The sport has been schizophrenic since someone grafted dancer Jackson Haines’ ice ballet onto the gentleman’s pastime of drawing figures on ice. Writers asked: Is this art or sport? Are those judges picking the best athlete or the outstanding artist? The judging has always been an unsatisfactory mix of both.
The ISU judging system has finally decided the question: Winners will be those with the most in-air revolutions. Many expensive witnesses and much ancillary detail are gathered to break ties. Writers may now relax, figure skating is a sport, not an art though showmanship carries weight.
It turns out to be a sport that few seem interested in watching. In older times, its art brought an audience that helped offset the lack of a popular base of players such as we see in tennis or of supporting institutions such as gymnastics finds in schools. That audience propelled actress/skater Sonja Henie to the top and supported touring Ice Capades, Ice Follies and others. Figure skating is now, without its watchers, even more an economic orphan, something that increases the costs for its participants since in the end, they are the only reliable source of funding. That naturally reduces their number, particularly in a difficult economy.
The sport’s management has traditionally been interested in rapidly paring away as many skaters as possible in order to crown outstanding champions. The process seems more suited to discovery of Miss Universe or a champion dairy cow as the criteria for winning are inevitably vague and the judges have more to do with results than do the athletes. That vagueness is the fact that led to figure skating champions’ selection for revolving in the air rather than for skating on the ice. The ISU has ‘solved’ its historic judging problem certainly, there’s nothing vague about revolutions in the air. But you need no skates for that, either. The ISU solution was extremely detailed and we know who lurks in details.
The sport needs two support bases: an audience and rinks. The audience needs to be large enough; the rinks require numbers to pay for the ice. The audience was lost with the adoption of IJS and the second is at risk with the rapid dropout rates the sports’ exclusive rather than inclusive policies force onto rinks. Rinks need to maximize ice use; figures skating diminishes that with test barriers, costly individual instruction and mandated minimum program content for competitions. The sport therefore rates as a necessary evil with too many rink managers who see hockey as a better business.
Present ISU and USFSA managements, like the U.S. Congress and most E.U. governments, are presiding over financial failure resulting from their past policies but their political security requires a devotion to the status quo they are unwilling to risk. Both organizations are running on heirloom funds accumulated before the audience left, an exhaustible resource. At some point, new management will come to face an empty cash drawer with no time to plan. As the U.S. and E.U. (and much of the world, for that matter) face similar futures, this seems unlikely to change.
Much however, can be done when it is time to face reality. U.S. Figure Skating is running out of judges; it now anoints them from short seminars instead of the lengthy trial experience of yesteryear. So why block skaters’ access to competition with testing? That, besides depending upon a large supply of judges, excludes skaters from competing. Why not forget the tests and let all compete, just forcing the top placers to move up each year? That needs fewer judges, maximizes entries to pay for competitions and removes the barriers that cause dropouts. And the more skaters in the sport, the happier the rinks will be to support it.
Why let the Professional Skaters’ Association force all but beginners to take ridiculously costly individual lessons? Classes work better and save a lot for skaters without hurting coaches, except that fewer coaches will be needed. Ballet and gymnastics do that; why hasn’t skating learned? Top ballet folk take master classes, right? A class of four can reduce the skater’s cost to one fourth without affecting the coaches’ income.
Why not try to attract men back to the sport? It started for men only but look at it now… a sport for pre-teen girls, mostly. That’s too small a market to support a sport so difficult to accomplish. To help reclaim the men, drop the men’s short program in favor of an track and field athletic event of jumps, spins and speed trials on ice, measured, not judged, true athletics. The scores may be added to the free skating just as the short program has been. And it will be interesting to an audience.
Finally, restore the abandoned social ice dancers who once brought adults onto the ice in numbers. The whole demographic was abandoned when free dancing became the gateway into Olympic participation for ice dancers, shifting the average ages of participants further downward. Those are the people that once ran the clubs and provided competent management for U.S.Figure Skating. They supported a lot of dance coaches, too. And bought ice from the rinks, making everybody happy.
And if you would like an audience, return to the sort of judging and the sort of skating that used to provide one. A good start might be placing a cap on jump revolutions…a cap that will allow a reasonable number of skaters to participate, rather than confining titles to a miniscule elite composed of juvenile ectomorphs with exceptional reflexes, balance and finances.
See, boys and girls, nobody’s paying for figure skating anymore but figure skaters. If you keep whittling those down as you do now (A novice lady represents a 10% remnant) then you’re going to run out of money to run the sport. To finance it in the new era of no audience and no sponsors, you need to enlarge the base. Maybe some folks ought to be thinking about that? Skaters are spending discretionary income that seems harder to come by, these days. Left on its current trendline, the sport seems headed for the Figure Skating Museum…which will close, for lack of finances.