I can’t believe I’m writing about figure skating again, as this is clearly not one of my preferred sports to watch, but in my last two posts, I already mentioned Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko. He “only” won the silver medal in Vancouver, finishing second behind U.S. American Evan Lysacek. No big sensation so far, as these two were considered the two big favorites, but what happened after the event was quite remarkable:
Plushenko was shocked, did not accept the verdict and claimed in all interviews that he would have earned the gold medal. Why?
Plushenko was clearly the best skater from a technical point of view. He finished off a quadruple jump, something Lysacek did not, and even combined it with another triple jump. From an athletic standpoint, he was without any doubt the best participant. Lysacek on the other hand concentrated on the performance. He delivered emotions, not quadruple jumps, and his show transported a warmth that Plushenko did not produce.
In his 1997 classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma – for me one of the best business books of all times – Clayton Christensen describes disruptive technology or innovation as a radical change that occurs when all other market participants continuously come up with incremental improvements to an existing concept, whereas a radical innovator offers a new product with less features that gets closer to the real requirements of the users. The incremental improvers don’t take this new entry serious, as its product performance is initially well below that of their products. This allows the new entry to easily grab the “low” parts of the market and grow from there, pushing out the incremental improvers over time.
I believe this process is happening in figure skating right now. Plushenko did not understand how someone who did not perform a quadruple jump could win gold. But are even more complicated jumps really what the audience is looking for?
Plushenko argues that in nearly all other Olympic sports it would be all about going faster, higher, further and asks why not in figure skating. However, the figure skating audience is different from (ice) hockey or downhill skiing. Statistically it is a very female and relatively mature audience. People that often prefer aesthetics over power, that love to see an emotional display. When maybe 80% of the viewers (including myself) can’t tell a flip from a toe loop, who do you want to impress with even more complicated jumps? The judges decided according to the taste of their audience.
It seems like the figure skating market has changed. Sometimes it pays not to go for faster, higher, further but for the smarter product instead. Not only in figure skating.