In the go-go days of the dial-up era, in-line skaters pulled on their Spandex shorts, powered up their Discmans and plied parkways nationwide. Twenty-two million people strapped into the rigid skates with the single-file wheels at least once in the year 2000, five million more than played baseball.
By 2010 the number of in-line skaters had plummeted by 64 percent, the second-biggest drop in a sports or fitness activity in that span. Only its cousin roller hockey fell further, 65 percent, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
What happened? No scandal befell Rollerblading, the proprietary eponym by which the sport is known. No celebrity lost a limb in the line of in-line skating. Nudged by various forces, it simply slowly went downhill.
“Just like quad outdoor skating, it rode a wave and the wave crested,” said Howard Weiner, owner of Northwest Portland’s iconic Cal Skate, which stopped selling in-line skates years ago. “And then the water retreated.”
The concept was born in 1980, when former minor-league hockey player Scott Olson conceived of a wheeled skate that could help players and skiers train in the offseason. When Minnesota-based Rollerblade, Inc., began marketing to women and children as well, the trend exploded.
Overnight, it seemed, multitudes were circling the lakes in Minneapolis, careening through Midtown Manhattan traffic and wobbling along Portland’s Waterfront Park. At one point in the early 1990s, Rollerblade stopped taking orders because it couldn’t meet demand.
Some found the skates stiff, heavy and difficult to stop, with just one brake at the heel rather than one on each toe like traditional “quad” roller-skates. In-line skating’s injury rate is much lower than that in bicycling, for instance, but to some it feels less safe.
“I tried it before and I just feel like I have more control on quads,” said 13-year-old Lilly Dow of Portland, in training for the resurgent sport of roller derby. “In in-line, you just feel like you’re going way too fast.”
The amateur videos of adults flailing on in-lines and teenagers falling astride stairway railings didn’t help. Signs sprung up in plazas and around office buildings declaring: “NO ROLLERBLADING.” In 2005, in-line absorbed a death knell: ejection from the X Games.Manufacturing and quality-control issues dogged Nike’s in-line efforts and demand flagged. The company sold Bauer in 2008 for $200 million, less than half what it had paid for it.
Todd Griswold said kids left the roller hockey leagues at his Indoor Goals sports arena in Beaverton and took up the next big thing — lacrosse, whose participation surge of 218 percent over a decade makes it the fastest-growing team sport.
“It’s a lot easier to grab a lacrosse stick and throw a ball against the wall than to get up on four (in-line) wheels,” said Griswold, whose arena now hosts numerous teams.
Unlike parachute pants, however, in-line skating hasn’t completely deflated. It retained eight million participants as of 2010, more than the seven million who skateboarded. Weiner of Cal Skate still gets calls from people “begging for help to find replacement parts” for in-line skates. He sends them to Oaks Park, one of the few places in the area that still rents them.
Five percent of the rink’s rentals are in-lines, and Oaks Park recently bought a new batch of them, Kolibaba said. The rink retains a niche in roller speedskating and among hockey players who use rollerblades for their original purpose.
Among the masses, however, in-line skating seems as irrevocably dated as beepers and fax machines.
“It’s just not cool,” said Jim Dow, Lilly’s dad. “You go on websites and people make fun of in-line skaters.”
Said Benjamin Doyle, a 29-year-old quad-skate devotee who recalled cruising city streets in in-lines with his mom: “Everybody did stuff in the ’90s we regret.”