NEW PORT RICHEY — Spectators jostled for viewing points along the walls of Spinnations skating rink last weekend as the southern region's best inline speed skaters drew to the starting line.
The Port Richey skate rink has hosted the southern regional races for seven years, drawing devotees from seven states for two days of high-speed racing. But with fewer skaters and the harsh economics of competitive skating, some fear for the future of the sport.
"In the late 1980s we had 13,000 skaters," Team Precision coach Jim Blair said. "Today we have only 1,800. We don't have the right promotion, but you can't blame it on the rinks. The fact is that Spinnations isn't making money on this other than the concession — the national office for the sport is. If we don't make it worthwhile for places like Spinnations, then eventually they're going to stop, and we can't do this without the rinks."
Part of the problem, he said, is the cost.
"The skates can cost upwards of $1,500 and then you're talking about traveling all over the place," said Blair, who had his own rink for 20 years. "Why should parents support that when for two or three hundred dollars per year the kid can go play soccer?"
Then he answered his own question: "When you look at events like this and how much all these kids love the sport, it tells all you need to know."
A downturn could also affect Olympic speed skating, Blair said, as may ice speed skaters get their start with inline skates.
Another factor that can scare off parents is the risk. Speed skating is a low-impact sport without much physical contact, but the risk of crashing makes it dangerous.
"That floor may look glossy and smooth, but it's very sticky," Spinnations owner Jim Balay said. "When these kids fall, they're going fast and they don't really slide on that surface. It's built for grip and you see a lot of skin and blood left behind after a fall."
Despite the risk, skaters of all ages made the trek to Port Richey for last weekend's competition. Divisions ranged from Tiny Tots for age 5 and under, to Grand Esquire for those over 60. The winners qualified to compete July 4 at the national tournament in Lincoln, Neb.
Tim Nightengale competes in the masters division and has been skating for 20 years. He believes the sport is a great way to compete and stay in shape, but has fears over its future as well.
"I'm an adrenaline junkie and I love the feeling of going as fast as you can around one of these turns," Nightengale said. "I'm disappointed with the numbers at this event. It's such a great sport and great event, but with the amount of stuff kids can do now, the sport is struggling. This is a great way to stay in shape and have fun. As a skater and a coach, I'm worried about the numbers, though."
David Rice can be reached at email@example.com.