One of the most hotly-anticipated events of the figure skating off-season is the release of the Grand Prix assignments. It usually happens in late June, which is just long enough to have driven the fans batty with anticipation.
The figure skating season can be broken up into several approximate "mini-seasons", each with a different primary focus:
- The Junior Grand Prix Season: running from the end of August to the end of September, this comprises seven international events specifically for Junior level skaters. It is considered the start of the season, has broader limits on the entry numbers, and often sees a wider spread of nationalities. Skaters become eligible for the Junior Grand Prix at 13 and "age out" at 19 (21 for men in pairs and dance). There have been many current stars who competed well on the Junior Grand Prix. It is broadcast live on the ISU's official Junior Grand Prix Youtube channel. The events rotate between different cities each year, with the exception of the French town of Courchevel, which always hosts one. At the end of the series, the six skaters/teams in each division with the best results go on to the Junior Grand Prix Final, which is held in conjunction with the Senior Grand Prix Final in December.
- The Senior Grand Prix Season: running from late October to the end of November, this comprises six international events for Senior level skaters. These are very high-level events, with considerable (in figure skating terms) prize money and a lot of vital ranking points on offer. Skaters are seeded for these events, and selection is determined on several factors including rankings and scores from the previous season. (More on this below). There are twelve entrants in each division except for Ice Dance, which has ten. Unlike the Junior series, the Senior Grand Prix is made up of the same six events every year: Skate America, Skate Canada, Trophee Eric Bompard (France), Cup of China, Rostelecom Cup (or Cup of Russia) and the NHK Trophy (Japan). As with the Junior series, the top six entrants in each division go through to the Grand Prix Final, usually held in the second week of December.
- The Nationals Season: Running from late November to late January (and thus overlapping somewhat with the Grand Prix), this is the period of time when most of the major skating powers hold their National Championships. Most countries factor the results of their National Championships into later selections for international championship events. In Australia, our National Championships are almost always held in the first week of December, and incorporate levels from Primary to Senior, as well as Synchronised Skating and Adult Nationals. The bigger countries, such as the US and Russia, often separate the levels into "Junior" and "Senior" Nationals. Skaters do not acquire any ISU ranking points, and their scores at these events do not count in ISU score lists.
- The Championship Season: Running from late January to late March/early April, this is the business end of the season when the ISU "Championship" events are predominantly held. These are the European Championships, the Four Continents Championships, the Junior World Championships, and the World Championships. In alternating years, this often includes the World Team Trophy held in Japan, for which skaters can earn ISU personal and season's bests but no ranking points. These events are worth more ranking points than the Grand Prix events, and good results can create more opportunities for the following season, including receiving more prestigious assignments, extra funding, sponsorships, and a higher ranking for a later start order.
Scattered throughout the season are also Senior B events, some of which are counted as Challenger Series events. Senior Bs are pretty much for everyone else who does not get Grand Prix assignments, and some Grand Prix skaters use the early-season ones as warmups. Challenger events can be used to acquire ranking points for those skaters from smaller countries who did not get Grand Prix assignments, and also count towards the ISU season's best lists.
The Senior Grand Prix assignments are always the talking point of the off-season. Who will get assignments? Which skaters will be assigned only one event, and which will get two? Who will be skating in what country, and what does it say about their standing in their federation? (Yes, figure skating fans get really bored in the off-season.)
Grands Prix are assigned in many ways. If a skater finishes in the top 12 at Worlds, they are automatically guaranteed two assignments the following season. If a skater finishes in the top six, they become a "seeded" skater (meaning there are rules about them being assigned events against other seeded skaters - primarily to avoid too many seeded matchups). The Junior World Champion and the Junior Grand Prix Final Champion (quite often these two are not the same!) are also guaranteed one assignment.
After these assignments have been figured out, it moves onto the Season's Best list from the previous year, and the World Rankings. The magic number for these lists is 24. If you are in the top 24, you are guaranteed one assignment. The second magic number is 75; if you are in the Top 75 on the Season's Best list, you are part of the "pool" of Selectable Skaters.
Naturally, there's a lot of doubling-up going on. Skaters can only be assigned to a maximum of two Grand Prix events, so any skater who finished in the top 12 is already removed from the top 24. Skaters who are retiring or have indicated that they will return to Junior Grand Prix are also removed from the list. This allows the assignments to go further down the list: Brendan Kerry (AUS), who was assigned Skate America, earned it with a Season's Best at 58.
In addition to this, there are always "TBD" spots at each event, known colloquially as "host picks". These are free slots in each discipline given to the host federation, to dispose of as they see fit. Most host federations use this as an opportunity to choose a skater who may not have earned an event, or only one event, to give them ranking points and opportunity. TBD spots that cannot be filled go back into the "pool" and are re-assigned.
Skaters can also pick up additional assignments if another skater withdraws due to injury. This was how Brooklee Han (AUS) ended up with two assignments last year. After being assigned Skate America in the original selection, she picked up Skate Canada when one of the ladies withdrew due to injury. Withdrawals must be replaced if more than 21 days from the event.
With me so far? You're doing well. Even some die-hard fans have trouble following Grand Prix selection. But in the end, it is totally worth it - following the Grand Prix is a six-week rollercoaster ride of emotions and fortunes.
And then before there's even time to recover, the season will march on...