When two local competitors shut their doors during the COVID-19 lockdown last spring, Sportsman’s Hall Roller Skating Center Owner Stephen Hoffman saw an opportunity. Today, the vintage rink is more than just a local attraction in Upperco, Md.; it’s now a regional destination for greater Baltimore sports fans, who have fewer skating options nearby — but more to do at Sportsman’s Hall.
That’s because in addition to intensive outreach to broaden his audience, Hoffman also recently partnered with Coppermine, a Baltimore athletic organization that will bring volleyball and basketball to the 61-year-old rink in Maryland horse country. It’s an example of the creative ways roller skating entrepreneurs are adapting to survive what — between extended shutdowns and reduced capacities — is undoubtedly a challenging business environment.
“We are reinventing ourselves,” said Hoffman, who owns the 30,000-square-foot Sportsman’s Hall with his wife, Donna. Alongside a 20,000-square foot skating surface, which features wraparound windows, Sportsman’s Hall is being renovated to accommodate the additional sports — an investment that is
already paying off. “We’re booking huge events, several three-day weekends, all the way into the holidays,” Hoffman reported in September.
This is not the first time Sportsman’s Hall has successfully revived itself. “We’re a very special rink, one of the largest in the country, and drop dead gorgeous,” said Hoffman. In 1992, an arsonist burned the original facility to the ground. When the owner at the time vowed to rebuild, his wife told him to choose between her or the rink — and, according to Hoffman, the rink won out.
With a history like that, the Hoffmans couldn’t let a global pandemic be Sportsman’s Hall’s demise. “You can’t afford to build a roller skating rink like this today,” Stephen Hoffman observed, pointing to all-maple hardwood floors. In normal times, the facility can hold 1,200 guests; pandemic rules mandate half capacity, and on a good day, Sportsman’s Hall welcomes upwards of 50 percent of the current limit, with visitation rising.
That still leaves plenty of slack, and the Hoffmans have gotten creative about generating revenue. A July event shortly after the rink’s reopening drew 340 people, and an annual December event draws hundreds from around the world. Many skaters feel more comfortable about gathering indoors with people they know, so the Hoffmans are doing a brisk business in two-hour private parties with 15 to 50 people.
In Waterbury, Conn., another veteran rink is slowly watching longtime fans return. Roller Magic reopened in mid-June at mandated 25 percent capacity. “We’ve actually hit that twice so far, which is great,” Manager Nancy Shelton said.
Across the Northeast, which was hardest hit by the spring COVID outbreak, adults have been quicker to return than families with younger children. Roller Magic’s highest grossing skate is on Saturday evening, and the Monday night adult skate — which grew from 30 to 100 people on average before lockdown — now draws around 150 skaters each week. Afternoons, once bustling with the school crowd, are now slow. “Moms and dads are being very cautious with their children,” observed Shelton. But summer is also a traditionally slow season for indoor attractions like skating, “and we had a really great summer, weather-wise, so people were all outdoors,” she added.
To boost the bottom line, Roller Magic now charges an entry fee for everybody — including the non-skating parents who used to enter for free. “That’s because we’re running at reduced capacity, and it’s probably something we will continue,” Shelton said. A year ago, Roller Magic would have up to eight birthday parties at a time; now the legal cap is two, “and two is still rare,” she added. “But as time goes on, it looks like we are getting busier.”
The recovery is well underway for roller skating centers in Florida. Rink operators reported that both adults and children have returned in ever-growing numbers. “One challenge is making sure we’re not too busy, so people can still socially distance,” said Kourtney Schad, manager at Skate Station Funworks of Orange Park. That starts in the lobby, where six-foot floor markings prevent congestion, and the snack area has tables spaced far apart.
The issue of safety can be a delicate one, with some patrons taking precautions and others bristling at the safeguards. Skate Station spaces out tables in the snack area, and Schad said her staff encourages the wearing of masks indoors. “But it’s not the law, so we can’t require it,” she explained. “Everyone has a different view of everything.”
Masks are required at Astro Skate of Pinellas Park, and that’s just one of many changes. High contact activities like inflatables have disappeared from children’s parties, said Manager Jasmine Barnhart. But Astro Skate keeps the fun going with popular games, and children have returned in droves, packing the facility’s summer camp.
“We are slowly getting to normal,” said Barnhart. By late September, Astro Skate reached its 50 percent capacity limit of 330 guests for the first time since
reopening in June, “so things are coming back,” the Manager added.
In Michigan, where rinks were closed for more than six months — and many shut for good — John Bonabi just couldn’t wait to see familiar faces again. Interviewed in early October, the longtime Manager at Detroit Roller Wheels was looking forward to a mid-month reopening. “We’ve been in business nearly 50 years, and people know us,” said Bonabi. He said new safety precautions like temperature checks and CDC distancing guidelines are worth the hassle. “It’s better to be safe,” Bonabi affirmed. “We don’t want to have to shut down again. We miss all our customers.”