had a Snapchat account," social media coordinator Jimmy Morgan said. "It was viewed millions and millions of times."

Morgan, who is a current pairs competitor, noted that figure skating has a tendency to lag behind the times.

"They do what's been done before, which is great and it works," he said. "We thought we had an opportunity this year to bring the standard up for all the local organizing committees and set the standard for what we think should happen at a competition."

In addition to putting audience members in the seats, the committee devoted enormous resources to making the event comfortable for the skaters, coaches and officials.

"Our focus was, 'What's the best for the skaters?'" Blount said. "Not to discount anybody else, but they put so much time and effort in, the best thing we can do is provide them with a venue that helps them relax, keeps any disturbances away from them, so they can do their job."

"It was our goal to make this event the best ever," Plazonja said. "We did have a few bumps, as is inevitable, but it's really gratifying to hear that for many people, we succeeded in our mission."

The hospitality committee shone particularly brightly. Many skaters I spoke to mentioned the gift bags, the table centerpieces and all the details that helped make the week pleasant and less stressful for them.

"Everything was so well organized that it made it really easy for us to do our jobs," Madison Chock said. "And everyone was so friendly. They really made you feel special and so welcome."

"I was expecting it to be a well-run event, but the expectations were really far exceeded," Bates agreed. "The Skating Club of Boston, the citizens, the volunteers, the number of people working the event was incredible. The food was great, and you walk in and there are dozens of people waiting on you hand and foot. ... We felt special to be at the event."

The budget for hospitality was large, but everyone involved feels that it was worthwhile.

"I was trying to end up with as large a budget surplus as possible, but I said, 'We're not going to skimp on the athletes,'" Zeghibe said.

Before she started planning the athlete lounges, food and other details, Thierwechter consulted with veteran competitors and officials. Ross Miner and Stephen Carriere, among others, shared skaters' perspectives on what works and what doesn't. One very welcome offering was hospitality on the buses to and from the venues. Each bus had a volunteer greeter there to make sure all was well. They also had a basket of fruit, energy bars, snacks and water.

As well as meeting the needs of skaters, coaches and officials, the hospitality committee went all out on fun details, like themed decorations in the dining area, which were re-done every day.

"They had some insane things, like giant cut-out skates covered in glitter that were lit up with disco lights, and a giant disco pineapple," Plazonja said.

Every item given to the skaters, right down to each Hershey's Kiss, was decorated with the Worlds2016 logo.

"At every turn, they were reminded that they were at the world championships," Plazonja said.

Finally, backing everyone up, there were the volunteers -- 630 of them.

"The majority of volunteer positions are not glamorous," Plazonja said. "You're in some windowless rooms supporting some kind of operational detail, moving food back and forth or something. Their opportunity to watch the skating was fairly limited. There's a sense of selflessness in everyone who does this."

Blount said, "Some of them went 12-hour days, or more. I can't say enough about them."