Next Please!

In an article on this site, Alexandra Stevenson discusses the issue of declining attendance at U.S. Nationals.  Ticket sales are down in the U.S. for the second year in a row, and at the Four Continents Championships held in Canada two weeks later, attendance was dreadful.  ISU Council Member Courtney Jones, O.B.E. and ISU Vice-President for Figure Skating David Dore both commented there that the ISU would be taking a close look at the Championships in the near future in the context of its great cost and limited attendance.

Throughout this season USFSA, Skate Canada and the ISU have been trying a variety of gimmicks to increase audience appeal.  This has ranged from stirring music (I know now when the angelic choir bursts forth with the citius, altius, fortius theme, its time to gather up my things and head out from the press room), cutesy videos, off-ice musical interludes (including amateur night at the Grand Prix Final Exhibition), and more.  It is not obvious that any of this has helped.  In five major events so far this season, I didn't hear anyone exclaim that any of this new fluff motivated them to rush back to another event (or to urge their friends to do so).

I always though people came to the event to see the skating.  To my mind, perhaps the problem is that major skating events have gotten to be just too much of an ordeal to watch because they take so long to complete.  Over the years it seems the time taken between the skaters to read the marks (and do whatever) just gets longer and longer -- 2 1/2 to 3 minutes per skater now, or more.  At U.S. Nationals several coaches remarked that the delays between skaters had become excessive.  The difference between the Novice events at U.S. Nationals (that use closed judging) and the Junior and Senior events (that use open judging) was striking.  The Novice events just flew along with little interruption to the action.  They were a joy to watch.  The Junior and Senior events at times was like waiting for paint to dry so you could apply the next coat.

Maybe the way to keep peoples' attention and maintain a high energy level in the arena is to move things along by reducing the time it takes to complete events.  At a large event it typically take three to four times the duration of skating to complete the event.  For example, one hour of actual skating of short programs can take as long as four hours to complete!  Far longer than your typical baseball, football, basketball or hockey game.

As long as everyone has started experimenting with ways to improve events to increase public interest, why not try the experiment of reducing the time it takes to complete an event segment by 25% -- that's up to one hour in a large event.  My crystal ball says this would be good for everyone.

It would be good for the fans.

If two minutes were cut out of the time between each skater (reducing it to 30-40 seconds per skater max.) fans would get to spend more of their time in the arena actually watching skating action.  They could see a competition without having to invest a third or more of the waking hours of a day.  They could get home before midnight without having had all the life sucked out of them!  The kiddies in the audience need to be in bed by a decent hour, especially on a school night; and mom and dad have to go to work the next morning.

It would be good for the bottom line.

If you cut one hour from each event segment of a competition the time savings add up.  Events would be easier to schedule.  Costs might even go down.  More importantly attendance, and thus income, would go up. At major skating events attendance at morning and afternoon weekday events is the worst.  Only parents, retirees and hard core groupies go to events scheduled at these times.  At Four Continents, most sessions (consisting of two event segments) started at 4PM.  The arena was nearly deserted.  By 5PM the audience started to build and by 6PM most had finally arrived.

If at all possible, weekday events should not be scheduled to start before people have time to arrive after work.  Cutting the time to complete each event segment would allow fan-friendly later start times, and earlier finishes, and would likely result in increased ticket sales. 

It would be good for the skaters.

Pity the last skater in a group of six who has to wait an unnecessary extra 10-12 minutes or more to skate -- getting cold, getting nervous, getting stiff again.  I suspect most skaters would like to get on with it and get out there.  These lengthy delays seems patently unfair to the later skaters in a group.

It would be good for the judges.

Regardless of the judging system used, the judges have to pay equal attention and apply consistent judgment to every skater over a long period of time.  It is physically and mentally draining.  No scoring system can get around the basic facts of human perception that to get judging of uniformly high quality throughout an event, events need to be structured to take the minimum time to complete, with all unnecessary interruptions and distractions to the process eliminated.

In a study to be published in the near future on this site, it is found that judging fatigue sets in far sooner, and has a far larger impact on the quality of the judging of an event, than is generally recognized.  In that study it will be shown that even in events with only 12 competitors, the quality of judging for the second warmup is significantly worse than for the first group.  When three or more warmup groups are involved the effect is even more extreme, with the quality of the judging in the last group two to three times worse than for the first group.  It appears that this effect is more due to the total time spent on an entire event than on the number of competitors in the event.  It is a consequence of the limitations of human perception and capabilities, and will be present in all judging systems that use human judges.  This fatigue effect would tend to say that instead of skating first being a disadvantage, it is an advantage.  This unfair advantage given the earlier skaters can be reduced by decreasing the time it takes to judge events.  Plus, the judges and skaters would like to get back to the hotel before midnight too!

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Copyright 2004 by George S. Rossano