Tracking ISU and U.S. Figure Skating Events, Issues and Governance
USFSA Has A Much Tougher Problem Than Artistry!
While a number of people now recognize the blind alley up which the ISU has led figure skating by its de-emphasis of artistry, far fewer seem to recognize the dead end that U.S. Figure Skating policy may produce for the United States. The reasons for this resemble the reasons that underlie the misdirection by the ISU, but the factors involved, differ.
The single immediately significant U.S. issue for the sport is not its artistry, which is an over-simplification of the reasons for the withdrawal of its audience. The problem in America is an existential business problem: The sport depends upon facilities owned by others and those facilities are threatened economically by government policy, the legal system and by competition. Very simply, if no one can operate rinks, how will figure skating exist?
Notice is beginning now of the ongoing reduction of family living standards for average Americans. This decline will continue. Many of us can recall when figure skating was an avocation for country-club families’ daughters because rinks were few and the sport, expensive. Today, energy-intensive and tort-liability prone rinks face competition for recreational dollars from many more activities than in the past, as well as a less physically active lifestyle generally. The tendency of the legal system to find someone responsible for every injury has hit rinks as well. It is obvious that there will, sooner than expected, be fewer rinks in the U.S.
U.S. Figure Skating has emulated the ISU to date, concentrating upon its wonted activities with its head in the sand. That is normal for political bodies; politicians are recognized for dealing with events when they occur, not for heading them off. Unfortunately, this inevitably leads to events being, when they arrive, worse than they needed to be. That is a fundamental conflict between the goals of politics and those of economics.
One additional issue complicates the future success of the sport of figure Skating. Numerous skating officials have assured us that the primary responsibility of U.S. Figure Skating is the production of successful, world-level champions. That is not, of course, what the sport’s charter holds out. But it fairly reflects historical policy. It is why US. Figure Skating programs offer an elimination process of tests and competitions of increasing difficulty that results in an average roughly two year participation life for skaters. In essence, U.S. Figure skating is set up to identify its champion by sending everyone who doesn’t make it, home to play tennis or something.
In contradiction, rinks need to max the numbers paying to use the ice; they are revenue-challenged, with high uncontrollable costs. So rinks and the sport are at odds, which is why the Ice Skating Institute came to be, with its programs aimed at large participation. This split of interests has been limiting for rinks and for U.S. Figure Skating, two groups that are natural, if uncomfortable, partners. The wasteful duplication in this structure deprives both rinks and U.S. Figure Skating of participants while increasing costs.
As ongoing economic events reduce the money available for figure skating in both rinks and families (and for USFSA too), the average proficiency levels of skaters will decline. That will inevitably at some point, reach the top levels too. The sport’s structure ought to be rebuilt to deal with all this.
While the inherent political and economic interests will prevent massive changes until the majority of those involved see the need for them, much can be done in preparation that will ease and speed the implementation of new programs when that occurs. There is much to gain in a rapprochement between the USFSA and ISI at their respective top levels, with a forward-looking approach and there is no cost for that. The present relationship has been more pro-forma than useful. Figure skatings’ poor relative, roller skating, was decimated by the advent of in-line skates and a loss of popularity; it has had to deal with similar economic issues already and its reactions will offer useful ideas.
Tennis is supported by a large base of rather poor players; gymnastics is supported by schools and commercial gyms that operate like rinks though with much lower costs. Figure skating will not have a large base but it can have a much larger one. That is attainable by providing existing participants more opportunity for rewards to induce them to persist and by expanding the appeal of the sport to a wider market.
For examples, consider strictly domestic national competition with caps upon jump revolution, judged by the old 6.0 system. A much larger number of skaters could participate. Those able to successfully perform the ISU short program might thereby become eligible for international levels of competition held separately at much reduced expense. In these domestic types of events, the short program could be eliminated, saving money for both event sponsors and skaters. Men, a particularly weak point in the current sport, might be offered an additional event based upon measured rather than judged, jumps, spins and sprints; a sort of ice track and field competition that would be pure athletics. And perhaps the once numerous adult ice dancers might be reclaimed with a little thought and attention. The goal would be increased participation for the USFSA and more ice paid for in the rinks. And naturally, more people having fun on the ice …This will loom larger as the prospect of an on-ice career wanes.
Some of this could be gradually implemented without much fuss; some will have to await the visibly falling sky. In the latter case, planning and preparation can be done. It’s nice when your airplane’s engine starts to sputter, to know there’s a parachute under your seat.