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.
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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.

It wasn’t until the disco age that roller skating really took off, though. “Songs with an up beat and a down beat really help roller skating,” McMahon said. Take a look at "Roller Disco" from the movie Roller Boogie or Patrick Swayze's debut in Skatetown USA.

“Rinks opened up just because of [disco] and catered to roller disco skating,” Vannurden said. “It was the talk of the town.”

Not for long though, knocked down by two economic phenomena: an economic bust and an innovation.

First, as any American living through the weak economy, oil crisis, and strenuous domestic, and global political environment can attest to, money in the early '80s was tight. Rinks that survived were able to foresee that disco wouldn't last forever and adjusted their business for this eventuality.

“When the interest waned, [some of these disco skating rinks] closed,” Vannurden said. “Rinks that did not adequately prepare for a time after roller disco really took it hard. And when the interest waned, they closed.”

The second change in roller rinks after the disco era was the iconic Rollerblade, the single inline skate that reintroduced skating as a chic workout activity. Rollerblades required inline tracks in skating rinks, which had previously been built to have flat hardwood floors for the four-wheel roller skate. If arenas didn't adjust, they disappeared, and quick. Rollerblading—a trademarked brand that soon became so prevalent that it became its own verb—brought skating rinks to the modern era and made them a fad for '90s kids looking for an alternative to hanging out at suburban malls and bowling alleys: They offered a location for socialization, parties, and “good, safe fun,” according to McMahon, who oversaw much of the growth of the 1990s skating scene.

At the Roller Skating Association Convention and Trade Show last week, industry insiders from Atlanta to Australia met for five days to talk about the latest improvements in roller skating technology. We’re talking better rolling wheels for skates and special compounds for flooring.

The convention was buzzing and optimism abounded. Blame it on pop hits like Avicii's "You Make Me," a bouncy tune that recalls the heyday of skating with a video that features a roller skating showdown. Today, Top 40 chartbusters are replete with an '80s vibe, with disco infused retro tunes colliding with techno to produce beats that make roller skating, well, skatable.

He’s seen an uptick in rink business recently, what with the raging popularity of roller derby and rising incomes for some as they pull away from the worst recession in recent history. And that’s a good sign, according to Vannurden.

“Roller derby has been really helpful for skating,” he said of the sport, a contact sport that combines elements of speedskating with colorful theatrics. “People are also practicing in roller rinks for speedskating, ice skating, and dance skating. We’re at levels like we were 20 years ago."

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

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