Figure skating in the United States is on thin ice

clairecloutier

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There's a great new piece on Vox about the current realities of figure skating in the United States:

Figure skating is on thin ice--here's how to fix it

The article is written by Rebecca Jennings, a former figure skating competitor who grew up in Vermont.

It's so good. Jennings does a great job diagnosing the problems the sport is facing in the United States. Most of the issues stem from the hugely expensive nature of the sport, and the lack of imagination and innovation within its competitive structure.

It's kind of discouraging to read, but I think this piece crystallizes the issues very well.
 

Colonel Green

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Any time people single out the 6.0/IJS transition as a cause for the sport’s decline in the US, it always strikes me as a very provincial outlook. The IJS has not stopped the sport from maintaining or hitting new heights of popularity in other countries (e.g., Japan, Russia, South Korea); I haven’t seen any reason why Americans would be so uniquely attached to 6.0 that its departure would have such an outsized effect. Particularly since during the Olympics, when people are most likely to tune in, it’s not a hindrance.

The biggest takeaway (beyond cost, which I agree with the article there’s probably not much to be done about) is that the sport would definitely benefit from more consistent visibility in non-competitive forms. This is a bit of a challenge for federations, since they generally weren’t responsible for that back when it did exist (indeed, not-infrequently they were in conflict with it).

Honestly, what the sport really needs is something akin to a skating version of Dance Moms.
 

sap5

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The author is covering a lot of different issues in that article. I agree that promoting other skating formats, like jump competitions, choreographic competitions, Theatre on Ice, etc, could be fun. As for the athletes who devote their lives to skating and come out broken -- that needs a systemic change in coaching, sort of like what I.AM is saying they want to promote.
 

Frau Muller

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Thanks for the article link, Clairecloutier.

The article mentions that the rise of Russia is new (and thus a reason for lowering interest in the US). That may be correct for the Ladies discipline but not the three others. Ever since I started following figure skating (1964) it’s been the Soviets at the top of Pairs, Dance (since ‘70s) & even Men (off & on since ‘70s).

The author doesn’t state so but it’s obvious that she’s thinking Ladies...because that accounts for 99% of the interest in the sport in the USA. I’m referring to a general public, not we die-hard FSUers.

As for the judging system argument - that’s hogwash. If US ladies would have won Olympic gold after 2002, they’d shut up.
 
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tony

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The judging system intricacies and always-changing specifics obviously is something the casual observer isn't going to want to learn. And please, FSU knows damn well that before the technical score box popped up in the corner, there were instances where even we as die-hards were completely surprised by a segment score. Imagine a casual fan. The scores won't make sense, and they likely won't want to put any effort into reading the documents that explain everything nor will they want to continue to watch when they think it's all a fixed sport.

Skating needs to promote the more theatric side of the sport, and not in cheesy exhibitions following the competitions. As I've said before, RPDR is really taking off in circles way past just the LGBTQ community, modern dance is always trending on social media, and so on. A huge first step would be to get rid of the stuffiness in the singles and pairs free skates and introduce choreographic elements like dance has.

Another huge problem with the US is that we are not an art-snob country, at least not in the targeted audience age range. Yet the ISU is still a 'proper' sport with judges in their 60s and 70s, still wanting programs to be completely politically correct or federations (USFS..) telling skaters to switch out more modern stuff that would appeal to a greater audience.

Skating as a whole is so much bigger now than it was 20 years ago, regardless of what Americans and Canadians who miss skating on ABC or CTV every weekend in a delayed broadcast say. We never, ever saw any fall-season internationals outside of the Grand Prix, and even with those we saw only the top 5 generally. Now we see every single event down to the last-place finisher scoring 5 segment points in a JGP, and everything can generally be accessed easily on Youtube thanks to people like @Braulio . I personally think the skating is typically overwhelming in non-CV times, and it's a bunch of the same rules over and over and the same elements between two programs. The ISU could've been taking all this downtime to really think of ways to expand the sport and make it even bigger.
 

flyingsit

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Casual fans don't give a crap about the details of scoring -- and the explanations bore them. Football commentators don't explain that a touchdown is 6 points, a field goal is 3... it's assumed that if you're watching, you understand the basics and you can research them if you don't.
 

sap5

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Casual fans don't give a crap about the details of scoring -- and the explanations bore them. Football commentators don't explain that a touchdown is 6 points, a field goal is 3... it's assumed that if you're watching, you understand the basics and you can research them if you don't.
Agree. If the US were winning all the time, there would be no criticisms about IJS from the US.
 

tony

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Casual fans don't give a crap about the details of scoring -- and the explanations bore them. Football commentators don't explain that a touchdown is 6 points, a field goal is 3... it's assumed that if you're watching, you understand the basics and you can research them if you don't.
I mean, that's kinda ridiculous to compare the simple logic of 6 points to get to the end of the field and an additional 1 point to kick the ball through a goal post to the <, <<, e, !, q, +seq, +combo, extra points for final 3 jumps, spin levels, footwork levels, etc that will happen in every program. Not every football game has unusual penalties for people to learn. And most people on FSU don't even know the first thing about ice dance scoring but they still watch-- because they are hardcore fans.

But sure, researching those simple scoring details in football is somehow equivalent to skating. 🤷‍♂️

Casual fans could be turned off by watching when things don't seem to make sense, though.
 

tony

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And one big thing I left out is that Russia makes all of their competitions accessible to the world. The Ted Barton partnership has worked wonders, gets all skating fans familiar with even their B teams, and they give their skaters plenty of chances to compete, even in non-CV times. I'd venture to say serious American skating fans probably know more about the Russian competitors than they do their own country competitors, and it's not only because the Russians are on top of the sport.

The US seems more concerned with signing expensive deals for TV rights that make the location ever-changing, the subscription service always rotating, and a lot of their stuff blocked from Youtube. So what does my generation and younger resort to if they aren't hardcore? Brief clips on things like Instagram and TikTok that create viral moments but most likely don't make anyone go out of the way to search out more skating in terms of 4-hour competitions.

But I still think the skating world as a whole is not suffering. So many more countries are involved than there were 25 years ago, and it can become even bigger if the ISU and USFS especially would get some younger people in higher-up positions and people who actually can run decent social media-- this part to me is HUGE. This should've been the time to make a lot of big experimental changes for post-2022, but we are going to certainly see more of the same.
 

Frau Muller

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The judging system intricacies and always-changing specifics obviously is something the casual observer isn't going to want to learn. And please, FSU knows damn well that before the technical score box popped up in the corner, there were instances where even we as die-hards were completely surprised by a segment score. Imagine a casual fan. The scores won't make sense, and they likely won't want to put any effort into reading the documents that explain everything nor will they want to continue to watch when they think it's all a fixed sport.

Skating needs to promote the more theatric side of the sport, and not in cheesy exhibitions following the competitions. As I've said before, RPDR is really taking off in circles way past just the LGBTQ community, modern dance is always trending on social media, and so on. A huge first step would be to get rid of the stuffiness in the singles and pairs free skates and introduce choreographic elements like dance has.

Another huge problem with the US is that we are not an art-snob country, at least not in the targeted audience age range. Yet the ISU is still a 'proper' sport with judges in their 60s and 70s, still wanting programs to be completely politically correct or federations (USFS..) telling skaters to switch out more modern stuff that would appeal to a greater audience.

Skating as a whole is so much bigger now than it was 20 years ago, regardless of what Americans and Canadians who miss skating on ABC or CTV every weekend in a delayed broadcast say. We never, ever saw any fall-season internationals outside of the Grand Prix, and even with those we saw only the top 5 generally. Now we see every single event down to the last-place finisher scoring 5 segment points in a JGP, and everything can generally be accessed easily on Youtube thanks to people like @Braulio . I personally think the skating is typically overwhelming in non-CV times, and it's a bunch of the same rules over and over and the same elements between two programs. The ISU could've been taking all this downtime to really think of ways to expand the sport and make it even bigger.

I agree with much of this. However, the ISU can’t be called “proper” and snobby after allowing lyrics in music and hip-hop rhythm dances. This happened a while back, in hopes of pumping up the viewership.
 

tony

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I agree with much of this. However, the ISU can’t be called “proper” and snobby after allowing lyrics in music and hip-hop rhythm dances. This happened a while back, in hopes of pumping up the viewership.
Yes, because hip-hop rhythms in a season of ice dance ruin all properness..

And rather than pumping up viewership with one facet of an entire sport maybe they should just get with the current times as a whole, whether the old-school fans love it or not. They will probably stick with it no matter what, anyways.

Also, I didn't call the ISU snobby.
 

Braulio

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The US seems more concerned with signing expensive deals for TV rights that make the location ever-changing, the subscription service always rotating, and a lot of their stuff blocked from Youtube. So what does my generation and younger resort to if they aren't hardcore? Brief clips on things like Instagram and TikTok that create viral moments but most likely don't make anyone go out of the way to search out more skating in terms of 4-hour competitions.

Take for latest example, NBC universal gave me copyright strikes (that could lead to a complete channel delete) because of videos from 2014 US Championships (I could understand since it is their event) but ALSO deleted videos (not blocking) from Worlds 2017... wtf?? why??? it's an ISU event so why not blocking in their territory and let the casual fans from all over the world watch vintage stuff that belongs to the ISU and that the ISU seems to not care if it's shared
 

ninjapirate

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The US has about equal chance of winning the Team Event at the Olympics. And their pre pand-emic participation numbers were on a definite upswing during the past few years.

The absolute biggest reason that figure skating isn't more popular is that it has a schedule made for not only the pre-internet world but also the pre-television world. I find it baffling how little kids on the ice age kids show and celebrities on the normal ice age show can put together new numbers every couple of weeks but the top figure skaters basically compete the same 2 programs for an entire year. There's no reason why half the figure skating season could not resemble something like ice age or battle of the blades. No reason except that we've gotten so use to the grand prix season.
 

Braulio

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If USA wants to make it a Dancing with the Stars, Stars On Ice, Cheesefest fine! enjoy skating in a way you can or want to understand, but let the rest of the world that surely KNOWS and follows skating in 2021 adjusting and taking all the advantage of the internet, social media etc.. Russia, Japan, Korea, China, are the principal markets that I am sure cover the $$$ for the ISU

For me it's incredible that it's almost 20 years and some american media still 'doesn't understand' IJS and have to explain with red, green, yellow dots what the code of points is.

It's 2021 we now have a generation that have grown with internet, knowing about streaming, that have skated under code of points

The world have stepped up, so let us enjoy the lots and lots of competitions, obscure nationals, challengers from Belarus or Austria!

Adjust or sweep the dust!
 
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overedge

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IMO the US has a lot more opportunities than other countries for non-elite skaters to participate in skating, and to compete if they want to. There's also ISI which has events in all kinds of skating at different levels.

Maybe those events (e.g. solo dance, Theatre on Ice, Showcase) need more promotion and visibility. But I don't think the problem is lack of opportunities. It's more because of cost and access.
 

tony

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IMO the US has a lot more opportunities than other countries for non-elite skaters to participate in skating, and to compete if they want to. There's also ISI which has events in all kinds of skating at different levels.

Maybe those events (e.g. solo dance, Theatre on Ice, Showcase) need more promotion and visibility. But I don't think the problem is lack of opportunities. It's more because of cost and access.
Adult skating and theater on ice aren’t going to be where the majority of the target needs to be, at least not if the latter doesn’t change its ways and become more visible to modern stuff. You need things appealing to teens, which are viral moments of cool moves and extreme skating. Competitions that actually mean something with less strict and repetitive rules. Modern types of competitions that are pro-esque with lax rules. More music like Billie Eilish so half of this board can melt down about how terrible a teenager is at singing.

What is also baffling to me is that figure skating obviously attracts a lot of LGBTQ as children and teens. So many male skaters within the USFS have told their stories about how they were considered too flamboyant or their stories needed to be kept quiet or whatever else, the article about Rudy not even being mentioned as gay. I don’t care if the USFS is full of backwards 70 and 80 year olds still living in the 60s. It makes zero sense to have a sport that attracts so many people who can ‘be themselves’ and express themselves in a unique way only to repeatedly tell them to have to act the very way they are trying to escape. ZERO SENSE.
 

mtnskater

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The article is really female skater focused. She leaves readers with the impression that U.S. Skaters don’t podium anymore. Nathan Chen is dominant. We had two men on the last World podium. U.S. Ice dancers have been on the podium for a decade or more. Yes, our ladies are not on the podium, nor are our pairs. Many reasons for that as she discusses.

I wish there were college scholarships for skaters like there are for gymnasts. Droves of young girls participate in Gymnastics, and even if they don’t go the Olympics there are many valuable college scholarship opportunities. I’ve noticed that a majority of girls seem drawn to compete in the “boys” sports. Even at the ice rink I see many more young girls on hockey skates than figure skates these days. Not so in the 1990’s. Still the US figure skating team as a whole is very competitive with good depth and will likely earn another team medal in Beijing. I do miss the professional ranks and the network TV coverage. At least U.S Nationals still gets prime time on NBC for some of it. I do think it would help skating immensely here if full competitions could be placed on YouTube like the Russians.
 

Rhumba d’Amour

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I’ve often thought that if US colleges and universities had figure skating teams, and could offer college scholarships for skaters who made the team, parents would be clamoring to get their kids into skating. That would go a long way towards increasing interest in the sport.
 

Frau Muller

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...

For me it's incredible that is almost 20 years and some american media still 'dont understand' IJS and have to explain with red, green, yellow dots what the code of points is.

...

LOL, this reminds me of when US telecasts included a segment with Paul Wylie as “the professor,” explaining the IJS. I guess that America flunked! 😂
 

Prancer

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Any time people single out the 6.0/IJS transition as a cause for the sport’s decline in the US, it always strikes me as a very provincial outlook.
Also ridiculously nostalgic, as everyone did NOT understand 6.0 and--contrary to what the article claims--the skaters who could land jumps beat the pants off the skaters who could do artistic choreography but couldn't jump. Michelle Kwan didn't win all those titles with her spiral--and when she lost titles, what the main reason? :unsure: It wasn't because someone had a more beautiful step sequence.
The article is really female skater focused. She leaves readers with the impression that U.S. Skaters don’t podium anymore. Nathan Chen is dominant. We had two men on the last World podium. U.S. Ice dancers have been on the podium for a decade or more. Yes, our ladies are not on the podium, nor are our pairs.
This ^. Again, nostalgia.
 

Colonel Green

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To sort of elaborate on what I said earlier, while some of the suggestions from Hong and Balde about innovating in competition formats are worth considering, I don't think that's the sort of thing that is going to reverse the current problem in the US (which, to varying degrees, can also be said to exist in various other western countries right now). Because even if they made all those changes, how would most people know about it? The problem is not that people are regularly tuning into skating competitions (or other skating-related programming) and deciding it's not for them, it's that coverage of figure skating has receded to the point except during the Olympics you wouldn't hear much about it unless you were deliberately seeking it out.

And historically, if we're talking about things the federation could do to improve the sport's visibility, the federation hasn't really been involved in getting skating into other non-competitive media. That stuff just tended to happen on its own. Indeed, the impetus for the sport's peak of popularity in the US was jumpstarted by the Harding/Kerrigan mess, and it goes without saying the USFS had nothing to do with that (or if they did, genius move!:sekret:). What I'd argue skating needs most is the generate more visibility outside of competitions, which in turn would naturally feed into more interest in the competitions themselves. How best to go about that (and who should do it), is an open question.

To take an example from another sport, the venerable game of chess just got a major boost in popularity/visibility this year. And the International Federation of Chess had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with it. The Queen's Gambit happened because one alcoholic chess player wrote a book about it, which forty years later was turned into a miniseries, which turned out to be the pop culture hit of the year. Chess didn't need to change at all, it just needed people to take a new look at it.
 

sap5

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I’ve often thought that if US colleges and universities had figure skating teams, and could offer college scholarships for skaters who made the team, parents would be clamoring to get their kids into skating. That would go a long way towards increasing interest in the sport.
I think this is a huge part of the reason more families in the US don't put their kids into figure skating, outside of basic lessons. There's no real incentive to invest all that money. Especially when you consider it's not a team sport, there are huge body image issues, and there's no future for you beyond the Olympics, if you are even lucky enough to get there.

It's also not a typical school sport, meaning it's hard to access if you're at a typical high school. If you're interested in dance, for example, that isn't a typical high school sport, but you can at least go to a dance school where you learn dance but also get a high school degree. There's nothing like that for figure skating, because there's no professional career.
 

mackiecat

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USFS missed a huge opportunity at Nationals. Jason’s Sinnerman program could have easily gone viral. I showed it to a lot of nondksting fans and everyone loved it. At the same time UCLA’s gymnastic floor routine went viral. Michelle Obama even posted it. They need to stop blocking programs and promote them
 

Yuri

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I have covering up the nationalities of the judges at the Olympics and other international competitions cannot be underestimated. I was a USFSA official intimately aware of the nuances of the 6.0 system and I still cannot embrace the IJS system. Too complicated and too little emphasis on artistic elements which has created too many cookie cutter programs from element to element. And I really miss those 6.0s, I mean Tortilla & Dean's legend would be incomplete without the string of 6.0's for Bolero. Just doesn't exist with IJS, even though the analytical side of me knows it's a fairer, more objective system.

Certainly the Tonya/Nancy and other tabloid scandals combined with truly great North American singles skaters in the 1980s and 1990s combined for a perfect storm that enabled the Tom Collins Tour of Champions, Stars on Ice, Dick Button's World Professional Championships that put skating high up in popularity. Michelle Kwan wasn't the only elite US skater, but she was a true legend who inspired many young girls. But JCS contributed to the unknown jumping beans from Russia and East Asia, who cannot even stay on top for a full Olympics cycle. Heck, some of these shooting stars cannot even make it back to Worlds a year after making the podium. The death of the star system, especially for ladies, isn't helping at all.
 

AxelAnnie

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There's a great new piece on Vox about the current realities of figure skating in the United States:

Figure skating is on thin ice--here's how to fix it

The article is written by Rebecca Jennings, a former figure skating competitor who grew up in Vermont.

It's so good. Jennings does a great job diagnosing the problems the sport is facing in the United States. Most of the issues stem from the hugely expensive nature of the sport, and the lack of imagination and innovation within its competitive structure.

It's kind of discouraging to read, but I think this piece crystallizes the issues very well.
IMO - and I am clear that it is ONLY my opinion, the article strings together various non-related "facts" and comes out with a conclusion.

It is like I ate carrots on Wednesday + I had a car accident on Wednesday Obviously carrots cause car accidents.
 

MacMadame

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I found the article full of cliches and also seemed to be about skating 5-10 years ago.

This is what I personally think is the issue with skating in the US:

USFS doesn't know how to market.

As an example
(1) they had Davis and White, a dream team to market, being wildly successful at a time when shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars were wildly popular and, instead of marketing them up the ying-yang, they remained focused on Ladies (and to a lesser extent Mens) skating.

(3) They aren't putting videos on TikTok.

(4) They are marketing skating the same way they always have with similar messages and imagery

It has nothing to do with ISJ and with us not having strong Ladies contenders.

They could really push the rivalry between Nathan and Hanyu. They could push the rivalry between all the US dance teams. They could feature more up-and-coming skaters so by the time skaters get to Nationals, we already know who they are and have our favorites we are rooting for.

But, sure, rag on ISJ and claim the casual fan doesn't get it. Because that's helpful.
 

overedge

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Tortilla & Dean
wut
The death of the star system, especially for ladies, isn't helping at all.
So are you saying that USFS isn't focusing on specific skaters and trying to make them into stars? I don't agree with that at all. I think that's exactly what they're doing. If a skater doesn't catch on with the broader public as a personality - you can't force that kind of thing, just like you can't force it in music or acting. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't, and whether it does or doesn't can be for all kinds of reasons. Not for lack of trying.
 

all_empty

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I feel like this article could've been written anytime in the last 10 years or so.

I absolutely agree with Tony that USFS should be catering more to LGBTQ audiences, i.e. there are two former figure skaters on "Drag Race" this season, for example. You look at the "personalities" who have resonated in pop culture in recent years are LGBTQ or "outsiders": Brian Boitano, Johnny Weir, Adam Rippon, Surya Bonaly.

Obviously, it helps to have a superstar (ala Simone Biles) but American audiences, for decades, have championed ice princesses (dating back to Peggy Fleming, Dororthy Hamill, Michelle Kwan) rather than the ice princes (Nathan Chan).

"I, Tonya" help reinvigorate some interest in the sport because of all the nostalgia with Nancy and Tonya. The regular competitive season doesn't lend itself well to a reality series but that's what is very in demand from streamers right now. Let's say a series was filmed at a rink; it would have to be in a production bubble; there would have to be a lot of testing (because interactions drive storylines) but also skaters probably filming at home. I know TSL has posted old "Ice Diaries" episodes, but production has changed significantly in the last 15 years (and obvious due to the pan-demic).

With the right testing protocols, producers could probably put on a skating show (no audiences) for pretty cheap and feature pros or better yet, influencers (who are willing to do anything for money, trust me).
 

tony

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I absolutely agree with Tony that USFS should be catering more to LGBTQ audiences, i.e. there are two former figure skaters on "Drag Race" this season, for example. You look at the "personalities" who have resonated in pop culture in recent years are LGBTQ or "outsiders": Brian Boitano, Johnny Weir, Adam Rippon, Surya Bonaly.
I get that the LGBTQ visibility and acceptance has come a long way in the last 15 years in America in many parts of the world, (particularly the last 10) and before that it was a big ask to have the USFS or any ISU member to be so on board with any of this. But it's like the USFS still has this 'well nobody is going to want to skate or watch it if things are too flamboyant' mentality... but guess what? The fans aren't there like they were 25 years ago, and it's not getting any better. Young boys aren't lining up in masses to start figure skating because they solely think it's a masculine sport. Younger audiences aren't flocking to whatever streaming source is airing events in a given season. Arenas aren't always selling out even in big cities.

So while they keep their vision of what supposedly will make them popular again, they are missing out on attracting the audience that actually would be the most invested in this stuff. I don't even think the upper management has a vision as much as keeping with tradition because it appeases the (older) people in charge.
 

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