When Louie Lopez’s “West End” part dropped late last year, my first thought wasn’t, “Oh, sick, I can’t wait to watch Louie skate.” It was, “Louie is really trying to win Skater of the Year, huh?”
In the past five years it has gotten pretty easy to recognize campaigns for skaters to win the trophy: their sponsors start buying up even more print and digital ad space in Thrasher, the skater starts showing face at Thrasher events and repping the mag, and of course they drop a video part in the middle of the fourth quarter, right before the SOTY decision is announced.
But it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, when Tony Hawk was given the first award for 1990, he got a cover but there wasn’t any mention of the award. Brian Anderson won in 1999 in spite of not releasing a video part or showing up on the cover of the magazine for the whole year. Both of those seem inconceivable in today’s hyper-marketed environment, so what changed?
Other magazines and websites offer their own superlative awards, but few generate much interest. Thrasher’s longevity is a huge part of that— by sticking to its hell ride ethos, they managed to survive a media environment that crushed Skateboarder and sent Transworld bouncing from publisher to publisher. As its print peers faded farther into the background, Thrasher has only gotten more popular.
At the same time, smartphones, high-speed internet, and generations of kids raised in good skateparks have changed the release of a groundbreaking video part from an annual occasion to a weekly event. A never ending stampede of amazing skateboarding has made it significantly harder for a pro to get ahead of the pack, but SOTY is a way to make a lasting impression.
“It’s our Academy Award,” two-time SOTY Chris Cole told me. “Especially because it’s recognized as the be all end all. And other people try to do it and it means something for sure. It means something to be on The Berrics Populist and it means something to be Transworld’s Street Skater of the Year and all that stuff, but Thrasher’s Skater of the Year was the first. And it’s the one.”
Thrasher took a few years to find the groove it’s in today (see, for example the cringey May 1988 snowboarder carve cover), but they found it by the time they handed the first trophy to Tony Hawk in 1991. The Birdman’s award wasn’t announced on the cover, but “Skater of the Year” was the following year, and in 1993 John Cardiel’s win was announced with a cover photo of him doing a shifty through a literal ring of fire.
This was the beginning of Thrasher’s brilliant marketing push. They started covering the SOTY party they threw to celebrate their giving of the award, and, a decade later, released a full-length video that profiled past SOTYs and showcased the footage that helped them win the award. Eventually, winning came to mean getting your sponsors to foot the bill to take your homies and Jake Phelps on a trip to shoot for a multi-page spread in the mag.
Cole told me he didn’t know of how much effort his sponsors made for him to win in 2005. “The only thing that would really seem like it would is that poster of the tre flip at Wallenberg in Thrasher,” he said. “But we did that because a Thrasher photographer shot a photo through the fence, poached it from the street super far away. He gave it to Thrasher like, look what I’ve got, tre flip Wallenberg. And we had driven up there, had a photographer, shot it exactly the way we wanted to. We were like wait, you’re gonna run this bullshit? We’ll buy a poster and run this the way it was meant to be. So that was the only thing that was kind of in the back pocket, I guess.”
In 2011, Torey Pudwill’s “Big Bang” part was the first Thrasher-branded standalone part that doubled as a clear SOTY push. Grant Taylor won that year instead, but the next year, with “Possessed to Skate”, David Gonzalez showed that a Thrasher exclusive video part could be part of a successful SOTY strategy. The two SOTYs after Gonzalez, Ishod Wair in 2013 and Wes Kremer in 2014, both released video parts through Thrasher before claiming their trophies.
The winners since Kremer have done it without giving the mag solo parts, but they’ve managed to do incredible shit on a skateboard and show favor to the mag in releasing it. AVE got a cover and did an interview in 2015, Kyle Walker did an interview and a bunch of web coverage leading up to the last part in Vans promo “No Other Way,” which premiered on Thrasher. Most recently, Jamie Foy dropped three parts, showed up in editorial content and starred in their reality TV show on Viceland.
The race seemed close last year in part because Lopez, Foy, and Tiago Lemos all gave Thrasher heavy parts in hopes of getting a trophy in exchange. That’s the level of competition for the highest tiers of skateboarding these days: instead of using your four minute part to close out your sponsor’s video, you lay it at Jake Phelps’ feet and hope they’ll lift you up and anoint that year as yours.
The biggest players in the skate industry have fallen in line with Thrasher’s unwritten rules in hopes of cementing their team riders’ legacy and exposure. I reached out to half a dozen SOTY winners, nominees, and brand marketing peeps for this article and Chris Cole was the only person willing to talk on record. The rest presumably didn’t want to be involved in something that might upset the Thrasher brass and hurt future chances to win the award.
While filming content for Thrasher is clearly part of the road to SOTY, it’s only logical to wonder how much the brands that buy ad space in the magazine can financially incentivize Thrasher to give their riders the award. However, one skate brand that had a rider on the SOTY nomination list in recent years told me this was not the case. “People think it’s up to the brands a little bit too much,” they said. When asked if brands can successfully hint to Thrasher that they’re planning a SOTY campaign early in the year, the source described the tactic as ineffectual.
Instead, brands with SOTY aspirations can focus their resources on making sure their riders have everything they need to produce a year’s worth of SOTY-level coverage. “Ultimately it’s up to the skater. We can enable him to go on whatever trips and provide him with filmers or photographers, but it’s up to him,” the source said.
“At the end of the day you can campaign all you want,” Cole said. “It’s not a popularity contest because Phelps and [Mike] Burnett are deciding exactly who the hell is gonna be the dude.” While another source suggested a few other high-level Thrasher people are also involved in the decision, it’s clear the online voting system is a purely promotional tool, not a democratic one.
So if there is a method for winning SOTY, it, surprisingly and unsurprisingly, involves a lot of skating and campaigning at Thrasher. It can’t be bought but it’s not exactly up to the people. Sounds oddly familiar…