Why it's hard to skate in the Spring:
Hockey Tournaments and the Economics of Ice Rinks


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Some figure skaters wonder why many ice rinks drop many public and freestyle sessions, along with group lessons, during the Spring season. And we obviously compete for ice time with hockey teams and clubs. There are enough hockey teams and hockey players that at most ice rinks, they have always been able to pay for most of the time. However, evening and weekend public sessions and group lesson sessions often bring in enough people to make more hourly income than hockey teams pay for ice rental time.

Outdoor rinks often close down due to weather. And Spring is the time of year when many hockey teams compete in tournaments. If a rink can guarantee them the time, it may be able to book all or most of the day for hockey team practice and tournaments. There are not enough figure skating and the general public to do that. This is especially true of ice skating facilities that have more than one ice sheet, or which are within easy busing distance (for teams, coaches and families) of other skating facilities, and of adequate lodging and food resources, because those facilities can better support hockey tournaments.

In my neck of the woods, suburban Washington, DC, a moderately warm climate, it costs close to $2 million dollars (U.S.) per ice sheet to build an ice rink along with the ice surfacing, water filtering, and refrigeration equipment to maintain it, and associated facilities such as rest rooms, locker rooms, and party rooms, on top of the costs for land. Business and government organizations usually finance such purchases over time, so that paying off the debt and interest is a significant cost for such facilities. In addition, many such facilities support other recreational activities too. But this does not cover the whole cost, or maybe even the majority of the cost. As near as I have been able to determine, it costs between $1 million and $2 million per year to run an ice rink facility in my geographic area.

It might seem that with good physical security and a good building plan, 1 or 2 people can run the front desk and the rental counter, and simultaneously watch the ice sheet(s), except during the busiest public sessions.

But those requirements are rarely met. In most government-run institutions, and many large businesses, managers justify their salaries on the basis of the number of people they supervise, and the budgets they spend, so they deliberately create very inefficient facilities. The result is inefficient operations that cost several times what they need to. I was well aware of this from having been a computer programmer for contractors who support government research, where increases costs by more than an order of magnitude. But in fact, such practices are widespread throughout many other fields of government and private sector business.

The most obvious cost, aside from debt service, is the electricity required to run the compressors. But any public facility has significant additional costs, and ice rinks have special costs as well.

Because of poor physical security, people constantly try to sneak in, which reduces admission income, and increases the number of people required to reduce the problem. People also make messes - dropping all kinds of litter everywhere they can. You need to have people available to clean up those messes. Ice rinks also have a lot of things that can go wrong. Some kids take great joy in messing up various plumbing and bathroom facilities, as well as furniture. Fast moving hockey pucks, players, or rambunctious fans damage glass windows and doors.

The substantial amount of equipment needed to maintain ice sheets, such as filters, compressors, plumbing, and ice surfacers, all requiring substantial regular and emergency maintenance. Music systems and scoreboards often require maintenance, because of the high humidities. You need to have people there, or rapidly available, who can make those repairs. Ice rinks require a lot of water - associated with ice surfacing, the rest rooms, and a remarkable amount required for the locker room showers.

Rinks need to pay music license fees to organizations like ASCAP. The grounds and parking lots around the facility need maintenance as well. Most recreational facilities feel a need to get on site people certified in first aid, CPR and AED use, and possibly more.

And you need managers and substitute managers to supervise all this. And, as I said, it is often true that the less efficiently they create and manage the whole enterprise, the more those managers get paid.

So when all is said and done, ice rinks are remarkably expensive to run.

Many government organizations substantially subsidize the costs of community ice rinks and other recreational facilities. They do this largely to help create a community identity - many communities are known primarily for the recreational facilities they possess, and are seen as a "quality of life" issue. In addition, many people believe that recreational facilities - especially recreational facilities that are supervised by adults - cut crime, by providing kids with alternative fun activities to participate in instead of joining gangs.

So, it appears that many ice rinks in my area, run by municipal or county governments, have half, or more than half, of their costs paid for by the government, in addition to providing the land. For this reason, the rinks that provide the most public session time, free style sessions, and group lessons at this time of year, despite the economic advantages of renting to hockey tournaments, tend to be government run.

Some of the government run rinks don't even advertise to bring in customers...

Anyway, given the high costs of running an ice rink, we can't just casually expect businesses and governments to open up additional ice surfaces to compensate for spring closures. We just have to live with it.

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