Jack Mortell leaned in and his eyes widened at the scenario he dreamed up: who would win if all the gold medalists in speedskating from the upcoming Winter Olympics faced off against each other?
“I think people would want to know, don’t you?” Mortell asked, grinning. “I think that kind of race would generate some interest.”
Fans may find out.
In May, Mortell and well-heeled investors plan to launch Ice Derby, an entertainment ice show centered around a professional speedskating tour and featuring figure skating and ice dancing. If successful in burgeoning cities like Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Ice Derby could reach the United States.
“It’s bigger than just ice racing,” said Mortell, 60, a retired Evanston firefighter who has been involved in the sport for years. “This is global.”
Speedskaters would compete on a 220-meter track, a middle ground for skaters from the sport’s two disciplines, short track and long track. Purses would be much larger than that of current international competition. And to draw interest and increase profits, spectators will be allowed to bet on the races’ outcomes, not unlike horse racing.
Originally formed in 2006, Ice Derby is the brainchild of Korean investor Do-joung Hyan, who five years later hired Mortell. Mortell is known in the sport as passionate and knowledgeable but also somewhat fiery and bullish. Yet his career — including time as a skater, Olympic coach, an international official and board director of US Speedskating — developed connections he hopes now are bearing fruit.
Ice Derby is the most ambitious attempt to mainstream a sport most of the world watches for two weeks once every four years. Yet Shani Davis, the four-time Olympic medalist and Chicago native, and others have competed in the Netherlands, where the Dutch treat speedskating like Americans do football.
Economic development is a major element in the sport’s sales pitches and promotional brochures and videos that outline a multipurpose arena for 9,400 spectators and a sprawling theme park on Jeju Island, a province in South Korea. The Chicago architecture firm Lohan Anderson has designed some of the proposed facilities.
Supporters point to Keirin racing, a form of Japanese cycling that originated in the late 1940s and is now very popular there. Races are run on loops and strategy is not just about being quick but also maneuvering. Japan boasts about 50 racing velodromes, strict training programs and purses generous enough participants can make it a career into their 40s.
There is to be a three-day show including speedskating in Dubai in May at the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex. (This event will not include gambling). Ultimately, Mortell envisions a three- or four-event annual tour, traveling across the globe in a Grand Prix style.
Foreign investors have pledged more than $500 million according to copies of their financial agreements. Mortell said he hopes for U.S. investors soon.
Mortell declined to provide additional financial information, except that it’s “significant” and athletes could earn much more than the approximately $30,000 a short track skater can make now by winning the six major events.
Davis isn’t the only big name supportive of Ice Derby. Apolo Ohno has attended meetings and helped make pitches. Promotional material includes Eric Heiden, considered the greatest speedskater of all time.
“The Ice Derby thing is starting to pick up,” Davis told reporters at the recent U.S. Olympic trials when asked about life after the games in Russia. “If I keep myself in good shape after the Olympics maybe I’ll give that a try.”
Invitations will start with Olympians, a fertile pool of candidates that only will grow with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In 2006, there were 88 skaters who won Olympic medals and there were 86 in 2010.
Ice Derby could fill a hole for many Olympians: abandoning their sport after the Games because they can’t make a living at it.
“I was always very jealous of the figure skaters who could do ice shows and basically make a decent living out of what they thoroughly loved and enjoyed (after they were done competing as amateurs in that time),” said Champaign native Bonnie Blair, a five-time Olympic gold medalist who supports the project. “Once we were done with the Olympics, you were done.”
So far, organizers have met with potential investors, partners and governments, including top officials in the Philippines, a former adviser to the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin and officials of MGM Resorts International.
A promotional video more than 10 minutes long blends myriad images of everything from sweeping visuals across the globe like deserts, glittering cities, digital-three-dimensional renderings and skaters.
But there remain at least two issues organizers must overcome: the wagering and endorsement of the International Skating Union, which oversees the sport.
In Kierin racing, gambling is an essential ingredient and helps generate millions. But the sport has faced scrutiny for fixed races and other problems, adding stricter regulations over the years.
“I’d be really concerned about the betting component in something like that at this time,” said Mike Plant, president of US Speedskating who previously held that position in USA Cycling.
Olympic gold medalist Dan Jansen, now a speedskating commentator said, “That’s why I think it would be difficult to have cooperation with the (ISU).”
The Switzerland-based ISU requires skaters compete in sanctioned events or otherwise they can be suspended, so its endorsement is the difference between using current skaters or just retired ones. The ISU is reviewing Ice Derby, a spokesman said.
Mortell said Ice Derby would be “cutting our throats” if they tried to circumvent the ISU. He said events would be held in speedskating’s offseason, typically the spring and summer.
So far, the betting component limits Las Vegas as the only U.S. city for Ice Derby, where Mortell said they have offered to build an arena. But investors also are interested in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie has challenged the federal law that limits sports betting in the United States.
Mortell said television remains a goal, despite speedskating rarely being televised outside of Olympics or the trials. He said the concern isn’t necessarily to become a highly watched sport like NFL football.
“You don’t need to capture everyone,” he said, noting that the Ultimate Fighting Championship was dismissed before turning into a mainstream moneymaker.
For example, Hyan, Ice Derby’s founder, isn’t even a fan.
“He’s a businessman,” Mortell said. “He wants to make money.”