Adults on Ice

Grow your programming by appealing to grownups

By Stacy St. Clair


Take a quick survey of your ice arena. Lots of kids whipping around the rink, right? Lots of activity, rentals and revenue happening, too.

Good. You're obviously doing something right. But you can—and should—be doing more.

For every kid who laces up a pair of skates, there's a parent who brought him or her to the rink. The majority of the time, those moms and dads just sit in the stands while their children hit the ice.

Truly successful rinks engage these parents (and grandparents), encouraging them to become active participants in the arenas' programs instead of passive bystanders living vicariously through their student athletes.

Some of the most successful North American rinks do this by offering a variety of programming that appeals to adults. They offer more than just ample public skate times. They have organized adult hockey leagues, provided adult learn-to-skate classes, and experimented with curling and speedskating programs.

Rinks that lure adults onto the ice with creative programming reap the rewards.

The people who traditionally spend time in the bleachers now are spending money on the ice as well.

"When it comes to adult learn-to-play programs, use them as your greatest resource," says Ashley Bevan of USA Hockey. "Learn-to-play programs are huge. That is the way to grow your business. It is all about getting a customer and retaining them."

And given the fact that the United States just came off its most successful Winter Olympics on foreign soil, there's no better time to test the frozen waters.

We'll help glide you through four sports—figure skating, curling, hockey and speedskating—that can help boost your adult patronage and keep your rink bustling.


Skating

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."


Got Skates?

For many rinks, the biggest challenge to starting and growing a speedskating program is the actual skates.

As anyone who has watched the Olympics knows, speed skates aren't like figure or hockey skates. Speed skates are made with gliding and skating for maximum force and power.

Many of the basic techniques can be taught on regular skates, inline skates or even dry land. Without the real equipment, however, program managers might find it difficult to inspire and engage new skaters.

According to the U.S. Speedskating Association, retention rates for introductory programs are 50 percent higher when speed skates are made available.

To that end, the association offers a starter plan to help bolster participation in fledgling programs. It is designed to be a "turn-key" package to get new groups skating with a minimal amount of setup time, knowledge, experience or upfront cash.

The starter kit contains 13 pairs of skates in an assortment of sizes. It also provides rinks with a sharpening jig, stones and oil to maintain the skates with good edges.

The need for sharpening depends on the amount, type and ability of use. Most skates can go for about 25 hours of use before requiring sharpening. The sharpening process takes about 15 minutes.

The skates themselves feature durable plastic boots with comfortable, replaceable padded inner liners and hardened alloy blades.

In addition to higher recruitment and retention rates, the program is designed to offer financial incentives. Participants are urged to charge a nominal fee to help recoup costs. They also are encouraged to have skaters become members of the U.S. Speedskating Association to cover program costs. Fee payments are deferred until the end of the year to allow participants time to do this and relieve the upfront financial pressure on the participants.

To join the program, an application can be found at www.speedskating.org. Upon acceptance into the initiative, rinks must pay a non-refundable $200 fee. At the end of the first year, the participant must pay another $200. A $25 credit is given for every new skater the rink has signed up for membership in the association. At the end of the second year, the rink must pay $400. Earned credit is given for both new association members and those who renew their membership for a second year.

After the second year, participating rinks have the option of returning the kit or buying the skates outright for $600.

For more information, contact Carol Bongers of the U.S. Speedskating Association at 440-899-0128 or cbongers@usspeedskating.org



Curling

It seems no sport gets a bigger Olympic bounce than curling, the quirky game aptly described as shuffleboard on ice.

And more importantly—at least from a rink manager's perspective—no sport is easier to begin programming.

American TV audiences were treated to more than 50 hours of curling during the Turin Games and watched the U.S. men's team win the country's first-ever curling medal, a bronze.

In the months that have followed, the Wisconsin-based U.S. Curling Association (USCA) has received phone calls from all over the country. The association currently has 135 clubs nationwide, and that number is expected to grow.

"Since the 2006 Winter Games, we already have had people calling from places like Atlanta, South Carolina and Mississippi—places where they have never had curling clubs before," says Terry Luder, the association's communications specialist. "It's great for ice rink managers because it offers an opportunity for the ice to be utilized."

Perspective players have been inspired by the Everyman-look of the Olympic curler. They want to experience the fun of competing in a winter sport that doesn't require risking life and limb. (We're looking at you, luge and moguls.)

What's more, participants don't have to know how to skate to participate. The curling ice has a pebble to it, making it easy to walk on and less slippery than fresh ice.

"Curling is something you can start at any age," Luder says. "It is not like gymnastics, where you need to start at age 5 and hope you don't grow. We have people in their 90s still throwing stones."

The curling association encourages rinks to market the sport to golfers, who are looking for something to do during the winter months. The two sports complement each other because curlers must read the pebbled ice just as they would a putting green.

"It appeals to a lot of people who play golf," Luder says. "They like to participate in the off-season because then they feel they can pick up their golf game right where they left off."

Starting a curling program is not terribly difficult. A used adult set costs about $3,000, with a slightly lower price tag for junior stones that can be handled more easily by children.

Experts recommend at least two sheets of ice per facility to run an adequate program, though some arenas make do with one sheet. Facilities generally charge $8 to $10 per match and dedicate a couple nights per week to curling leagues.

"Curling doesn't require a lot of money to put into it in the beginning," Luder says. "It can be a lot less expensive than figure skating or hockey."

Most importantly, rinks must be willing to take the time to educate the public about the sport. Many hold open houses, which give perspective patrons the chance to try curling in an instructional setting.

"People like to try new things," Luder says. "Rink managers need to help people understand what curling is and then keep them interested."


Help Wanted

Looking for a little assistance getting your programs up and running? Finding help is easier than you think.

The athletic associations that govern ice sports (and, in turn, produce Olympic heroes) are eager to aid in the development of new programs because those efforts ultimately 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.

Here's a rundown of the groups willing to help facility managers become ice kings.

HOCKEY AND FIGURE SKATING

U.S. Hockey and the United States Figure Skating Association created a joint venture six years ago aimed at fostering "the development, growth and success" of rinks throughout the country.

The partnership, Serving the American Rinks (STAR), offers education, training and information on new resources. Members, who include rink managers and industry vendors, receive weekly e-mails, four industry publications and other discounts.

Its experts are so highly regarded, the Torino Organizing Committee enlisted the help of two STAR leaders to install and maintain all of the hockey surfaces at the XX Winter Games in Italy.

On this side of the Atlantic, STAR provides information on how to make arenas more efficient and improve safety features. More than 1,200 industry professionals have attended the organization's training programs.

The organization also helps groups and individuals plan new facilities. It has programs and initiatives to help inline sports, as well.

Rinks can join STAR for $225 annually, while individuals can register for $50. More than 600 rinks, ice professionals and industry vendors already belong.

For a membership application, send an e-mail to STARrinks@usahockey.org.

SPEEDSKATING

Speedskating long has been the forgotten middle child among bladed ice sports. Not as graceful as figure skating or as mainstream as hockey, speedskaters historically zipped into the spotlight every four years and then promptly sped off into the shadows until the next Olympics.

Things are different now. The U.S. team has a powerful presence on the world stage. It has transformed from an activity for suburban kids from the upper Midwest to a popular sport for athletes of all backgrounds.

Some of the sport's top stars are Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick, a Chicago guy and former inline skater from Texas, respectively. The two famously feuded—and won gold medals—in Turin, giving the sports its strongest media magnets since Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair.

In between their bickering, the two proved the sport no longer belongs to kids from Wisconsin and Minnesota. In fact, the sport has become so diverse, a U.S. Speedskating Organization Web site encouraging new members is written in both English and Spanish translations. The site stresses the sport's geographic and ethnic diversity, reminding visitors that it has skaters in southern Florida and that the junior national team coach is from Hawaii.

The organization strives to bring its sport to all corners of the country. And no one benefits more from such willingness than ice-arena managers. The organization does a jaw-dropping amount of legwork to get a new program or class off the ground. It provides 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.

But it's most helpful outreach initiative is the skate loan initiative that allows you to lease speed skates until your program gets off the ground.

For more information, call 800-634-4766 or e-mail tryspeedskating@usspeedskating.org.

CURLING

No winter sport seems to see its national coverage skyrocket during the Olympics more than curling. Even better, in 2006 a pizza-parlor owner from Minnesota led the U.S. men's curling team to its first-ever medal.

In the weeks after the Winter Games, the U.S. Curling Association received phone calls from people in all 50 states requesting information on where to play.

Curling enthusiasts and the national association have been marketing the sport much like bowling, an Everyman activity accessible to all skill levels. They 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.

For more information, contact the U.S. Curling Association at 888-CURLERS or e-mail usacurl@charter.net.



Hockey

Rinks looking to boost their adult hockey programs do not need to go it alone. Facilities have a friend in USA Hockey, the group that oversees the sport's operations nationwide.

In addition to helping rinks attain the proper insurance, the association offers assistance in marketing and running programs. It also organizes local, regional and national tournaments to give players more opportunities to play.

"We feel it's our responsibility as an organization to partner with facilities on all levels," says Ashley Bevan, the association's director of adult hockey.

USA Hockey also offers adult skills clinics to boost interest in the sport. It organizes creative programs such as a recent pond hockey championship. Forty teams participated in the tournament, which was wildly successful.

The association also prints a magazine 10 times a year. The publication is an excellent way for rinks to improve communications and learn about the sport's latest innovations, Bevan says.

"When these rinks have the proper structures for their adult leagues, the ability to sustain their own business increases greatly," Bevan says. "A well-run program breeds more players, and involving more players means a growing business."

More than 75,000 adults play hockey nationwide, a number that has climbed steadily for the past eight years. Michigan has the highest number of players, but officials have seen substantial growth in recent months in sunbelt states like Arizona and Texas.

"There is a lot of hockey buzz right now," Bevan says. "Not only because of the Olympics, but also because the NHL strike is over, and the players are playing again."


The organization's largest adult program is run out of the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. The Adult Hockey Association has 78 teams and operates leagues for seven different skill levels. It also has six beginner squads, another indication of the sport's growing popularity.

The association promotes the sport's cardiovascular benefits to perspective members. It also offers its no-check league as an option for athletes who have been injured in other sports and are looking for a new pastime.

"We don't concentrate on age or gender," Twin Cities administrator Steve Peterson says. "Only skill level is important. More and more women join every year."

Peterson also recommends ice managers work with USA Hockey to bolster their programs. And to hear Bevan's enthusiasm for helping facilities, it might be one of the best decisions an arena could make.

"The partnership between our organization and facilities is a no-brainer for us," he says. "We need to help facilities promote the sport, and when we do, this positively affects their bottom line."


Speedskating

The U.S. Olympic Team may not have loved the bickering between Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick during the Turin Games, but it doesn't seem to have harmed the sport.

To the contrary, more people than ever are taking some turns around the track.

"The interest just exploded with the Olympics," says Brad Tullberg of the Roseville Skating Center, which has an outdoor oval in suburban Minneapolis. "We did get quite a few phone calls after the Olympics from people who were interested in the sport. It's similar to what they get for figure skating at an indoor rink."

More than 200 people participate in Roseville's program. Though only a few patrons have Olympic aspirations, many have found the sport to be a great aerobic and anaerobic workout.

"It takes a little bit of commitment to offer speedskating programs," Tullberg says. "It's just not a huge segment of the population, but our philosophy is that we can open up the facility to people who don't normally use it."

Only a handful of facilities, including Roseville's Guidant John Rose Minnesota oval, have the large oval ice surfaces needed for long track speedskating. That, however, should not deter facilities with NHL- or Olympic-sized rinks from introducing the sport.

"Every rink can do short-track speedskating," says Melissa Scott, spokeswoman for U.S. Speedskating. "Those skaters who do long-track speedskating started with short-track."

The association offers a plethora of information and assistance for rinks looking to create programs. Among their greatest resources is a "club in the box" kit that includes tips on how to find coaches, insurance liability waivers and latest workout trends.

Tullberg, however, suggests facilities keep their fledgling program as simple as possible. He recommends courting adult hockey and figure skaters to try speedskating.

He also relies heavily upon the staff members who have knowledge about the sport. He describes them as his best resource.

"My advice to anyone trying to create an adult speedskating program," he says, "is the more basic, the better."


Spice up Your Offerings

Hockey and figure skating are the backbone of every ice rink. Though they might keep your facility erect, you need more than that to make it lively. Thriving rinks rely upon a variety of programming to attract patrons—even those who are hesitant to lace on a pair of skates.

A successful facility generally should be able to program each sheet from 6 a.m. to midnight. If you only have enough business to fill one rink, don't build more than that.

But if you're looking to lure more customers, spicing up your schedule is the place to start.

Here are some tips for mixing it up:

FREE SKATES

Recapture the glory of the '70s roller rink with open skate times. Pump in some music, add disco lighting, and you've got yourself a party, not to mention a perfect magnet for Baby Boomers and increasingly nostalgic Gen Xers and their offspring.

Free skates allow the maximum number of people on the ice, meaning you're getting the most out of your sheet. It's also a sure-fire way to make concession-stand profits. Some facilities offer laser shows, music and karaoke.

FITNESS CENTERS

While a state-of-the art fitness center will make your facility attractive to competitive figure skaters and hockey clubs, it also might attract people who haven't skated since Eric Heiden wore gold spandex. Creative facilities also offer Spinning or aerobics classes for parents looking to burn time (and calories) during their children's hockey practices and skating lessons.

DANCE STUDIOS

The hippest ice arenas include dance studios where their competitive figure skaters can practice ballet and jazz to improve their musicality. Progressive-thinking rinks offer classes to parents looking to pass the time. To attract newcomers to the rink, consider renting out the studio for Pilates, yoga or martial arts classes.

BROOMBALL

It's the thrill of hockey for people who don't skate. Patrons run around the ice in sneakers, pushing a dodgeball with a broom. Promote it as an ideal group outing because it doesn't require participants to know how to skate.

COOL SUMMER

Consider turning a rink into an indoor playground during the lean summer months. Some facilities have turned their sheets into a day-camp location that offers activities such as kickball, soccer, chair hockey and inner-tube racing. The ice is not resurfaced—a condition called rough ice—so the children can run and play on it without slipping.

EXTREME SPORTS

With increasing frequency, facilities with underused sheets have melted the ice and replaced them with extreme sports. Others have dedicated unused space for X-games activities. One East Coast facility, for example, transformed its mezzanine into a two-story complex for inline skating, skateboards and scooters.




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