Build The Base

By Ryan Shaffer

Agencies that program, operate, and maintain community ice rinks know how difficult it can be to make ends meet and put capital back into their facilities. It is no secret that ice rinks have an extremely high overhead in comparison to that of other facilities and require a knowledge-base that is exclusive in the recreation industry. Sadly, many rink professionals are committing the cardinal sin of ice-rink operations—cutting back or in some cases eliminating public sessions and entry-level programs.

There are three reasons why managers are cutting back:

  1. Simplicity Of Operations
    Public sessions and entry-level programs, such as learn-to-skate, learn-to-play, and house-league hockey, require considerable planning, a qualified staff, and a robust marketing plan. It is much easier to sell contracted ice time to hockey organizations and figure-skating clubs. Operations can be limited to a two-person crew with one front-desk employee and one maintenance/resurface employee. On the other hand, a public ice-skating session (assuming the turnout is high) may require five or more employees, including admissions, skate rental, skate guards, a snack bar (if the rink owns it), and a resurfacing person.   
  2. Pressure From Large Organizations
    There is constant pressure from large organizations (hockey, figure-skating, adult leagues, etc.) to provide them with the best ice times; these organizations can be persuasive because they often are a large percentage of annual revenue.
  3. Ever-Increasing Employment Costs And Clearances
    No matter one’s political opinion on healthcare, unemployment, worker’s compensation, or safety clearances, there is no arguing that increases in employee-related expenses and red tape are leading ice-rink professionals to cut back on employment. For example, in the state of Pennsylvania, every employee or volunteer who is in contact with children must undergo three separate clearances prior to working:
  • Criminal background check
  • Pennsylvania child-abuse history
  • FBI fingerprinting. 

Therefore, to effectively operate a learn-to-skate program with 50 participants, a rink may need up to eight employees/contractors, including admissions, skate rental, and at a very minimum, one instructor for every 10 participants. The costs and hassles for employment seem daunting when planning for entry-level programs.

While there are valid arguments to cut back or eliminate public sessions and programs, the reasons to add sessions are much stronger, and are simply good short- and long-term business decisions. Cutting public skate in an ice rink is equivalent to a baseball community cutting Little League—it does not make sense.

Below are three strong arguments to maintain and grow entry-level programs:

  1. Build The Base
    The most important reason is the health of the facility and the future of ice sport/recreation opportunities. The foundation of any ice rink and the market it operates within should have a broad and stable base. The Ice Skating Institute, a professional rink-management organization, commonly uses a pyramid to illustrate the proper business model for rinks. The bottom section (and the widest/largest portion of the pyramid) should be composed of casual patrons who attend public sessions and recreational/entry-level programs. When operated and programmed correctly, this bottom section should provide the largest and most consistent revenue stream. Furthermore, it is this area where rink professionals have the ability to maintain complete control over operations and rate schedules. When possible, facilitators should allocate the best ice times for these periods and commit the majority of the marketing and personnel resources. The middle section of the pyramid consists of youth-hockey organizations and figure-skating programs that tend to be committed to a facility and often are a large and steady revenue stream. If the base of the pyramid is solid, then maintaining the middle section should not be much of a problem. The top point of the pyramid consists of elite-level teams and clubs. While these patrons are also highly invested in the industry, revenue streams are smaller in comparison, and the teams and athletes tend to be volatile in nature. The top portion typically consists of teams and skaters who routinely travel from rink to rink and league to league seeking the best competition and opportunities. Don’t be mistaken—it is great to have the top of the pyramid, but when rink professionals are forced to choose between an elite team and an entry-level program, choose the entry-level program.
  2. Increased Revenue
    Some simple calculations will illustrate that building a large base can be much more lucrative than selling contracted ice to organizations. First, let’s assume that an ice rink is selling ice time at $300 per hour (which in most areas of the country is above average). Instead of selling two hours of ice to a hockey organization on Friday night at 7 p.m., a public session can be scheduled from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.—a common time for such a successful session. If a rink charges an average of $10 per patron for the public session, then the rink only needs about 75 skaters ($750, with $150 dollars for increased staffing) to equal the same net revenue. Many rinks average 100, 150, or even 250 skaters for a Friday-night public session. Next, a 10-week, one-hour-per-session, learn-to-skate program at a price of $175 per registrant can be created. Assuming there are 40 participants, a quick calculation shows the ice time is earning $700 per hour, which more than covers the additional labor and instructors required to program the session.
  3. Community Servants
    Finally, ice rinks are more than a revenue stream or a means to sustain hockey and figure-skating. Consider the health, well-being, and culture of local communities. Catering solely to organizations (and many rinks in strong markets can) misses the opportunity to give back and improve people’s lives by providing an avenue for youth and adults to congregate in a safe place for recreation and fitness. 

Ice-rink professionals need to see the importance of building the base within their facilities. It may take some hard work and a willingness to deal with increases in government red tape, but in the end, the health of facilities and the ice-rink community in general will be much stronger.

Ryan Shaffer is Recreation Director for White Township Parks in Pennsylvania. He holds a B.S. in Sports Management from Lock Haven University, an M.S. in Sports Studies with an emphasis in Employment and Labor Relations from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Reach him at