It looked like for a little while there, back in late 2007 and early 2008 when the economic recession was just beginning, like figure skating might dodge the hard times bullet.
Somewhat insulated by being a sport whose athletes often come from well-off families, it still wasn’t too long before skating started feeling the pinch. Soon dips were seen in skating programs at the grassroots level and the effect was felt by the coaches who make their living on the ice.
“From the program director standpoint, we started seeing a decrease in registrations heading into the 2008-2009 season,” said Carey Tinkelenberg, founding owner, executive director, and head coach at Northfield Skating School in Minnesota. “We did a lot of market research and asked questions of the parents and what we found was that the parents were happy with our program, but they were cutting down from three or more activities to only doing one or two.”
Even among those skaters who stuck with the sport, there was a noticeable decrease in trips to the rink.
“The kids normally skating twice a week, cut down to one day a week,” said Julie Patterson, program overseer at the Ice Den in Arizona. “Skaters were skating three freestyles a week who normally skated five. Learn to Skate numbers were dropping.”
The economic downturn started by less skaters on the ice ultimately began manifesting itself with less ice time overall, particularly freestyle sessions.
For coaches who either make their living or earn a supplemental income by teaching figure skating, the ripple effect of the recession was tough.
“Smaller group lessons, less ice time, less lesson time,” said Paul Paprocki, coach at Rochester Figure Skating Club and head of the hockey committee for PSA. “I started seeing more and more of a downturn. The pyramid just kept getting smaller.”
So what’s a coach to do who wants to stay in the rink and also survive?
“I had previously done hockey lessons here and there, but when it came to the point that I needed additional income, I put up fliers at the facilities I coach at and where they sharpen hockey skates and I talked to the hockey coaches,” said Paprocki, who is a Level 4 USA hockey coach. “I had the credentials but I wasn’t marketing them because I was mostly coaching figure skating. But now I actively market those skills.”
Paprocki encourages coaches to pursue the Hockey Skating I online course through PSA, which, he said, provides valuable information on how to get started coaching hockey and how to market those skills properly. In addition, he pointed out potential opportunities to teach stroking to speed skaters, as well working with adults skaters, whether for figure skating or hockey.
“If you are at a rink where hockey is slowly consuming more and more of the available ice time and you’re panicking a little bit, but you’re able to coach both figure skating and hockey, you are a much more valuable asset to the rink and to yourself,” he said.
Being willing to go outside the comfort zone seems to be a suggestion that coaches who need to beef up their schedule should heed.
“I think coaches need to be willing to go back to the grassroots level, no matter what their level is,” Patterson said. “The beginning skating programs are a great way to build a customer base back up.”
Patterson should know. She is credited with having turned the three-rink Ice Den in Scottsdale, Arizona, into one of the nation's fastest-growing ice skating facilities and she is currently deeply involved in the recent opening of another facility in Chandler, Arizona.
“Some families are still hurting, but I see the sessions getting more crowded and the coaches are a little busier overall,” she said.
With the nationwide economy reportedly rebounding, skating also seems to be on the upswing.
“The last six months, possibly stretching back a year, it’s starting to feel like things are turning around,” Paprocki said. “I don’t even think it’s necessarily in response to the Olympics. There are some signs that maybe we’ve hit the bottom and are on our way back up.”
To see the economic downturn through until the end, one word stands out more than any other: innovation. Finding new and different ways to present particular skill sets can be a coach’s most valuable resource.
“One thing we really looked at was what would make us stand out when it came time to choose between activities,” Tinkelenberg said. “We have always been creative with the ice time we have, but that did become more important (with the economic downturn). We’ll offer a spin class at center ice during open skating or offer adult classes at the same time as our beginner classes so adults can skate without needing to schedule child care.”
This creativity has reached outside of the rink, with Tinkelenberg and her Northfield Skating School teaming up with the local school district and the YMCA to make use of daytime ice for adult skating and homeschool groups. In addition, skaters of the Northfield Skating School have been the beneficiary of scholarships through a city grant program that helps children with certain financial requirements to have access to local athletics.
“There is a lot to be said for collaborating with the hockey associations,” Tinkelenberg said. “Hockey and figure skating are all too often competitive with each other and sometimes it can be tricky but it is worth looking at. Instead of fighting for ice time, that ice can be consolidated and it can be more affordable. It can also help the coaches too. In the end, the sport has to stay enjoyable and affordable for the kids to stay in it.”
Good times or bad, recession or not, the key to continued success and longevity as a coach comes down to the way business is conducted.
“I think it’s really about communication,” Tinkelenberg said. “Understanding the value this sport has to kids and articulating that to parents. A coach must have solid business practices and solid ethics. That will keep a lot of skaters and parents continuing to come back to the rink. I think all coaches could spend more time on customer service and investing in the parents.”