When the Metrodome shuts its doors, in-line skaters will lose their winter oasis – and the sport's popularity will likely take another hit.
The concrete concourses of the Metrodome are Cortney Johnson’s health club. The 38-year-old St. Louis Park woman credits the stadium’s public in-line skating program with helping her lose more than 100 pounds. Yet tears came to Johnson’s eyes recently as she strapped on her in-line skates to circle the Dome one last time.
Johnson is part of a small, but impassioned community that’s been skating the 360-degree concourses of the Metrodome for more than two decades. “Rollerdome,” as it’s called, will close its doors Friday as the Dome nears demolition to make way for a new stadium.
“I don’t know how I’m going to keep up my level of skating without it,” Johnson said. “It’s gonna hurt the sport even more — the Dome is what keeps us going.”
Though the local in-line skating community has been promised a spot to skate in the new stadium, worries abound that two winters without an indoor skating facility will further hurt a sport that’s been on a steady decline since its heyday in the 1990s.
Twenty years ago, in-line skating was one of the country’s fastest-growing sports. By 1998, about 32 million Americans over age 7 were in-line skating, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
Today, the sport has dwindled to about 6.6 million participants, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Certainly not the trendy activity it once was, but in-line skating still ranks above water skiing and slow-pitch softball. The sport continues to attract a devoted core group of participants — especially in Minnesota, where the Rollerblade brand was born. Many of them counted on the Metrodome’s hallways to provide their skating fix each winter.
“It’s going to be really weird and we’re trying to find ways to fill the void,” said Lee Engele, 59, of St. Paul.
Long gone are those early-’90s visions of hot pink knee pads, Spandex shorts and Zack Morris (the “Saved by the Bell” character) look-alikes circling the lakes in Minneapolis. But even with its short outdoor skating season, the Twin Cities area remains an unusual hotbed for the sport, both recreationally and competitively.
“Minneapolis and St. Paul are the epicenter of the in-line skating community,” said Ted Petroskey, the skate department manager at Pierce Skate and Ski in Bloomington and vice president of the Midwest Skate Club.
In addition to an extensive trail system and the fact that Rollerblades were invented in 1980 by hockey-playing Minnesota brothers as an off-season training option, many credit the sport’s continued local success with having an indoor place to skate during the cold months.
“Where else can you go and do a summer activity in the middle of winter?” said Scott Rohlik, 52, Mounds View. “It’s either this or shoveling snow — and I’d prefer to do this.”
Despite such passion, some worry that a two-year hiatus will negatively impact the tight-knit skating community. The competitive side of the sport has already taken a hit.
The NorthShore Inline Marathon in Duluth — the nation’s largest — lost 20 percent of participants from 2012 to 2013, according to statistics posted on www.inlineplanet.com. Participation in the Minnesota Half Marathon in St. Paul is also on the decline.
Despite the losses, Rollerdome founder Mike Cofrin believes the Twin Cities in-line skating community will fight for its survival.
“This is a community with a strong fitness mind-set,” Cofrin said. “The cool factor of the sport has waned a bit, but the core user is here to stay.”
More than 800,000 people have used the Metrodome for in-line skating over the years. When the new stadium opens (planned for fall 2016), the hope is that even more men, women, serious competitors, recreational skaters, Minnesota Rollergirls, kids, families and seniors will dust off their skates.
Stadium officials say the space for skaters will be worth the wait, with wider concourses, better views and the same smooth concrete skating surface that the in-line community has come to love.