Perhaps it’s not obvious to the young faces at your local skatepark, but when you see a big name pro bounce from their board sponsor for a “start up,” it’s most likely because their shoe deal/energy drink money is providing the security to leave. What most of us regular folks don’t really know is how much a contract is worth, since it’s not public knowledge.
Skateboarding might be on television and pretty much everywhere, but it’s not the NBA, NFL, or even the PGA, so Thrasher isn’t announcing Paul Rodriguez signing a 20 million dollar endorsement deal with Volkswagen. There isn’t even a resource for pro salaries at all. Does this mean that we all have a right to know how much Sheckler is getting paid annually? Not at all, but it does raise the question of how larger endorsements are impacting core companies now and in the future.
Let’s give an example of Skater X. He secures some desired sponsors as a young buck, turns pro, signs a contract and continues his ascent to stardom, with skater owned businesses backing and marketing him. As his career progresses, larger outside companies take notice and are offering deals, and or waiting for contract obligations to be met, before trying to lock him down. This is a key difference between skateboarding and most major sports. If Skater X was Pitcher X, he’d already have the big endorsements and a healthy signing bonus, before ever playing a professional game. Wait… I just said “major” sports right? Let’s operate off the assumption that a major sport is one that’s global, nationally covered, and where the top athletes in the sport receive compensation in the millions. Skateboarding qualifies as such, or at least is semi-major.
What skateboarding doesn’t have, despite the misguided efforts of Chris Gentry, is a union. Prior to the 2000s there was no need for one, because skateboarding was either too young, broke, or in flux to really have one. It also wasn’t being featured regularly on television and media outlets like the New York Times. Skating saw big profits in the ‘80s, but it was fleeting and contingent on only one discipline: vert. Vert died, money dried, and you know the rest. Success has been sustained long enough and outside revenues are great enough that the idea of a union isn’t that far off, because the competitive side of skating is growing.
From Street League to branded games of S.K.A.T.E., building out the idea of rankings is something that can be quantified to investors, advertisers, and backers. You can’t track how great a no comply looks on VX, but you can show a PowerPoint presentation to General Motors packed with ratings and ad revenue, showing why they should market to the demographic watching televised competitions. Couldn’t you see Dyrdek starting a union and collecting dues from Street League participants in exchange for health care, retirement funds, and contract equality? That’s what other sports do. Fuck, I’m surprised there isn’t an international skate draft at this point.
“the idea of a union isn’t that far off, because the competitive side of skating is growing.”
So why mention the fact that there’s no skate union and what possible bearing does this have on anything? Let’s get back to the case of Skater X. After his sponsors invest in him, only to see him leave to start his own thing and sticking them with racks of boards with his name on them, what do they get? Nothing. That’s a net loss. That’s why you have pros rumored to switch sponsors without official announcements for months, so that Alien Workshop or whomever doesn’t get stuck with a pile of Grant Taylor decks. It makes sense, but if they want to move to a new board sponsor and it’s a done deal? Why can’t they just be traded? Instead of waiting for that big name guy to become a free agent, offer two AMs signed to reasonable extensions as compensation and start throwing his name on a board now. There have already been backdoor deals and buyouts for unhappy riders, including a young skater with a big name who wrote a check to honor his contract and switch sponsors. Why not just make it official?
There are two worlds coexisting and crossing over right now: the competitive and the creative. Should Girl Skateboards have gotten compensation for Alex Olson or Brian Anderson leaving and starting their own brands? That’s a bit different. There doesn’t seem to be any lingering bitterness and it seems all happy and smiley. Anderson is an older pro looking toward the next stage in his career and Olson wanted to think outside of convention and start something entirely new and fresh. Those are good things and coincidentally, the roster spots they vacated have been filled by new pros who have been groomed to populate them. Think I’m lying? Take a look at the marketing of Girl/Lakai in the wake of Fully Flared.
“Should Girl Skateboards have gotten compensation for Alex Olson or Brian Anderson leaving and starting their own brands?”
After the release of Ty Evans’ opus, several riders moved onto other-often bigger–sponsors and some retired or were cut. Flash forward to Evans’ next mega-video Pretty Sweet, and things done changed din’t they? First off, the Trunk Boyz were put to the forefront, most of which are freshly contracted and some riding for Lakai, while the older pros with non-Athletic Corporation sponsors mostly shared parts. Weird huh? Of course Biebel was an outlier, but do you think Kenny Anderson–a guy who logged so much footage his part could have been six minutes–would have been sharing a part if he skated for Lakai? That’s not saying there’s some devious plan, it’s just marketing folks and just an assumption based on an educated guess.
P-Rod selling gold boards, Grantihero and Fucking Awesome are all truly unique and isolated, but they all do speak to a larger narrative. Core brands are completely aware of what is going on right now and are still making money, but is that going to last? In the late-‘80s/early-‘90s when Rocco, Gonz, Natas, Mountain, Hawk, and others went off to start their own brands they were leaving companies owned by non-skaters, or forced into doing their own thing due to the conditions of the market. That’s a much different landscape than what we’re seeing in 2014.
Chances are things will continue to split and develop as they have been. The competitive element will grow, become richer, and ultimately will form a union and leverage that against their sponsors, with larger corporations getting even more competitive to bid to sponsor the Street Leagues and X-Games of the world. If the 2014 Winter Olympics have shown us anything, it’s that a snowy field of obstacles resembling a modern street skating competition course can be marketed as “Slopestyle,” forecasting that skateboarding will eventually be an event. In fact people are already on it, forecasting 2020 as the year of skatings official debut, and Tony Hawk5 went as far as to say the Olympics “need” skateboarding. It also feeds into the controversy that the Olympics fosters events that the US can dominate. Skateboarding will either officially become a sport, or big money will try to legitimize Razor Scooters or god knows what.
Conversely, the money and freedom big money provides to skateboarders looking to do something new, creative, or just have ownership of their own “brand,” keeps their investments looking “grass roots,” providing marketing on the high and low end. But is feeding both ends of the industry going to continue and how will it effect the market? Will there be a flood of small brands formed by young and old creatives who have their rent paid by the sponsor on their feet, not under it? If so, will these new companies survive and thrive, or spread the money out so it drains the older stalwart companies, forcing them to try to Trunk Boy the fuck out of their current rosters to keep revenue streams flowing.
Without giving those who have more money than me too many hints, just think about two very prominent figures in skate history and the lessons they taught us.
Steve Rocco created a tree with branches for any hot pro that wanted his own brand, eventually owning as much cool as he could control, before the mass exodus of disgruntled riders. Stacy Peralta claimed in Bones Brigade: An Autobiography that he saw the aging skaters on Powell Peralta’s roster yearning to start their own companies and urged George Powell to create a similar blanket as Rocco did for his brands. Of course that never came to fruition and Real, Birdhouse, The Firm, and Chapter 7 (you thought I’d forget that one right?) all went off on their own, with a 50% success rate.
Stacy, you have a chance to make some distribution deals now. There are plenty of small brands out there, backed by big names. The thing is they don’t need you anymore because ultimately, money is power and that money is in the hands of the skaters themselves. They have the name and the ideas, there’s no power in the big skate companies anymore.
“Money is in the hands of the skaters themselves. They have the name and the ideas, there’s no power in the big skate companies anymore.”
No one really knows what new company is going to be the next Plan B, Girl, or Baker, but we do know that when no one cares about who can impress the judges with what trick and generate ad revenue, skateboarding will continue to live. Let’s just hope everyone stashed away enough cash from the big years and learned some lessons or it’s going to get grim.
If you’re a fan of the boutique brands that are championing creativity and shunning the competitive side of skating, it’s pretty simple: support them. Because when the outside money dries up, they’re going to have a harder time existing… well we can at least surmise this after what Pontus Alv told us in his recent Jenkem interview: “Without a basic paycheck from Carhartt and Converse, which covers my rent and puts food on the table, Polar Skate Co. would never have been what it is. Without them I would have needed to have a job on the side. I think it is important that a skateboard company is run by skaters and that’s it.”