Skateboarding will always have a love/hate relationship with contests. As much as it’s personal, skating will always have a competitive element, whether it’s someone pushing themselves or being motivated by others. Even if you think the idea of “winning,” is bullshit, you have to admit that someone stringing together a sick run without falling is exciting… at least it should be. So with the profile and weight of contests being so much more important—especially monetarily—just how in the fuck are these things really judged? What are judges really looking for, really thinking, and what do the really hate when they’re determining who wins? And how do you really approach deciding what tricks are “better,” because skating isn’t fucking figureskating… yet.
To find out, we picked Jason Rothmeyer’s brain (Head Judge for Skatepark of Tampa & Boardr events) about judging, illegal moves, and what happens when a bunch of skaters have downtime, contest cash, and a lot of free booze during a weekend of competition.
So as a former pro, how do you actually approach judging—actually quantifying someone’s skating?
The biggest thing that is difficult is all the factors involved: style, speed, difficulty, consistency, trick selection, and originality. You’re judging on an overall impression for most run and jam based contests. I don’t judge Street League so they have their own system that is more trick based, so I can’t speak for them, but for us it’s an overall score after we’ve seen the whole body of work.
Sometimes it’s super cut and dry. You see a guys run and you’re like “he just won the contest,” no questions asked. Think Luan’s winning runs he’s had. If he makes everything in a run, he’s probably going to win because his run is so bonkers. But sometimes you’re trying to decide between an awesome line/speed and an insane combo of tricks, like Nyjah and Busenitz at Tampa Pro in 2011. That was one of the toughest. Three of the judges had Dennis, two had Nyjah.
You’ve been judging contents for a hot minute now, what are some memorable moments in the booth?
We’ve judged with some REALLY clueless guys. Sometimes they would call out things as either announcers or judges that really left you scratching your heads. This was throughout the early 2000s when we would work for various organizations before being exclusive with the guys in Tampa. Terms like “switch nollie” and things were overheard, but the one that topped them all was when we were judging the Gravity Games at Woodward PA in like 2004. Bob Burnquist did a switch tailslide over the deathbox channel—super sick. The head judge behind us yelled “Oh my god bro…an overturned tailslide!” Excuse me? What in the FUCK is an overturned tailslide might I ask? That expression is still used to this day by many of us.
”Oh my god bro…An overturned tailslide!”
Another classic one was this. I went down to judge the Vans Triple Crown contest in Oceanside when they used to hold it at the pier. When I showed up the organizer said, “Super sorry, but I overbooked the judges for this contest and have too many, I can’t use you.’ I was pretty bummed. The spot already given up was to Eddie Reategui. Eddie is super nice and an awesome guy, but maybe not my first choice to judge one of the biggest street contests out there. During best trick, the judges got together to figure out the placings and he said, “I got the dude with the yellow shirt in first.” Sinclair looked around because he couldn’t figure out who Eddie was talking about, until he noticed Dan Pageau wearing a yellow shirt. “That guy?” Mike said. Dan Pageau never landed a trick the whole best trick contest. He was attempting a nollie hardflip into a bank, which even if he landed it would be like ehhhh, whatevs. “Yup,” Eddie said. “I don’t know tech…but I know gnar…and that dude was gnarly”. Also a very highly used expression among us.
Yeah it’s not enough to just have a former pro judging, they need to select someone who knows what’s going on.
Exactly. Just because you were an amazing pro, doesn’t mean you’ll be an amazing judge. I always hear that comment on contests. “They should just use so and so because he rips.” Cab is a good judge and was obviously an amazing pro, so I’m not saying there aren’t great pros who can’t judge well—I’m just saying that it isn’t always certain. I judged the Downtown Showdown with Ray Barbee (in my top three of all time best skaters) and Ray is just too damn nice to judge.
He said it straight from the beginning, “I don’t want to give anyone a bad score because I don’t think you can really judge skateboarding.” Fair enough and totally valid. I also judged a contest with Cardiel—legend status extraordinaire and he just couldn’t focus on the contest. He also only gave out three different scores: 70, 75 and 80. That was it. He just didn’t care and I don’t blame him. Judging is boring as all hell if you really don’t want to be there. It was a Vans event and they wanted to use him so they kind of “made” him be a judge.
With point based systems like Street League being in play, are competitions becoming more like gymnastics? For example, you can’t really “be original” in those sports. There’s a list of maneuvers that net certain points and you need to execute them perfectly, not necessarily with style.
I sure as hell hope it never comes to that. As long as I’m having some say in it, it surely won’t. For the most part, if you don’t have something original to bring to the table, you’re not going to win an event. You really can’t win if you don’t bring something special to the table. Granted, it happens when everyone in the finals is bailing and bailing, and then someone realizes they just need to stay on a run and they’ll probably win (Lutzka in 2008 Tampa Pro) but that’s few and far between. But style comes hugely into play for most of us. A Busenitz kickflip over the pyramid looks like an entirely different trick to me and would score way more than almost anyone else who did it.
”I think it’s more annoying and detrimental when you pick up your board and walk from spot to spot in a course.”
What do you think of someone using a tranny heavy course like a street course, using the transitions only to pump towards an obstacle, not necessarily having an actual flow?
Using the tranny to do tricks helps so much when the overall run is looked at. I really hate watching dudes go back and forth (although that’s pretty much what I’m relegated myself to these days), but sometimes that’s just how guys skate. I think it’s more annoying and detrimental when you pick up your board and walk from spot to spot in a course. P-Rod used to pick his board up at each quarterpipe and walk to the next place to do a trick, and he would only be able to get four or five things into a run. Then he just started going 50/50’s and stalls and was able to move around the course quicker and more smoothly. Even simple 50/50’s have a huge impact, but if you can get really busy on a quarter in addition to what you do—it’s so awesome. I noticed how good Malto, Shane O’Neill and some of those guys have got recently on tranny and it’s so sick. I’ve always sucked balls at transitions, that’s probably why I think it’s so sick.
Biggest upsets in your opinion in contest history?
For me personally, Mike Vallely winning the first Tampa Pro was a pretty big upset in my opinion. Nobody expected it and he landed some amazing miracles in that run. Berard winning Tampa Pro in 2001 was pretty amazing. After seeing him skate in the contest, it wasn’t a surprise, but Sierra Fellers literally came out of nowhere to win Tampa Am in 2004. He was just a random flow kid from Montana prior to that only super banger kids had won Tampa Am (Spanky, Caswell, etc.). But once you saw him there it was obvious he was the best dude there. He smoked everyone in the contest and in the best trick.
What are some of the stand out “tricks to avoid” and do they change over the years?
Illegal tricks are constantly changing and evolving. Of course you’ll always have the benihana and crooks to back lip…you know…the classics. One that has thankfully gone away that I haven’t seen is the front board to body varial boardslide. We used to call it the Am Shuffle and it was so lame.
Most contests there’s actually one or two tricks that for some reason EVERY person in the contest will do. One year it was nollie bigspins. During Tampa Am it’s so exaggerated because there’s 290 dudes skating so if 110 of them do the same trick, you really can’t stand it after a while. It’s changed though, front feebles on every bar, kickflip back lips, some are really good tricks but if you keep seeing it in every run it loses a little luster.
It’s no secret that people rage out at contests, has that ever affected anyone’s “performance” judging?
The very first year we did the AmsterDamnAM contest, someone had the bright idea to use Adam Dyet as a judge. I think Dyet really wanted to judge and thought he was up for it. My other judges were P-Stone and Berard (when he was really piled out). The Skatepark of Amsterdam has beer at the concession stand. And they continue to bring beer after beer to everyone running the event all day long. About one heat into a full six heat day of qualifying, Dyet looked at me and said, “I’m not gonna make it bro” because he was jet lagged, smoked silly and drunk off his ass. He looked like he was on heroin.
So he just passed out asleep. We put sunglasses on him, propped his clipboard up on his leg and put a pen in his hand full Weekend at Bernie’s style. It was awesome. Berard and P-Stone weren’t much help either, as P-Stone was beet red from being 400 beers deep and Berard couldn’t talk. I pretty much judged that one solo.
That’s some Weekend at Bernie’s shit! Any good memories of other antics that happened during a contest weekend?
There used to be some really heavy poker games going on at wherever we were. Mostly at the Skatepark of Tampa. I would get the keys to the park and we would set up a table right on the street course and we would play until about 4-5am. It used to be dice games of C-Lo for days from about 1999-2004, then poker took over. The usual crew was me, John Muldoon, Merlino, Frazier, Jesse Fritsch, Billy Marks, Josh Friedberg, but we’ve had a ton of guys come in and out of the games. Pat Duffy, Alex Perelson, Jake Brown, Shetler, Fred Gall, Nate Jones, Dyet—it’s been good. The biggest hand I saw was a straight everyone all in blind to end the night for $400 each. It was a suicide hand with four people all in blind, total luck for $1600 pot I believe. It was awesome.
”One of the first Tampa Pro’s I did, Schaefer brought in a breathalyzer for everyone to blow into in the AM.”
One of the first Tampa Pro’s I did, Schaefer brought in a breathalyzer for everyone to blow into in the AM. I remember seeing Milligan just looking so tore up, bags under his eyes, maybe no sleep at all and at 9am Brian broke it out and said everyone had to blow under .08 to judge. Most of us are pretty light drinkers or don’t drink at all (me, Sinclair, Neal Hendrix, Zitzer) but some of us get down. My crew was more apt to stay up until 5-6am rolling dice or playing poker. I’ve seen and also lost my paycheck to the dice and poker games we’ve had. I’ve also had plenty of pros join in and contribute to the pool as well. Fred Gall hit the ATM like 2-3 times one night, Jake Brown’s ATM code was 1-2-3 one night as he kept losing at dice. Dyet, Duffy, Anthony Shetler, Billy Marks and countless others are part of the gambling crew we’ve had.
What could be done to change the process and make it more true to what skateboarding is, or is that concept counterintuitive to having a contest at all?
I think there’s enough formats out there to give everyone a little bit of everything they like. There’s trick-by-trick Street League format, runs like Tampa Pro/AM, 2 man jams like Copenhagen and full on chaos bowl events like the Van Doren Invitational/Coastal Carnage. It’s evolved over the years and keeps getting better. But they’ve tried a bunch of different approaches.
I remember Thrasher did the Boost Mobile event in Vegas and had the idea that they would let the skaters in the contest judge the whole thing. Those are always good ideas in theory, until you realize that the guys skating the contest don’t really watch it very closely. They just watch their homies and are super partial to what they do, so there’s no real fairness in that approach.
I’ve probably worked every single format there is. I still like the 60 second run the best. It’s so good to see someone put together that banging run. I also like the two-man jam like we do in Copenhagen. That is so insane to see when both of them are murdering it.