Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Adults on Ice

Grow your programming by appealing to grownups

By Stacy St. Clair


When most people think of beginner skaters, they imagine little pigtailed girls tentatively stepping onto the ice with dreams of becoming the next Sasha Cohen.

That notion, however quaint, is not an accurate picture of the sports' participants today. An increasing number of adults are skating for both healthy and nostalgic reasons.

"Our membership definitely goes through cycles," says Kelly Hodge, the U.S. Figure Skating Association's director of synchronized skating and collegiate programs. "As you would expect, we saw a peak in our numbers in 2002 after the Winter Olympics. We are anticipating the same growth this year and next year because of the Olympics in Torino."

Indeed, the association has expected at least a 10 percent jump in the months following the Turin Games.

Some of the newbies will come to the rinks looking to learn the basic skills. Others, however, are former skaters returning to the sport for the first time in decades.

Regardless of their reason for stepping onto the ice, adult skaters are finding a sport waiting to welcome them. They now can choose among a variety of programs, including basic skills classes, synchronized teams and adult competitions.

Creative arena managers and coaches reach out to skating parents, who spend countless hours in the facility watching their children practice. By pitching adult classes to them, instructors offer a chance for them to understand the sport better.

And, in keeping with the old recreation management axiom, patrons beget patrons.

"I coach skating and teach many parents of skaters at our rink," says Lexi Rohner, the Pacific Coast sectional vice chair for U.S. Figure Skating's adult skating committee. "Once there are classes people can see, other adults begin to join in."

Roughly 39 percent of the USFSA's members are older than 25, according to the association's 2004 estimates. A 2003 basic skills program estimate showed 8 percent of the participants were adult skaters.

The association also has sponsored an adult national championship since 1995. Each year, more than 500 people enter the event, in addition to other competitions throughout the year.

"New skaters are always coming in, whether it be former child skaters returning or skaters learning as adults," Rohner says. "However, there have been adult skaters that skated 10 years ago that are not skating now for various reasons—family, work, economical, etc. Despite these variables, beginner levels and noncompetitive adult skaters continue to enter the competitive ranks."

Arena managers nationwide no doubt planned for the onslaught of Sasha wannabes. The progressive thinking ones, however, also have plans to handle those old enough to have had a Dorothy Hamill haircut.

It doesn't take a lot of planning, but a little forethought can mean big rewards for facilities.

"It is extremely important to provide plenty of ice time and make sure there is adequate coaching available," Hodge says. "Communication is also very important. Talk to adults in the area to find out exactly what they want."

When promoting the sport to adults, be sure to stress the health benefits. The sport provides a fun way to get an aerobic workout without the monotony of a treadmill or cardio machine.

"Along with improved fitness, there are also the social networking aspects and the opportunity to achieve goals," Hodge says. "Both of those are very beneficial aspects."

In San Francisco, the Yerba Buena Ice Skating Center has found great success with its adult initiative. The rink has approached its programs with a commitment and a creativity that has paid off extremely well.

The rink has an adult hockey league with 28 teams, as well as several competitive skaters. When Arena Manager Paige Scott came to the rink several years ago, she brought a 25-member synchronized skating team with her. Now the facility has more adults than kids competing in the sport, which is much like water ballet on ice.

"Nobody is ever too old to learn," Scott says. "It's all about passion."

The rink has turned to adult skating as a way to program the facility while the kids are in school. On Thursday mornings, Yerba Buena has a weekly coffee klatch. For $12, participants enjoy java and donuts before a mini lesson and nearly two hours of skating.

The arena also has promoted the facility as an ideal option for a quick, fun noon workout.

"We have businesspeople come in at lunchtime to get their 45 minutes of exercise, stroking and pushing on the ice," she says.

Adult programming also offers revenue opportunities for the pro shop. Older skaters are more likely to buy boots because, unlike youngsters, their feet have stopped growing, and they can have longer use of them.

"Adults always feel more comfortable when they're not using a pair of skates that 300 to 400 other people have used that day," Scott says. "Their boots will last them a long time."

When programming for adults, rinks should realize there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Just like you wouldn't put a 5-year-old in a beginner class with teenagers, not all adults should be lumped in together.

"I would recommend offering programs for all ages and all levels," she says. "Categorize your 25-year-olds separate from your 65-year-olds. People don't like to be shown up."

The arena's ability to provide pleasurable skating for adults was demonstrated once again in March, when patron Eleanor Woodbury took to the Yerba Buena ice with 52 friends and family members to celebrate her 90th birthday.

Woodbury, a member of the Thursday coffee group, began skating as a child in Iowa. She still finds joy in the sport as an adult and takes great pride in the fact that she still can perform spins and a forward spiral.

"I feel like I've had a very happy life in skating," Woodbury told the San Francisco Examiner after her birthday celebration. "Not for competition, just for the social pleasure."