Figure Skating: The State of the Sport

Is This Sport Sustainable?

by Jack Curtis

The Sport Until Today

Competition was figures for men only; nobody watched. Then, ballet master Jackson Haines put his art onto the ice with music, inventing free skating and creating an audience. With Haines skating ballet to waltzes, ballroom dancers followed with ice dancing. Figure skating became a sport for all ages, both sexes and an audience. The ice shows appeared, providing careers for skaters; television enlarged the audience and helped finance the sport. That was then.

Today, balletic free skating has been ditched for unlovely, skillful but not very athletic mandated gymnastic elements and figure skating has neither figures nor skating as both take too long and cost too much. Music still drowns out the skate noises but one often wonders why. Fewer are watching. 

The sport has lost most of its men and women, its figures, its free skating, its audience, its recreational ice dancers, most of its post-competition careers and most of its financing; it is now losing access to the rinks, which prefer hockey. These facts question its future and would frighten the pants off any businessman, a contrast to the serene disinterest shown by the politicians of its governing bodies. We will examine these conditions.

The Rinks’ Economics

Competition moved from cheap outdoor ice into costly ice palaces. Pressed by costs, rinks must maximize ice use. Skating classes do that; beginners learn in affordable groups rinks are happy to have. But advanced skaters’ costly private instruction and related high quit rate reduce rink business. Small numbers of skaters can’t pay the rinks enough. Inexpensive US rinks charge maybe $165 an hour; $250-$300 is common, culminating in $500 and up in places like New York . At a $9 movie-equivalent admission, that requires from 18 to 55 skaters on the ice.  Two thirds of USFSA clubs have fewer than 100 members; 38% fewer than 50. Some members don’t skate a lot so too few clubs pay their rinks enough to justify their presence.

Small clubs may be run by parents or adult skaters who prefer semi-private ice; some coaches oppose growth for competitive reasons. Smallness frustrates the rinks, which see too little income from the sport. US Figure Skating has some very successful clubs; why not study them and provide their practices to all the others? A little supervision in obviously troubled cases might help too; customary benign neglect does not. Why is this not done?

In the U.S, difficult tests are required before fun; competition and often, show or exhibition eligibility depends upon them. 29% of new US Figure Skating members give up at the first or pre-preliminary test level; 54% by the second or preliminary level. Skaters who stay find no easy reward: a recent failure rate for Novice moves in the field tests is 45%. Surviving Novice skaters represent 10% of those who started at pre-preliminary, the other 90% have quit. You must kiss a lot of frogs to find a princess; it takes many princesses to produce an ice queen. The USFSA is discouraging tadpoles. This policy seems calculated to drive off all but the national champion as soon as possible; how many rinks can the national champion support? And yet US Figure Skating test officials are publicly committed to making their tests more difficult to pass. Why?

Rinks are threatened; energy and liability costs have exploded. Risk management that forces kids at some schools to walk, not run on playgrounds is forcing more rinks to outlaw all but skating slowly around on public sessions that used to allow jumping, spinning, ice dancing and some speed skating. Skaters practicing on public sessions recruited new people and provided fun; today’s public is “protected” from such fun and fewer attend. Some rinks have recognized this by de-emphasizing public skating and effectively, becoming hockey schools; a very few emphasize figure skating. Rinks are offering less and charging more in a threatening economy, a tough sell in the entertainment industry.         

Besides teaching small clubs to emulate successful ones, US Figure Skating could provide rink management and coaches with promotional programs profitably restoring recreational ice dancing and simple competitions lacking the tests that slow progress. Those could capture and hold more Basic Skills grads and return the teen, adult and school kids demographics to the ice, profiting both rinks and coaches. The studied neglect with which US Figure Skating regards its landlords has a rising price.

The Sports’ Business Model

Costly private instruction and difficult, unnecessary tests contribute to the low numbers making figure skaters second rate rink tenants but competition is the poisoned cup. Champions are expected to command triple and quadruple jumps; never mind how well they actually skate. The best over-all skating athletes and artists cannot hope to score well; scarce airborne twirlers rule. Girls doing triples after puberty are rare. Any boys at all are rare.  

That provides a few who can do it –sometimes- to grace ISU events with their chancy performances but it relegates maybe 99.97% of participants to permanently inferior status, no matter how good their actual skating might become. Again, the pattern seems intended to drive off the average skater. Since rinks need quantity and the sport puts scarcity (those twirlers) first, the two models conflict. Why not allow everyone to compete without testing, just force the successful to move up in class? That should put more people on the ice. Then rule out triples and quads domestically, which should put success in front of more people, returning value to skating and artistry. The international skaters needing triples could be selected out by using the current ISU short program as a test. Glorifying a tiny genetic minority that can twirl in the air and treating the rest as chopped liver is a selection process, not a productive way to run a sport. Is it not more productive to set an attainable standard more athletes can meet (if they work hard enough) for the U.S. and provide a side door for the tiny few who fit the international mold? That could provide quantity and quality, improving the sports’ position in the rinks, speeding recognition of international candidates and saving time, effort and money wasted today upon second rate “international” skaters who never earn a medal.

The Coaches

Government licenses doctors, lawyers and others who share two things: they are not all good at what they do and they cost too much. US Figure Skating is licensing coaches; the result will be that not all will be good at what they do and they will cost too much. How rinks will react remains to be seen. Coaches will regret the relationship since their new masters lack a reason to care about their economic well-being or their freedom to make their own decisions. USFSA itself risks legal responsibility for coaching problems not covered by its insurance. Bureaucrats will increase control; no others will benefit.

Coaches demand private instruction in a costly sport. It maybe had sense when figures were taught on private patches of ice; not now. Is an ice coach worth more than a gymnastics coach or a ballet teacher? Especially when the price discourages entry into the sport? That puts illusion over reality. If a coach charges $20 for a private lesson, she can charge four students $10 –half as much- and take home $40, twice as much as before. Students watching and stimulated by each other will progress faster.

Adoption of the partnership model used by doctors, lawyers and other professionals would provide better instruction from multiple teachers and a better life style than the do-everything- myself model forced on sole practitioners. A partnership could contract to provide the skating school at a rink; that could make a more stable workplace by converting rink quasi-employees into true professionals and it could help put economically viable numbers of skaters onto the ice.

The Audience

School figures had no audience. Jackson Haines fixed that when he presented ice ballet in Vienna ; the shows followed. The audiences attracted TV interest and created the ice queens. If it wishes to attract them again, the ISU could repeat what Haines did; make a show. Remove the restrictions and return to true free skating where the skater does whatever she wants to do. Assign a significant weight to artistry in determining the outcome. The old system with marks for “Technical Merit” and “Artistic Impression” used to do that, when the audience was there…the main audience now is often the long row of bureaucrats operating the scoring system. About the only event consistently worth watching in the US today is the last warm-up group at Nationals. Usually.

Male Interest

Early competitions were men only. Numbers of men still competed when the author did, in the middle of the last century; most are gone now. Before recreational ice dancing disappeared, about forty percent of its practitioners were men. They could be restored as suggested above, showing rinks and coaches how to earn money from ice dancing, which can be quite profitable.

Male athletes might respond to some tweaks to the sport. For instance, the present short and long programs (It can’t honestly be called “free” skating any more) are similar. Why have two programs when one will do? Wasteful! Concentrating on only one might improve performances and save money.

Men could have an athletic event in lieu of the short program, measured, not judged and based upon figure skating fundamentals. Prefigured by the jump-and-spin events popular at non-qualifying competitions, the event could resemble track or gymnastics meets and draw an audience. The male skaters would become visibly proven athletes.

Another constructive step: mandate the simpler costumes of the past, leaving the Las Vegas look to ice shows, where it originated. Overdressing does not improve poor performances; it’s just tacky.

The Volunteers Who Do the Work

US Figure Skating volunteers are also threatened. In 1993, 26% of judges were older than 60; in 2003, 36% were. Judges and accountants are insufficiently recruited; the new judging system faces some severe shortages among technical specialists. There have been about 300 US non-qualifying competitions and 62,000 tests serviced annually; these can’t happen by themselves. Younger officials from two worker families are less available; fewer volunteer. Test chairs report difficulty staffing test sessions; too many competitions resemble retirement homes and could not be held otherwise. US Figure Skating has shown no interest in this, continuing its unplanned, heavily politicized and unproductive staffing policies. Voluntary instead of mandatory testing of skaters could help here too; fewer officials would be needed. Between imposing a costly new judging system upon its competitions and doing nothing to replace available staff, it is reasonable to wonder whether US Figure Skating cares about its non-qualifying competitions or its tests. It is clearly not acting responsibly.


At the recent financial year end, US Figure Skating expected a two million dollar loss according to knowledgeable officials. However, its new budget added new programs at increased spending, directly opposite what a normal businessman would expect. Of course, the businessman would be spending his own money. No explanation has been provided and not enough questions asked.

Rinks are often financially marginal. In a difficult economy, private ones close; public ones need more tax money not always available. The current economy is not encouraging.

With a few exceptions, coaches earn too little and charge too much for the good of their market. US Figure Skating attacked them when it turned its competitive skaters loose to compete with them. It also attacked their professional association ( PSA ) when it offered coaches liability coverage previously available only from the PSA ; still, the coaches are lock-stepping into the USFSA’s embrace in search of licensing. The lambs are going to dinner with the lion, hoping he’ll pick up the check.

The ISU wiped out post-competition professional TV careers by putting up its top skaters for sale on TV and paying large prizes and appearance money for its own events; the hot shots no longer turn pro easily. With winners now unpredictable under point system judging, there are no more enduring stars drawing crowds and inspiring future skaters. The ISU and US Figure Skating are sitting on accumulated money with no prospect of replacement. US Figure Skating has no known plan and spending it on questionable programs with no measurement of results. If the ISU has a plan, it is unknown to this writer. 

US Figure Skating recently budgeted between three and four hundred thousand dollars on coaches, a substantial increase. Its new coaches’ licensing program likely motivates that. Its new judging system hikes the cost of competitions. Following loss of 80% of its funding and a loss year, it takes imagination or a drug-altered consciousness to conceive what justifies this…the word “irresponsible” comes to mind.    

A long term view of what is good for the sport would prioritize and resize programs to fit proven revenue, preserving the accumulated money to provide income from investing it, a gift that would keep on giving. The current course seems aimed at spending it, depriving the future of its earnings. The value of programs being bought needs analysis when the price is dear; none is available. US Figure Skating is coming to look a lot like the US Congress to some of us.


US Figure Skating, some rinks and too many skaters are on an financial edge. The sport is unnecessarily costly and relies upon often marginal facilities that prefer hockey; little funding or audience remains. Post-competition careers are fewer and uptake into competition from successful basic skill classes is insufficient. Skater retention is abysmal; too few are men, women or boys. Worlds and Olympics are elite ice shows relying on limited casts with little resemblance to a genuine sport. Only 5% of USFSA’s members participate in its qualifying competitions in singles, pairs and dance but they are the target of nearly all of its dwindling disposable resources.  Perhaps this is a stable situation but is that the way to bet? Will the audience shrink further? If it does, what will keep this isolated mini-sport alive? There is evidence that the generation replacing the current audience may provide fewer fans.

US Figure Skating leaders have told me: its sole responsibility is to find good candidates for the national and ISU competitions. It is doing that, though with increasing cost and decreasing success. If however, it is responsible for the well-being and growth of its sport (as its By Laws state), then it seems fair to call it irresponsible once more. US Figure Skating has debated this internally (and hypocritically) for years. It is past time for it to be publicly settled.

 American ISU officials perennially clinging to power in US Figure Skating have said to me that clubs and non-elite activities should be abandoned as wasteful and the Governing Council dropped so that management need not deal with the participants. Management tends to run US Figure Skating that way already. Breaking the ISU officials’ grip might help; the U.S. sport should be run for the needs of the U.S; only secondarily for the ISU. Occupying slots in both at once is clearly a conflict of interests, as the ISU itself has pointed out. Pairs, dancers and men are now so few that they hardly need to qualify for the national championship anymore; if competition were honestly limited to those with triples, the same would be true of girls. If something is not done, economics may do it for us. We may not like that, but no one will be able to claim that we couldn’t see it coming.

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