The Olympic Effect
Piqued interest in ice sports can help rinks go for the green
By Stacy St. Clair
|PHOTOS COURTESY OF JERRY SEARCH/SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SPEED SKATING ASSOCIATION|
When Salt Lake City organizers extinguished the Olympic flame in February, the United States bid farewell to its most successful Winter Games ever. The gold rush, however, is far from over.
Ice arena managers have been inundated with phone calls from wannabe Olympians, who are inquiring about everything from skating to hockey to curling. Interest is so high, the sports' national governing bodies are struggling to keep up with the demand.
As such, both facility operators and ice sport supporters are trying to capitalize on the newfound popularity. Any plans, however, require a quick response, given the Salt Lake Games may be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Though winter sports normally see a bump in participation after the Olympics, the Salt Lake Games—a fortnight of record-setting performances in front of an über-patriotic home crowd still reeling from the worst terrorist attack in American history—have sparked an unprecedented response.
"It has been incredible," says Karen Kostal, membership services coordinator for the Amateur Speedskating Association. "I don't know if we are going to experience anything like this again."
With ice arenas nationwide poised to mine their own gold, facility managers would be wise to turn to experts for assistance. The athletic associations and rinks that produced our latest Olympic heroes are eager to help develop new programs and, in return, build a stronger winter sports tradition. The assistance varies from sport to sport and includes everything from monetary grants to technical advice to moral support.
"We're willing to do anything," Kostal says. "Use us. Use us. Use us."
|PHOTO COURTESY OF ATHLETICA|
|Hockey action at the Flyer's SkateZone in |
Lest anyone think trying to capitalize on the Olympic afterglow is a dangerous gamble, consider the meteoric rise in ice sport participation in the last dozen years before a U.S.-hosted Olympics. The number of arenas grew an eye-popping 50 percent in the 1990s. Roughly 600 ice facilities have opened in the United States in the past nine years, representing one-third of the 1,800 rinks in operation today.
The biggest growth has occurred in the South, where National Hockey League expansion teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers have caught Dixie's fancy. In Dallas, home of the Stars franchise since 1993, eight rinks have opened in the metropolitan area in the past two years. Today, there's even talk about starting a curling club.
The ice boom began in 1992, shortly after Kristi Yamaguchi won the Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating. In the months following the Winter Games, thousands of pig-tailed girls stepped onto the ice with dreams of emulating her victory.
Such reactions are common after Olympics, of course, and they traditionally fade within a few years. The 1990s were different, however, giving sports enthusiasts three Winter Games within six years. A reconfiguration of the Olympic calendar resulted in another Games two years after Yamaguchi's Albertville medal. The 1994 Olympics featured the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding saga and sent figure skating's popularity soaring. Their competition remains the most watched sporting event in TV history and has prompted a proliferation of traveling ice shows and made-for-TV competitions.
|PHOTOS COURTESY OF MICHELLE WOJDYLA|
|At the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., 1998 |
Olympic Champions Oksana Kazakova and
Artur Dimitriev skate an exhibition. Dimitriev
works as a coach and choreographer as well.
As figure skating's popularity started to ebb in the late 1990s, the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, featured two historic feats on ice. First, the United States won the first gold awarded in women's hockey. Soon after, Tara Lipinski became the youngest skater ever to win the gold in women's figure skating.
And now the 2002 Games have brought us Sarah Hughes, whose story may inspire more girls onto the ice than Lipinski's history-making performance. Hughes represents an attainable Olympic dream to an entire generation of young skaters. Unlike the precocious Lipinski, who moved away from home before middle school and was educated by tutors, Hughes is a gangly 16-year-old who goes to a public high school and lives with her parents on Long Island.
No one expected Hughes to win, but she claimed the gold with a gutsy performance and youthful exuberance. Her story, no doubt, will motivate little girls to learn Lutzes and laybacks for the next four years and beyond. They'll want to mimic everything about Hughes—her costumes, her music and even her home rink.
Hughes' training facility, Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., has been swamped with calls since the high-school junior won her sport's top prize. The callers—most of whom are beginner skaters—know what the facility did for Hughes career. The teen's biographical clip during the Olympics talked about how she drove three hours each day just to train on the arena's perfect ice and benefit from its flexible ice time.
With figure skating offered at more than 1,200 rinks nationwide—up 29 percent in just four years—arenas are finding it increasingly difficult to set themselves apart. One of the easiest, and increasingly popular, ways is to attract star power. Nabbing an A-list coach, skater or hockey team will draw athletes quicker than discounted ice fees or flexible skate hours. Ice House, for example, has lured enough elite skaters since it opened four years ago to now be considered one of the top facilities in the world. The center produced nine Olympians this year, three of whom won gold medals. Rinkmates Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, the Russian pair who captured the controversial gold, joined Hughes in the Olympic pantheon in February. In interviews about the facility, the champions praised the ice quality and credited the center's four NHL-size rinks with eliminating competition with the general public for ice time or space.
|PHOTOS COURTESY OF MICHELLE WOJDYLA|
At the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., coach Tamara |
Moskvina, who has coached top Soviet and Russian
pair skaters for decades, works with her first
American team, Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman.
Many facilities offer incentives such as free ice time, discounts or stipends to entice the top athletes and teams to come. Others just offer flexible rink times and a chance to be the rink's focal point. A center's top skaters don't need to be Olympic champions or well-known American skaters to generate some buzz about for the rink. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left its sport juggernaut in disarray and sent many of its athletes scrambling to find training facilities. The majority are landing in the United States, where they help rinks quickly gain international reputations and a little local prominence. Russian pairs skaters Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, for example, moved to America a few years ago to train at the Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville, Ill.
The couple finished fourth at Salt Lake City, narrowly missing the podium. Their placement, however, did not dull media attention for the rink. The Chicago press dubbed them "the Bensenville Russians" and chronicled their Olympic journey as if they were two starry-eyed American teens competing at the Games. The press was there for the pairs farewell party. Television crews carried live reports from the rink on the night of their free skate, showing the "hometown" reaction and interviewing young skaters about how Totmianina and Marinin inspire them. When the couple returned home from the Games, the media were there for the welcome home festivities, too. At each turn, the Russian pair offered endorsements most rinks can only dream of.
"The quality of the ice in Bensenville is the best in the Chicago area," Marinin said before leaving for Salt Lake. "And it's wonderful to be able to practice during the day with almost nobody else on the ice. In St. Petersburg, where we usually train, there is only one rink for everybody to use. The conditions there are not nearly as good as they are here."
|PHOTOS COURTESY OF JERRY SEARCH/SOUTHERN |
CALIFORNIA SPEED SKATING ASSOCIATION
Figure skating and hockey, however, have it easier than their on-ice brethren. As long as there are Olympics, there will be little girls hoping to be the next Michelle Kwan and teenage boys with dreams of becoming America's answer to Mario Lemieux.
Sports like curling and speedskating have it a bit tougher. Fortunately for both, they have national organizations willing to spend money and time to boost membership. The athletic associations know the doubts arena managers have about dedicating ice time to their sports, and they're willing to allay concerns.
Speedskating long has been the neglected sibling among bladed ice sports. Not as graceful as figure skating or as rough-and-tumble as hockey, speedskaters zipped into the spotlight every four years and then promptly sat in the shadows until the next Olympics.
This time it's different. The U.S. team's record-shattering performance in Salt Lake City has caused an avalanche of interest in the sport. With eight medals and six different medalists, the U.S. long-trackers were the Games' Cinderella team. The team's medal total tied the American record set in 1980, when Eric Heiden snagged five of the country's half-dozen gold medals.
Historically a sport for white kids from the Upper Midwest, American speedskating presented a new face in Utah. California-born Derek Parra became the first Mexican-American to win a gold medal, while Florida's Jennifer Rodriguez became the first Cuban-American medalist. Apolo Anton Ohno, a charismatic Japanese-American teen from Seattle, won a gold medal in short track and sparked nationwide interest in his sport.
Equally important, Ohno, Parra and Rodriguez represent a growing group of inline skaters who have converted to speedskating for the Olympic experience. Their triumphs proved speedskating no longer belonged solely to kids from Wisconsin and Minnesota. With the right coaching and exposure, the sun-soaked inline enthusiasts can have a mid-winter's dream, too. The medalists' stories, in part, prompted a deluge of phone calls to the U.S. Speedskating association headquarters in Westlake, Ohio.
Member service coordinator Karen Kostal receives calls from wannabe speedskaters and wannabe speedskating rinks daily. She welcomes each one as a chance to boost her sport's profile.
"We're going to do anything to help," Kostal says. "Our sport is small, and we want it to grow."
No one will benefit more from the association's enthusiasm then ice-arena managers. The organization will do a jaw-dropping amount of legwork to get a new program or class off the ground. It will provide managers who call the headquarters with a list of area residents interested in taking speedskating classes. Officials also will work with local inline groups to encourage crossover participation.
There's no shortage on what the association will do: fliers, seminars, moral support. They have a video and PowerPoint presentations for rinks to use as marketing tools. They'll work with local park districts to offer classes and teach clinics and camps during the summer.
"We're not going to be stingy," Kostal says. "We're just trying to get ourselves out there."
There are some nominal costs associated with starting a speedskating program. The priciest investment is the rink pads that provide a cushion for skaters who fall and crash into walls. A full set of 60 costs roughly $18,000, but most fledgling programs can begin with half that number.
|PHOTOS COURTESY OF JERRY SEARCH/SOUTHERN |
CALIFORNIA SPEED SKATING ASSOCIATION
Local speedskating clubs historically have assumed the cost and responsibility of buying new pads, with the rinks merely supplying storage space. U.S. Speedskating offers grants to defray the cost, as well as ideas and assistance with fund-raising projects. The organization, however, would like to see more arenas help pay for the pads. They are encouraging clubs to ask new facility managers to include the pads in the construction costs.
"After all, hockey players don't have to bring their own nets," Kostal says.
Other than the pads, there is very little expense associated with starting a speedskating program. Classes can be taught in an NHL-size rink with little modification. Arenas may choose to rent out speedskates to make extra money, but participants can learn on hockey skates or figure skates if they want. If anything, the sport offers an untapped revenue source for rinks across the country. With so few facilities boasting speedskating programs, there are more opportunities to host competitions that can raise both money and the rink's profile.
"They bring in a lot of people," Kostal says. "More people means more publicity for the rink. More people also means more nachos being sold at the concession stand."
No sport, however, is expecting a bigger Olympic bounce than the underrated and overlooked art of curling. Long dismissed as shuffleboard on ice, curling served as a punch line for late-night comedians during its official debut at the 1998 Olympics. The little television exposure it received treated the sport as a Canadian version of bocce and suggested its participants could scarcely be considered athletes.
What a difference an Olympiad can make. American TV audiences were treated to more than 50 hours of curling in February and watched its women's team reach the semifinals. The media attention sent interest in the sport skyrocketing.
In the month following the Games, the Wisconsin-based United States Curling Association (USCA) received phone calls from people in all 50 states expressing a desire to play. Clubs are forming in Texas, California, even Hawaii.
The hopeful players are inspired by the Everyman-look of the American team. They like the idea of a winter sport that doesn't require risking life and limb like, say, the moguls or half pipe. What's more, participants don't even have to skate to get out on the curling ice.
"It's unique in that it's a lifetime sport," says Beverly Schroeder, member service manager for the USCA. "We're a finesse sport."
There are currently 1.5 millions curlers worldwide, of which 1.2 million are Canadian. Though our northerly neighbors can't get enough of the sport—funeral services for the country's top female curler were broadcast live on national television—it has a small following in the United States. An estimated 15,000 Americans curl, though that number is poised to quadruple in the post-Olympic boom.
Curling enthusiasts and the national association intend to market the sport much like bowling in coming months. They'll promote it as a great couple's sport, an opportunity to get out and have fun without the grueling workout of tennis or the expense of golf.
"Interest is so high right now," says Ed Shipstead, a former national-level curler and the general manager at Ober Gatlinburg Ice Arena in Tennessee. "It's a great mixed sport. It's just a matter of the rinks making the time and trying to recruit curlers."
|PHOTOS COURTESY OF RICK PATZKE/USA CURLING|
Shipstead's caveat isn't as difficult as it sounds. The USCA will lend used stones to fledgling clubs in an effort to spark interest. A used adult set costs about $3,000, with a slightly lower price tag for junior stones that are more easily handled by children.
Experts recommend at least two sheets of ice per facility to run an adequate program. Facilities generally charge $8 to $10 per match and dedicate a couple nights per week to curling leagues. Some arenas have separate curling lanes, though it's not necessary. Curling ice generally requires rougher, more textured ice than other sports. Its conditions, which would be detrimental to hockey players or skaters, can be smoothed out easily with a resurfacer.
Curling matches can take place in an NHL-size rink as long as the circles are visible to players. A few rinks have turned to dyeing circles into the ice, while most permanently paint them onto the floor. Ober Gatlinburg created permanent curling circles on its hockey floor during a major renovation earlier this year. The downside to the new flooring is it makes for a cluttered hockey surface, but it is an aesthetic glitch not an insurmountable problem.
Shipstead, past president of the USCA, also has contemplated designing a lighting system that would project the circles onto the ice. Though no rinks use such lights currently, he estimates the system would cost about $1,600 per sheet. It's a steep price tag when compared with the relative low expense of painting circles and making new ice, but it would provide a more aesthetically pleasing, less busy surface.
Experts have no preference as to which type of surface is used. Dyes, permanent paint, lights. It's all good as long as there is curling going on.
"We finally got some good exposure," Shipstead says. "People are really looking at our sport, and we want to make the most of it. This is a wonderful opportunity for us."