Whatever Happened to Roller Skating?

Heading to the rink for a night of fun may seem kind of retro, but it isn't a thing of the past.

Last week, among the glittery monoliths that line the Reno and Las Vegas strips, a rather old-fashioned, decidedly not-glitzy industry met to discuss the future of four wheels.

No, not those four wheels.

The Roller Skating Association Convention and Trade Show congregated to discuss all things roller skating—derbies, rinks, and the skates themselves.

Which made me wonder: What happened to roller-skating rinks anyway?

Roller skating may seem kind of retro, but it isn't a thing of the past, says Jim McMahon, executive director of the Indianapolis-based Roller Skating Association International. In fact, rinks are thriving—just not where you'd expect.

“It’s not a declining industry,” McMahon said. “We have gotten 15 brand new skating rinks all over the country over the past 14 months.” 

Which isn’t to say that building a roller-skating rink is a guaranteed windfall. After all, rinks tend to be large—and costly—investments.

“Real estate tax increases and the increasing cost of utilities have really hurt roller skating rinks,” McMahon said, adding that it's tough for rinks to just hike up prices to cover the taxes: "If the price goes up to go to a roller skating rink, people stop going.”

Because of their large footprint, roller skating rinks are dependent on real-estate prices, and the real-estate bust of 2008 forced many newly-opened rinks to shutter. It's for this reason that many new rinks are being built in suburban and rural regions where land is cheaper.

“You need at least 20,000 to 30,000 square feet for a roller skating rink,” McMahon said. “It costs millions of dollars to just remodel a rink.”

And it’s not just the square footage of the rink itself: “You have to have at least 400 to 500 car parking spots for some of these rinks, and the average price is $3 million to just buy the land,” McMahon said. “In an area where land value is $400,000 an acre, it’s really tough for a roller skating rink to survive.” 

Since its invention, the roller-skating industry has tracked the ups and downs of the American economy, explained James Vannurden, a historian at the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska.

It all began with the perfection of the four-wheel roller skate in the post-Civil War period. Roller skating at this time was considered an upper class activity, complete with men in tuxedos and women in formal dresses.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century when roller skating became popular and accessible, thanks to labor laws.

“Prior to that, people had to work 12 to 14 hour days,” Vannurden said. “With labor laws enacted, workers didn’t have to work as hard, and [this legislation] opened up roller skating to the masses. It wasn’t an upper class activity anymore.”

This coincided with the infamous boom years of the 1920s—when the excess and glamour of high society trickled down to the lower echelons and America was reaping the benefits of a prosperous post-World War I period.

Once the Great Depression hit, however, roller skating became too costly for many Americans, leading to many swingin’ '20s rinks to close. When the economy boomed following World War II, a culture shift began to emerge—women began to go to roller skating rinks by themselves with money they earned.

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Tanya Basu writes for and produces The Atlantic's National Channel.

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