In a recent article, George Rossano pointed to the Russian dominance and American retreat from the top international placements. His observation defines the near future of the sport for very apparent reasons.
Figure skating is too difficult, too expensive and too dismissive of male participants. Add that its facilities in the U.S. are economically challenged, though we will not pursue that here. Finally, television coverage no longer provides an economic crutch or accesses a mass audience.
The sport is too difficult because success is overly affected by generally unreliable triples and quads that also lead to excessive injury, overly favors juvenile girls and have little to do with the ability to skate on ice. Worse, they are ugly embarrassments in a sport originated by a ballet dancer. Finally, they effectively expel from the sport an overwhelming number of practitioners who fail to accomplish them. The sport adds up to a rink tenant that discourages paying customers as quickly as it is able.
In the years of the traveling ice shows and when the sport was a darling of television, parents could envision lucrative futures for successful skaters; that encouraged (or deluded) numbers of them toward the sacrifices required to raise a skater. Now lacking most such opportunities, the lures have vanished while the sacrifices have increased.
Early in the sport only men competed; now we see more children, few women and far fewer men. Given that three of the four events cannot be held without men, that is crippling. The rinks see mostly young girls, with a sprinkling of boys. The scene resembles that seen at ballet studios, and for the same reasons; young boys remain immune to political correctness.
Figure skating needs to attract more skaters, to retain them longer and to recover as much of its audience as possible. At one time, thousands of adults ballroom danced on ice and the sport engaged entire families. That also provided a reservoir for new judges and officials, a demographic in need of restoration if officiating is not to pass to the professionals entirely.
Success should not be defined by airborne revolutions. Instruction should rest upon affordable classes, not costly solo tutoring. And following gymnastics, boys should be offered more obviously athletic events that could for instance, replace the short program.
The sport faces other impending issues off the ice: Its reduced income is questionable support for USFSA’s present offices and staff and its cadre of judges and officials becomes increasingly difficult to replace as the average ages of participants decreases. At the same time, member clubs will meet similar challenges for their own management. That adds the question: Should tests continued to be required for participation? They serve coaches; do they serve skaters, rinks and the USFSA? Roller skating made them optional long ago for their negative effects. They supply little that cannot come directly from competitions.
Looking ahead, the USFSA management has shifted with athletics generally from ‘amateur’ participants only to mandated coaches and links o rink management. As the ‘amateur’ participants represent a decreasing pool and rinks are facing increasing economic pressure, it seems likely that rinks will take an increasing interest in how the sport is managed as the ‘amateurs’ fade, a reprise of the pattern in roller sports.
This assumes that the primary challenges reflect economic and demographic responses to rules. Another aspect much discussed elsewhere is the audience response to decreased theatrical appeal; that is no small thing and should not be ignored. But no one item will bring salvation by itself, though a cheaper skating surface could go a long way.
The sport’s now indisputable downtrend needs more attention than it seems to be receiving; let us hope that the requisite USFSA and ISU officials are appropriately concerned.