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Thread: Why is figure skating losing and being pushed to a niche?

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    Medalist Manitou's Avatar
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    Why is figure skating losing and being pushed to a niche?

    Sorry if this discussion was already here before, but my memory is short and I can't recall it.
    Here it is:
    I remember figure skating being much more popular in the 70s into the 90s. It was always like one of mainstream winter sports. What happened? Why is it pushed more and more into an obscure niche? Decades ago there used to be only a few TV channels and figure skating events were always guaranteed to be on. Now, there are hundreds of channels, plus internet, and good luck finding figure skating coverage anywhere. There is plenty of snooker, poker, bowling, darts on TV. But not figure skating. We are losing big time to curling. What's wrong?
    What is the problem? Why can't figure skating evolve to the changing times? Who is at fault? Why is it less and less appealing to the masses? How can we revive it?

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    Are you speaking about the US specifically? Because skating has become more popular in some other parts of the world.

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    Medalist Manitou's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by gkelly View Post
    Are you speaking about the US specifically? Because skating has become more popular in some other parts of the world.
    Saying from my perspective - Poland in the 70/80s, then Canada in the 90s and US in the 2000s. Generally in the Western Culture.

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    I think the explanations are probably a confluence of several different reasons, and not the same for Canada as for the US, let alone either of those being the same as for any European country.

    I could speak most about the US. I'd expect people from other countries who have been following skating for a long time there to speak best about the situation where they are.

    Some reasons that might have broader application might include the general fractioning of entertainment options in general with the rise of the Internet, and the fact that elite figure skating is out of reach of/far removed from most spectators, who rarely have opportunities to watch figure skating in person or to try it themselves, so it doesn't have as much of a built-in audience as sports that mass audiences might have personal experiences with at lower levels.

    However, although fans know it as a spectator sport, most only want to watch highly accomplished practitioners, preferably from their own country.

    But as an early-specialization sport it requires large investments of time and money from a very young age on the part of would-be elite skaters. In most western countries, those investments have to come from the skaters' families. So many skaters who could reach elite levels of accomplishment never get the opportunity because they don't have the resources to specialize as early and as wholeheartedly as necessary to reach the top levels. It remains an amateur sport for all but a handful of individuals in any given country.

    I can't speak to other countries, but in the US skating had long been marketed as a human interest/entertainment and opportunity to watch attractive young women perform and contend for international medals.

    As the sport has become more technical (as has the scoring) and other parts of the world have developed skaters as good as or better than the US ladies, the sport has less interest for the casual audiences who made up the bulk of the TV viewership. There may be more technically knowledgeable fans than there were a few decades ago -- due in large part to the Internet, including forums like Golden Skate -- but still probably numbered in the tens of thousands, whereas TV broadcasters are looking for audiences numbered in the millions.

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    Tripping on the Podium ruga's Avatar
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    A few reasons actually:
    - less female skaters from Western countries. Ladies has always been the most popular event and the best skaters were heroines in their countries. Now this discipline is dominated by skaters from Russia, Japan and Korea, so it's harder to attract American or Canadian audiences

    - the scoring system is confusing for average person. Back in the day, it was very easy to understand that one can get a maximum of 6 for presentation and for elements (even if this system was really unclear and flawed in general). Now the system is more clear for skaters and dedicated fans, but a casual viewer won't understand if 237.60 is a good score or not

    - a lot of focus seems to be on jumps and the number of rotations. Undoubtedly, good jumping is the most difficult skill a skater can show, but a casual person will not always understand that. It's really hard to explain why a skater who landed everything but underrotated or had wrong edges got lower score than the one who fell or made visible mistakes. Or why a skater with quads and multiple mistakes won over someone with clean triples. Not to mention that PCS follows TES very closely so there is basically no chance to beat someone less artistic but with better technical content

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    I think for many countries the problem is the big dollar deals the national figure skating organizations and the ISU cut with Television outlets. They signed away rights in multi-year agreements and now the holders of those rights don't bother to show the content; but don't allow anyone else to show it either.

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    Just my personal opinion for the US, but it seems like figure skating became a niche sport because of shifting tastes and barriers to entry.

    Nowadays, popular sports in the US are sports like basketball, football, MMA, tennis, swimming, and gymnastics. They're all heavily rooted in the US as either "hype" sports or sports that are somehow integrated into the school system. Basketball, football, MMA have such a huge following because fans get so hyped while watching these games (not sure this is the best way to describe it, but I hope you get the point).

    With tennis, swimming, and gymnastics, they're all sports parents push their children into early on because they're common in the school system and/or prevalent in college NCAA. There's a point in children pursuing these sports because it can lead to scholarships and college. It's easier for the general audience to follow, understand, and care about "cut-and-dry" sports, as opposed to artistically driven sports. Figure skating's scoring system and differentation between jumps isn't easy for the common watcher to follow along with. Gymnastics is similar to figure skating with the artistic component and subjective points system, but the NCAA path makes it worthwhile. Young girls will watch because they want to make it into NCAA or the Olympics. Their parents will then have to care for the sake of their daughters.

    With figure skating, the lack of some type of college involvement hurts early participation. You can't just go out into the street and play basketball or visit your local park's pool and go swimming - you have to find a rink and invest heavily in lessons and skates. You have to bet on your kid being really good in order for it to be worthwhile.

    With lack of broad general interest and too much initial investment (with low return), figure skating is inevitably becoming more for niche audiences.

    Russia's figure skating programs seem to be more heavily state-funded and encouraged. It also helps that Russian skaters are doing very well now, so champions inspire more champions. With the US skaters no longer dominating, interest wanes and inspiration is lacking. I don't think it's fair for the US to put so much pressure on Alysa Liu at such a young age, but I think it's a smart move to use her as PR. The US needs a champion to inspire the next generation.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ruga View Post
    Not to mention that PCS follows TES very closely so there is basically no chance to beat someone less artistic but with better technical content
    That particular argument - I wouldn't be sure. What is more appealing to the non-elite fans? What attracts wide audiences? The vague, artistic part or the measurable technical elements?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Manitou View Post
    That particular argument - I wouldn't be sure. What is more appealing to the non-elite fans? What attracts wide audiences? The vague, artistic part or the measurable technical elements?
    I hate to admit it, but I think casual fans are attracted to the jumps and "wow" elements. My friends who occasionally care about figure skating when there's a viral video on Reddit or during the Olympics are more amazed by Anna's costume change, Alysa Liu winning Nationals at a young age, or Eteri's new seniors doing 4 rotations in the air.

    It's easy to be wow'ed by these things. I don't think they know or care to look for deep edges, smooth skating, borderline UR's, or interpretation, so PCS just doesn't cross their mind. Perhaps some are interested in the choreography and music, but that's a niche in and of itself. Occasionally an exciting or outright beautiful program might go viral, but that's the only time it'd reach them.

    In some ways I want the ISU to modernize the sport and attract a wider audience, but I also don't want the integrity of the sport to change too much.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Manitou View Post
    That particular argument - I wouldn't be sure. What is more appealing to the non-elite fans? What attracts wide audiences? The vague, artistic part or the measurable technical elements?
    I think it depends on the fan. Some are much more interested in the sport side and others are almost entirely interested in the artistic side.

    Historically US media promoted viewership of skating more from an arts/entertainment perspective and is still playing catchup in terms of figuring out how to cover the sport from a more technical perspective.

    Plus a lot of (especially straight male) sports fans don't only lack interest in figure skating but actively hate it -- best case because they prefer sports dependent on purely objective decisions, which skating will never offer even if it were to become a jumps-only contest; worst case because they consider skating a feminine/effeminate activity that is inherently inferior because of ingrained misogynistic and homophobic beliefs they may not even be consciously aware of.

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    Quote Originally Posted by lusterfan View Post
    Just my personal opinion for the US, but it seems like figure skating became a niche sport because of shifting tastes and barriers to entry.

    Nowadays, popular sports in the US are sports like basketball, football, MMA, tennis, swimming, and gymnastics. They're all heavily rooted in the US as either "hype" sports or sports that are somehow integrated into the school system. Basketball, football, MMA have such a huge following because fans get so hyped while watching these games (not sure this is the best way to describe it, but I hope you get the point).

    With tennis, swimming, and gymnastics, they're all sports parents push their children into early on because they're common in the school system and/or prevalent in college NCAA. There's a point in children pursuing these sports because it can lead to scholarships and college. It's easier for the general audience to follow, understand, and care about "cut-and-dry" sports, as opposed to artistically driven sports. Gymnastics is similar to figure skating with the artistic component and subjective points system, but the NCAA path makes it worthwhile.

    With figure skating, the lack of some type of college involvement hurts early participation. You can't just go out into the street and play basketball or visit your local park's pool and go swimming - you have to find a rink and invest heavily in lessons and skates. You have to bet on your kid being really good in order for it to be worthwhile.

    With lack of broad general interest and too much initial investment (with low return), figure skating is inevitably becoming more for niche audiences.

    Russia's figure skating programs seem to be more heavily state-funded and encouraged. It also helps that Russian skaters are doing very well now, so champions inspire more champions. With the US skaters no longer dominating, interest wanes and inspiration is lacking. I don't think it's fair for the US to put so much pressure on Alysa Liu at such a young age, but I think it's a smart move to use her as PR. The US needs a champion to inspire the next generation.
    Are we talking participation or watching?

    I think in the US there are a variety of reasons for viewership to be down: streaming means that the dedicated base can watch events live regardless of the time zone so there's less sponsorship and incentive to show anything other than the highlights of competitions. (I remember being able to choose between watching freestyle on one channel and ice dance on another when I was a kid). And when there is a chance to have figure skating shown live during prime time in the States, USFA seems to blow it by having their most popular event (ladies free skate) start at 12am ET (yes yes yes go up against SNL). It's more socially acceptable for women to be active fans in football so figure skating is no longer effective counter programming to NFL.

    I do kind of wonder if the streaming revolution will also cause a further decline as less and less people shell out for cable packages where they can channel surf on a lazy Sunday afternoon, stumble upon a skating broadcast and just decide to watch it.

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    I think there is a perception that there is less skating on “free network” USA TV because there no longer are the fluff/cheesefest competitions that were common in the winter in the 1990s. However, speaking as a fan who started viewing in the Carol Heiss days, there actually is much MORE coverage, especially live coverage. Back in those days, a show such as Wide World of Sports would show mostly taped coverage of the long programs of the top 3-4 skaters at nationals & Worlds; nothing of the competitions that evolved into the Grand Prix. Even as recently as the Kwan era, when the ladies at Nationals were live, it was only the final group & no short programs.

    These past few years have been a dream! Yes, if those in the USA want every program of every skater of the Grand Prix (and nationals & world & sectionals, etc), they will have to spend about $50 for an annual NBC subscription; imho an incredible bargain! And that doesn’t even count the many hours of coverage via free TV & cable. And of course the mostly free internet streams of ISU juniors & Senior Bs.

    Seriously, there is an incredible amount of skating available today.

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    I guess you mean in US. Compare the Russian JGP attendance to the one in US. JGP are usually incredibly sparse in attendance but the one in Russia JGP had more attendance than the senior Skate America. I'm sure figure skating in Russia is gaining ton of momentum since the olympics.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Manitou View Post
    That particular argument - I wouldn't be sure. What is more appealing to the non-elite fans? What attracts wide audiences? The vague, artistic part or the measurable technical elements?
    Vague artistic. No casual fan knows a flutz from an axel. They just want to see a moving program done exceedingly well., "moving" being up to one's personal preferences.

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    Last year Tarakanova presented a program on Believer by Imagine Dragons: the Russian federation did not appreciate and she was forced to give it up.
    Official video of Believer on youtube: 1,267,844,480 views!!!

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    While I agree that there is, hour for hour, more skating on than there was in 1968, you have to dig for it and pay for it. Part of the problem is that viewership is so fractured nowadays. Back in the day you watched Wide World and watched whatever was on because it was all exciting, figure skating, downhill skiing, ski jumping. I knew way more about skiing back then because it was on one of three channels. So you got introduced to figure skating that way and your interest developed. How is anyone going to develop an interest now when they aren't introduced to it unless they are already interested and searching for it?

    I also think there's something to be said for nobody really skates anymore. We skated on ponds and if we were lucky an indoor rink from time to time. Most girls had ice skates, guys played hockey. We could also go see shows. Not Disney on Ice, but Ice Follies/Capades with real stars and where skating was the point.

    Then there is the new scoring, that, face it, doesn't make good TV. Go to the K&C, wait, up come a bunch of numbers that you don't really know whether are good or bad, coach frowns at the monitor trying to figure it out, skater stares at them, then the ranking comes up and everybody looks happy or sad. No more Tara shrieking in the box, no more guessing at home - 5.6? no, better than that; 5.7? It should really be a 5.8 but no way...5.7, YES. YES!!!

    And don't discount the effect of Tonya/Nancy on figure skating. The sport got a damn good run from that fiasco, but now it's over.

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    All a person needs to do to find HOURS of free (and mostly live) NBC coverage is to Google: NBC TV skating schedule 2019-2020.
    Takes far less time than all the searching i did via TV Guide, back in the day.
    If a person can’t manage even that much effort, they won’t be much of a fan.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Moxiejan View Post
    All a person needs to do to find HOURS of free (and mostly live) NBC coverage is to Google: NBC TV skating schedule 2019-2020.
    Takes far less time than all the searching i did via TV Guide, back in the day.
    If a person can’t manage even that much effort, they won’t be much of a fan.
    I got interested with FS back in the 70s not because I was actively seeking it, but because it just happened to be on TV twice a year: the Europeans and the Worlds. And because there was only one TV channel and I was watching every possible sport then simply I couldn't miss it. And that was how the interest started.

    Quote Originally Posted by lusterfan View Post
    I hate to admit it, but I think casual fans are attracted to the jumps and "wow" elements.
    Logically thinking, that would be the right conclusion. But it contradicts my observations of the rapid decline of pair skating in favor of ice dancing.

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    Quote Originally Posted by sjchilly View Post
    I think for many countries the problem is the big dollar deals the national figure skating organizations and the ISU cut with Television outlets. They signed away rights in multi-year agreements and now the holders of those rights don't bother to show the content; but don't allow anyone else to show it either.
    I agree with this comment. Also, it's not just figure skating that this has happened to. Soccer, Hockey, and even Track & Field have been sold off to Cable stations like MSNBC and can't be viewed on regular cable. This makes it difficult for a casual fan to find it during a non-Olympic season.

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    Figure skating is basically unknown in Germany now. No one in my area even knows that there are figure skating competitions when I tell them that I watch figure skating. A few know Ice Dance now due to the new Ice Dancing show here, but that's it.
    The issue in Germany is simple: Our current school system is not compatible with figure skating or other sports that require a lot of training. Home schooling is illegal here and we have compulsary education, therefore students have to attend school 5 times a week and usually from 8 in the morning until the late afternoon (14-16) plus many schools have compulsary after school clubs, which students have to attend 1-2 a week for 1-2 hours on top of that. Therefore training 20-40 hours a week is not possible. No training time = no big results = no big stars = people have no interest in the sport = German Fed gets no money = skaters have basically zero financial support from German Fed and cannot pay for enough lessons (skaters have to join the army to earn money and pay for training)
    = not enough training time = no big success etc.pp you could go on and on

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