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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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