Suppose They Held a Grand Prix and Nobody Came?

Skate America and Skate Canada on Track for Zero Spectators by 2015


To the handful of spectators at the recent Skate America competition in Ontario, CA it was painfully obvious.  Spectator attendance was sparse, extremely sparse.  Walking around the concourse and seeing so may familiar faces it seemed the attendance was mainly driven by the local skating community: skaters, parents, coaches, officials, and the occasional skating groupie.  In a huge market like southern California, how could public interest be so low?  The following weekend in Mississauga, ON attendance was much better, as it typically is at Skate Canada, but even there attendance was not what we remember from recent years, and certainly not from the glory years in the 1990s.  Which set us to wonder, how has attendance at Skate America and Skate Canada, actually changed over recent  years, and is it as bad as it appears.

Skating events generally no longer provide figures for ticket sales.  If attendance is good on rare occasions they do, but most often not.  For the past few years ISIO has tracked attendance at the competitions we cover by estimating the number of spectators in each segment of a competition.  When official numbers are provided we have found over the years our estimates agree with the official number within about 10%, so we are confident the following analysis of attendance is correct.  We are also confident that since we use the same methodology at each competition, that the trends shown to you here are reliable.

Skate America

The following table shows our unofficial attendance numbers for Skate America for the past five years.  These are attendance for each segment, not ticket sales, since a single ticket is usually good for two or more segments.  In addition, some spectators buy a session ticket for two event segments but only attend one, nor do all-event ticket holder necessarily attend every segment.  In addition, credentialed persons mixed in with the paying audience are also included in the counts, though we do not count the VIP sections when we know them to be entirely filled with non-paying customers.

Skate America Attendance (unofficial), 2007 through 2011

Ontario, CA Portland, OR Lake Placid, NY Everett, WA Reading, PA
2011 2010 2009 2008 2007
        Fri. DCD 700 Fri. DCD 1000 Fri. DCD 1500
Fri. MSP 1000 Fri. PSP 1200 Fri. PSP 1400 Fri. PSP 4000 Fri. PSP 1500
Fri. DSD 700 Fri. MSP 1200 Fri. MSP 1400 Fri. MSP 4000 Fri. MSP 1500
Sat. MFS 1000 Sat. DSD 1200 Sat. DOD 1800 Sat. DOD 2000 Sat. DOD 2200
Sat. DFD 1000 Sat. LSP 1200 Sat. PFS 1800 Sat. PFS 3000 Sat. PFS 2200
Sat. PSP 1000 Sat. PFS 1600 Sat.LSP 4000 Sat.LSP 5000 Sat.LSP 2200
Sat. LSP 1000 Sat. MFS 1600 Sat. MFS 3000 Sat. MFS 5000 Sat. MFS 2200
Sun. PFS 1200 Sun. DFD 1600 Sun. DFD 2000 Sun. DFD 5000 Sun. DFD 2000
Sun. LFS 1600 Sun. LFS 1600 Sun. LFS 3800 Sun. LFS 5000 Sun. LFS 1800
Sun. EXH 750 Sun. EXH 1600 Sun. EXH 1500 Sun. EXH 5000 Sun. EXH 1200
TOTAL 9,250 TOTAL 12,800 TOTAL 14,100 TOTAL 39,000 TOTAL 18,300

Plot the total attendance vs. year and the trend is clear.  Attendance has declined over the last five years at a rate of about 2200 pairs of eyeballs per year, except for 2008 in Everett, WA.  Continuing at this rate of decline attendance will be zero by 2015!

Skate America Total Attendance (unofficial) vs. Year

Of course, it really won't go to absolutely zero, because there will still be the 15 officials, plus the announcers, music staff, skaters and coaches to watch, as well as a few off-duty officials, and volunteers, etc.,  but at the current rate, as bad as attendance is, the trend is for attendance to get a lot worse in the coming years.  There is no indication the trend is bottoming out, even though the economy has improved in 2011 over 2010.

The exception over the past five years was Everett, WA which drew more than twice the audience of any other Skate America over this period.

The reason for this?  The only significant distinction between 2008 and the other years, in our assessment, is that Everett was heavily promoted.  Heavily.  The Washington State visitors bureau put a great deal of effort into promoting their event.  Much more that any other Skate America in recent (or distant) memory, and it paid off.  So there is a glimmer of hope.  To put people in the seats only requires promotion, promotion and promotion.  To put a dollar value on this, the extra 23,000 views in 2008 compared to the five year trend corresponds to the equivalent of an extra 2,300 all-event tickets, which at $200 per all-event ticket is $460,000 income.

Skate Canada

We turn now to Skate Canada, typically held the week after Skate America.  For Skate Canada our records for attendance go back one additional year, covering 2006 through 2011.

Skate Canada Attendance (unofficial), 2006 through 2011

Mississauga, ON Kingston, ON Kitchener, ON Ottawa, ON Quebec City, QC Victoria, BC
2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006
Fri. LSP 1100 Fri. LSP 2500 Fri. LSP 1800 Fri. PSP 3600 Fri. PSP 3300 Fri. PSP 4700
Fri. PSP 1400 Fri. PSP 2500 Fri. PSP 1500 Fri. LSP 3600 Fri. LSP 3300 Fri. LSP 4700
Fri. MSP 1700 Fri. MSP 3000 Fri. DCD 2400 Fri. DCD 3600 Fri. DCD 3000 Fri. DCD 4700
Fri. DSD 1700 Fri. DSD 3000 Fri. MSP 2400 Fri. MSP 3600 Fri. MSP 3300 Fri. MSP 4700
        Sat. DOD 3500 Sat. DOD 4900 Sat. DOD 5100 Sat. DOD 5350
Sat. PFS 3500 Sat. PFS 3600 Sat. PFS 3500 Sat. PFS 4900 Sat. PFS 5100 Sat. PFS 5350
Sat. LFS 3000 Sat. MFS 3600 Sat. MFS 4000 Sat. MFS 4900 Sat. MFS 5100 Sat. MFS 5350
Sat. MFS 3200 Sat. LFS 3600 Sat. LFS 4000 Sat. LFS 4900 Sat. LFS 5100 Sat. LFS 5350
Sun. DFD 2500 Sun. DFD 3400 Sun. DFD 3000 Sun. DFD 4300 Sun. DFD 4000 Sun. DFD 5000
Sun. EXH 3000 Sun. EXH 3400 Sun. EXH 3000 Sun. EXH 4300 Sun. EXH 4000 Sun. EXH 5000
TOTAL 21,100 TOTAL 28,600 TOTAL 29,100 TOTAL 42,600 TOTAL 41,300 TOTAL 50,000

For 2007 through 2011 Skate Canada out drew Skate America by more than a factor of two, but the attendance trend for Skate Canada is equally troubling.  From 2006 through 2011 attendance declined by about 5600 views per year, though with some variation, with relatively better years in 2008 and 2010.  But the trend is clearly declining, with no indication of bottoming out any time soon.  Without intervention or a miraculous recovery, attendance at Skate Canada also trends to near zero by 2015.

Skate Canada Total Attendance (unofficial) vs. Year

Digging Deeper

It should be noted that the attendance trend graphs presented here have not been adjusted for the fact there were nine event segments in 2010 and 2011, and ten before that, thought the same number of sessions.  If one does that, however, it does not change the results.  Skate America is still dropping by over 2100 views per year and Skate Canada by over 4800 views per year.  Calculating by session attendance also gives similar results.  No matter how you slice it and dice it, the trend is unmistakable, spectators are fleeing these Grand Prix events, and at the current rates the arenas will be nearly empty in four years.

Those sufficiently motivated can go through the number and look for other trends, but a few results jump out at us sufficiently clearly to comment.

The decline in attendance at the exhibitions is significantly less than for the competitive segments.  For Skate America from 2007 to 2011 attendance at competition segments was down by 50% while exhibition attendance was down by 37%.  For Skate Canada from 2006 to 2011 attendance at competition segments was down 60% while exhibition attendance was down 40% (which is the same as Skate America when you account for the additional year in the Skate Canada numbers).

Attendance at the competitive segments has been declining 1.5 times faster than for the exhibition.  This would seem to say that the entertainment (artistic) aspects of skating are more important to the paying public than the athletic, and to have watered down the importance of the artistic aspects of skating in recent years in favor of the athletic has been substantially counter-productive to holding an audience.

Some observers of the sport have lamented that to appease the IOC boogieman, the ISU (through IJS) is destroying the sport to save it, and that while many sports over the years have evolved to increase audience appeal, skating is evolving in a way that is having the opposite effect.  Attendance figures at Skate America and Skate Canada appear to support that point of view, and allow us to put a dollar amount on the impact.  For comparing dollar values for lost revenue we use $200 for an all-event ticket and track the loss of viewers in equivalent all-event tickets.

U.S. Figure Skating and Skate Canada have lost millions of dollars in ticket revenue due to decreasing attendance at ISU events held in North America in recent years.  A decrease of 9,000 views at Skate America from 2007 to 2011 corresponds to 1000 equivalent 2011 all-event tickets, for a loss of $200,000 for the 2011 competition alone at $200 per all-event ticket.  For Skate Canada a decrease of 29,900 views from 2006 to 2011 corresponds to 3,300 all-event tickets, for a loss of $660,000 for the 2011 competition at $200 per all-event ticket.  If Skate America had held its 2007 audience each year from 2009 through 2011, the total increase in ticket revenue over this period would be $400,000.  If Skate Canada had held it's 2006 audience each year through 2011, the total increase in ticket revenue over this period would be $1,860,000.

To these losses one must also consider the other ISU events held in North America in recent years.  The Grand Prix Final has been held in North America three times (2001, 2003 and 2011) and the Four Continents Championships six times (1999, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009).  Four-C will next be held in Colorado Springs in Feb, 2011.

Total views for the 2011 Grand Prix final Senior events in Quebec City were 16,100 compared to 21,100 for Skate Canada six weeks earlier, and 41,300 total views when Skate Canada was held in Quebec City in 2007, a 61% loss in views in the same market over four years, and an estimated loss in ticket revenue of $560,000 if attendance had been maintained.  Four-C in Vancouver in 2009 had total views of 29,100 compared to 42,600 at 2008 Skate Canada, three months earlier, a decline of 32% -- equivalent to 1,350 all-event tickets with a value of $270,000 at $200 each.  Four-C in Colorado Springs in 2007 had total views of 6,200 compared to 18,300 for Skate America in 2007 later in the year.  (We have yet to track down our attendance estimates for 2006). Compared to attendance at 2007 Skate America, we peg the ticket revenue loss at $240,000 at $200 per all-event ticket.  The loss for 2007 Four-C is actually worse than this, since for some event segments at those championships we estimate that up to 25% or more of the audience were credentialed persons and not paying customers.

Exhibitions that start late Sunday evening do not hold the audience.  For 2006 through 2011, Skate Canada scheduled the exhibitions to start at either 3 PM or 5 PM following the Sunday competitive events.  The exhibitions those years all held or increased the audience from the preceding competitive events.  From 2007 through 2011, Skate America scheduled the exhibitions to start at 5 PM, 7 PM or 7:30 PM.  In the years the exhibitions were held at 5 PM (Portland and Everett) the exhibitions held the lead-in audience.  When scheduled at 7 PM or 7:30 PM (Reading, Lake Placid, Ontario) the audience decreased significantly compared to the earlier competitive events.  On the average, the three competitions with a late exhibition lost 49% of their lead-in audience with an average ticket sales loss of $62,500 per competition (for a $50 exhibition ticket price).

We would speculate that with a 7 PM start or later (and a 9 PM or later finish), potential local spectators get home so late that a significant number find this sufficiently unappealing and skip the exhibition, particularly in cities such as Reading and Lake Placid which are far from a major metropolitan area.  Further, late evening starts prevent out-of-town spectators from flying home Sunday evening, adding the cost of an extra hotel night in order to see the exhibition, which further drives down attendance.  Few North American cities have flights late enough in the evening to service travelers coming out of an exhibition that ends at 9 PM or later.

We further speculate that the Ladies Free Skate in Reading lost 10% of the lead-in Free Dance audience due to the 4 PM start of the Ladies event, the latest start for a Sunday competitive event for Skate America in 2007 through 2011.  The 2007 Ladies event included reigning World Champion Miki Ando, former World Champion and reigning National Champion Kimmie Meissner, and Junior World Champion Caroline Zhang in her first Grand Prix appearance.  It was an elite lineup that should have held its lead-in audience.

In our review of attendance figures for ISU competitions in North America, we find that competitive events that end after 10 PM (some have ended as late as 11:30 PM) do not hold the audience, even on Friday and Saturday evenings.  In general, competitions that completed competitive events by 10 PM and the Sunday exhibition by 7 PM (and better yet, 5 PM) did best at attracting and holding an audience.

There was no attendance bump in the pre-Olympic events in 2009.  That year both Skate America and Skate Canada attendance dropped significantly from the previous year even though both competitions included their country's best, with at least four Olympic medal contenders in each competition, including Evan Lysacek and Yu-Na Kim competing at the 2009 Skate America.  Skating did not sell itself in the run up to the 2010 Olympics, and it is unlikely then, that a miracle will occur in 2013 in the run up to the 2014 Winter Games to reverse the current attendance trend.  Without decisive, creative action spectators will likely continue to flee from the arenas in the future.


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Copyright 2012 by George S. Rossano