Ari Zakaryan: “If the world had been properly informed that Ilia Malinin performed quadruple axel at the World Championships for the first time in history, it would have raised the level of our sport on a global scale.”
Interview with sports agent Ari Zakaryan. In an interview, Zakaryan talks about the state of the ice shows market during challenging times, what Russia is doing wrong in the process of returning to the international arena, whether his star clients Ilia Malinin and Alexander Ovechkin know each other, and who actually won the recent show program tournament in Moscow.
source: Sport24 dd. 14th June 2023 by Konstantin Lesik
You are currently in Japan for a show. How is everything going?
Ari Zakaryan: It’s a fantastic atmosphere. A great show with Japanese musicians. Many stars are performing. Yuzuru Hanyu, of course, is number one. The venues are packed when he performs.
Will there be someone in the future who will be greeted in the same way as Yuzuru?
Ari Zakaryan: I don’t know of anyone who has that caliber and can transmit energy so strongly. Hanyu is unique, he has an incredible sense of the audience, every movement he makes can bring the audience into a state of euphoria. He exudes tremendous energy.
What is it like to work with him?
Ari Zakaryan: He is a great professional, and that says it all. He attends all the practices. He gives his all in the program. He always performs at least two quadruple jumps during the show. He gives the audience what they want.
You work with the superstar of figure skating, Ilia Malinin. How would you evaluate his season?
Ari Zakaryan: Ilia is pushing figure skating forward. And I’m puzzled by why there’s a 2.1-point difference between a triple lutz and a triple axel, but only one point difference between a quadruple lutz and a quadruple axel. There’s absolutely no logic in that.
They say our sport is not just about jumps. But look at what happens at the end of ice shows. The skaters come out and each one showcases their ultra-c. No one shows spins or transitions with a smile, everyone jumps real quadruple jumps or triple-and-a-half jumps. These are the things that are truly valued. Unfortunately, some people who are in control of our sport don’t understand this.
When Usain Bolt runs the 100 meters or Michael Phelps swims, it doesn’t matter how they smile during that time, how they point their toes, or how beautiful their back position is. What matters is that they are going for a record and showing results. So, of course, I have some disappointment from the past season. After all, Ilia landed a quadruple axel for the first time in history at the World Championships. Everyone knows it was clean, but there were people who scored it with zero and one point. They don’t understand that this jump takes tremendous energy. Underestimating of this element is the disappointment of the year for me.
How much should a quadruple axel be worth then?
Ari Zakaryan: I asked Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton, Evgeni Plushenko, and Viktor Petrenko this question. They are all Olympic champions, people who know their craft. They all unanimously believe that its value should be increased. They mentioned a range from 15 to 22 points.
In reality, if the world had been properly informed that there is a guy named Ilia Malinin who performed quadruple axel at the World Championships for the first time, and if this element had been scored appropriately, it would have raised the level of our sport on a global scale.
Currently, figure skating is watched by fans, but we need figure skating to be watched by spectators. It would add popularity, money, sponsors, and everything would be good in the future. Unfortunately, marketing is severely lacking in our sport today.
If Ilia’s jump received the recognition it deserves, sponsors would come to American figure skating as well. Figure skating in Russia has gained significant traction over the past 5-6 years. Other countries don’t have that. In Japan, it’s popular largely because of Yuzuru Hanyu. And if the world knew about Ilia, it would only benefit the entire figure skating community. But our officials don’t understand how crucial of a marketing move it is for themselves, for everyone. It would bring tremendous income to the entire community.
Do you think Ilia is a recognizable figure in America, or does he lag behind baseball and basketball players?
Ari Zakaryan: Generally, compared to baseball and other sports, figure skating lags behind. But I strongly believe that Ilia will be the person who revolutionizes the world of figure skating because I’m simply in awe of his strength of character and abilities. I’ve worked with many people in my life, and I have extensive experience, but working with him is an absolute pleasure.
Can we expect quints (quintuple jumps) from him?
Ari Zakaryan: He himself has repeatedly said that quints are in his plans. I wouldn’t rush ahead and say that everything will happen soon. But personally, I truly believe that in the near future, he will accomplish both the salchow and the loop.
When will people see it? I would like the respected judges to somehow determine the value of these elements because there’s no need to engage in dangerous jumps that require tremendous concentration just for the sake of it. They are risky, and God forbid, one could make a mistake — and everything will be lost. It’s important to understand what he is risking for.
If you were to ask the judges today what score Malinin would receive if he performed a quint, they would say, “Zero.” This jump has no value whatsoever. I hope they establish a scoring scale already. And then I’m confident that Ilia will reach that level. And not just him. Yuma Kagiyama has excellent rotations and a great reserve on quads as well.
Nevertheless, they haven’t come up with a scoring scale for quints yet, and the quad axel is valued really low. Is there an explanation for this?
Ari Zakaryan: All exceptional figure skaters who understand what figure skating is have expressed that the value of the quad axel should be raised, but the people who somehow came across figure skating and decided to be involved in this sport probably don’t want that. They’ve never jumped anything themselves, and their bodies have never experienced the physical strain of multi-rotation jumps. Many of these people sit and, unfortunately, make decisions that affect the destinies of thousands of athletes. They need to approach figure skating more professionally and understand what it is and how it’s done. I’m specifically talking about the quad axel here. And I fully understand that Ilia needs to work on his components, which he is doing excellently. I think this year everyone will see that work.
How do you feel about the fact that Ilia is often written about in Russia and his results are partly a source of pride?
Ari Zakaryan: For me, Ilia is just as remarkable as Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, or Roger Federer. If everything goes well, he can become a athlete of the same caliber and raise the level and value of figure skating, just like Michelle Kwan did in her time — thanks to her, many figure skaters started earning very good money.
I monitor everything, keep an eye on everything. It’s always pleasant to have fans and positive feedback, including from Russia. But I wouldn’t want to say that Ilia belongs to any particular nationality. I see him as a global leader of our sport. Let Malinin be an idol for Africa, Mongolia, Russia, and America alike.
You have also worked with Alexander Ovechkin. Did you manage to introduce the athletes to each other?
Ari Zakaryan: Yes, they know each other. We attended a training session with Sasha. I have had a working relationship with Ovechkin long time ago, but we still keep in touch. I know that he follows Ilia and supports him; he even gave him a Washington Capitals jersey. When Malinin was just starting his ascent, I told him about this guy and showed his performances.
This season in Russia, they are trying out new competition formats. What do you think of the show program tournament? Any favorites?
Ari Zakaryan: Matvey Vetlugin is the first for me, and Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov are the second. Or vice versa, but they hold the top two spots. Those were the two most interesting and challenging performances.
Different people have done parodies in figure skating, but the way Matvey skillfully and accurately embodied the characters… No one has done it like him. I watched and was happy for my coach, Alexei Mishin, that he has such a student.
And the Galliamov’s performance has a backstory, that he is a football fan, which is also cool. And how they involved their coach to do the splits? There are many things to note because it was a worthy and high-quality performance.
What can you say about the jumping tournament?
Ari Zakaryan: In this tournament, what bothers me is that a skater can do the same quadruple jump several times. If your technique and physique are built for the lutz, you stick with that lutz throughout. Or with the toe loop. You perform only one jump throughout the entire tournament. The competition would be more interesting if skaters executed all types of jumps. If you demonstrate mastery of quadruple jumps, then show them all.
How do you view the season within Russia overall? Were you able to keep up with it?
Ari Zakaryan: I follow everything that happens in Russia, Korea, Japan, Australia, Europe, America, and Canada. It’s what I’ve been doing for many years, so I must be aware of everything happening in this business. In my opinion, the season has been successful for Russian figure skaters. Everything was done with high quality and beauty. The level of figure skating was high. I will continue to follow it further.
In your opinion, does the figure skating community feel a lack of Russians, or are they happy to compete without them?
Ari Zakaryan: When phrases like “they would come and tear you apart” or “no one in Russia watches the World Championships because no one cares” are heard in international figure skating, such moments definitely do not contribute to public opinion.
Should we strive to establish contact regardless of circumstances?
Ari Zakaryan: There is no need to belittle or scorn anyone. I know examples where great figure skaters are asked if they will watch the World Championships, and they respond, “What is there to watch?” Such statements do not bring any honor. For example, I enjoy watching championships from various countries, even those not known for their strong figure skaters. It’s understood that the level is different there, but I’m still interested in observing how things develop.
It’s important to understand that the longer people in Russia say, “Everything is bad without us,” the more others will strive to prove, “We can manage without you.” The World Championships in Japan went quite well overall. There was a good level, and the men’s competition was simply stellar. It was the strongest championships in men’s skating. If our guys had competed, it would have been very tough for them. There was strong competition in ice dance as well. In womens’ singles and pairs, it’s clear that Russians would have contended for top positions.
What do you think of ice shows in Russia? There are many of them catering to all tastes.
Ari Zakaryan: I would say that in the past six to seven years, ice shows in Russia have reached a very serious level. There is even a mini-competition among the ensembles. The only concern is that we risk experiencing what happened in America in the late ’90s — oversaturation due to the abundance of different shows and competitions.
Currently, in Russia, it’s possible to have different ice shows in the same city with a gap of three to four days. This year everything went well, but in the future, I believe it will become problematic. There needs to be some exclusivity and agreements to divide the market.
In an interview for the year 2020, you mentioned that the global ice show market was almost dead. Can we say that the market revived when the coronavirus receded?
Ari Zakaryan: It is still too early to say. The market is very weak. Currently, it exists mainly in Japan and Russia. In Russia, I’m afraid it might get overfed, while in Japan, it’s starting to decline slightly.
Ilia Malinin performs in the US shows. Is there no interest there?
Ari Zakaryan: In America, there are fans of figure skating. It would be desirable for the audience to be broader. This year, the NBC team did not send their commentators to the World Championships in Japan. They worked from the studio in the US. Previously, for the European Championships, Four Continents, or Grand Prix events, commentator booths from France, Canada, and the US were present. At least five positions. This year, there were only Japanese commentators.
Diana Davis and Gleb Smolkin joined the Georgian national team. What do you think about it?
Ari Zakaryan: I can say that the Georgian federation is purposefully working and investing a lot of energy, effort, and money to develop the sport in their country, unlike my homeland.
Is it more challenging for figure skating in Armenia?
Ari Zakaryan: In my Armenia, people only see weightlifting and wrestling.
But the Armenian footprint in figure skating is quite noticeable: Rafael Arutyunyan, Evgenia Medvedeva, Adelia Petrosyan, and Eteri Tutberidze, whose mother is Armenian. Including yourself — a person who has been implementing significant projects in figure skating for many years. So, what is the problem?
Ari Zakaryan: For some reason, in our country, there is a stereotype that an Armenian cannot be a good figure skater, even though four people from our republic were part of the national team. My fate has led me to live in different countries, but Armenia is my homeland. I have always wanted to help promote figure skating there.
In Yerevan, there is a huge ice arena called “Lastochkino Gnezdo” (Swallow’s Nest) one of the most famous in the USSR. Previously, there was ice there, but the new management decided to remove it. I spoke, I requested that they bring back the ice because I can bring the best figure skaters in the world. I want to give credit to my homeland and increase interest in figure skating. I have done it before — in 2008, 2009, and 2016 there were shows where I lost a lot — I even lost my housing in New York. Out of all those shows, I only earned $1,500 in one. But I am glad that the Armenian audience got to see figure skating stars.
Overall, the people in Armenia are very intelligent, educated, and interesting. I don’t know whom to ask about the development of figure skating. For example, now that Budapest has withdrawn, the question of hosting the European Championships has arisen. It would be great to hold it at the arena in Yerevan. By the way, many Russian figure skaters come to us for training camps and are satisfied.
Recently, the European Weightlifting Championships took place in Armenia. I watched the opening and thought it was the Olympic Games: such power and so much money. Yes, I understand that weightlifting is popular in Armenia, but they could have spent 5% less and brought back the ice in the arena. Figure skating is one of the most beautiful and beneficial sports. For me, it is a disappointment. Most likely, I will speak out more aggressively about it someday.
Isn’t it offensive that many Armenian figure skaters represent other countries?
Ari Zakaryan: For athletes to compete for Armenia, the country needs to demonstrate that it is ready to accept them. Athletes need to understand that the country is willing to support them in achieving success.
Long ago, in California, I had an Armenian figure skater — a very talented one who is now a promising coach. He decided to compete for his historical homeland. He flew there, met with an official — not the president of the country but a person of very high rank. In the end, this official said, “What kind of man are you if you’re involved in figure skating? Engage in a proper sport.” Such a mentality and approach are deeply disappointing.
You mentioned that you want to change the format of exhibition performances to include a competitive element. Are there any developments regarding this matter?
Ari Zakaryan: Yes, I proposed this concept a year ago, and recently, during a technical meeting with the federation and ISU, I raised this question again. My suggestion is that when an athlete prepares for the season, they should create not only a short and free program but also one specifically for exhibition performances. The goal is to make the program look as professional as possible, rather than something put together. The audience who comes to watch exhibition performances wants to see something beautiful, not the haphazard routines that often end up being performed. Over the past 28 years, I have attended many competitions, and often the exhibitions are all the same: white shirts, jeans, everyone gathers before the performance. Although in the last couple of years, there have been some small positive changes thanks to the criticism from figure skating enthusiasts.
I suggested that it should be done like they do on America’s Got Talent in the USA: the audience comes, and there is a QR code in front of their seat that they can use to vote for the skater. The leader of the voting wins.
And what about adopting something from Russia on an international level? Like the Jumping Tournament?
Ari Zakaryan: Actually, when Russia claimed that it was the first Jumping Tournament, they were exaggerating a bit. The Jumping Tournament was initiated by the French in the mid-1990s. It was called Master Miko.
Organizing a Jumping Tournament on an international level would be great, but once again, I would like the figure skating community not to abandon the traditional format — the short and free programs.
Alexei Mishin: “Every coach is an individual, and every skater is an individual. When two individuals are very similar, it promises us a long life in figure skating.”