Despite the few pros fortunate enough to fly private jets and drive Lamborghinis, the majority of sponsored skateboarders today are lucky if they can pay all their bills by skating alone. When you factor in things like the general instability of sponsorship deals and (in the U.S.) unaffordable medical costs for even typical injuries, sponsored skateboarders seem like they could benefit from some kind of support.
Perhaps, sponsored skateboarders could use a Skateboarders Union?
With a union, sponsored skateboarders could demand minimum am- and pro-level salaries and negotiate some kind of sponsor-provided healthcare option, even for those who don’t skate for the big shoe brands. A union might help provide a little more security and safety, and if not extend the average pro skater’s career span, at least improve it.
But what would a skateboarders union look like, and could one ever exist? To probe these hypotheticals, we started by looking at traditional sports unions.
Athletes in the NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB, NFL, and the MLS are all represented by players unions or player associations. These unions primarily look and act as regular labor unions, meaning players pay annual dues and in return, union representatives negotiate with the sports associations on the players’ behalves.
The results of these negotiations are known as collective bargaining agreements, and they usually guarantee the players certain minimum salaries and medical benefits. They also lay out clear understandings of the players’ job duties, available retirement plans, and seniority rights.
The point of collective bargaining agreements in sports is to protect the athletes. So if a sports association or team ever fails to uphold the terms of whichever agreement(s) they’re part of, the athletes can refuse to perform their duties until the situation is remedied. Importantly, they also won’t have to worry about being expelled or punished because they’ll have the support of their fellow athletes behind them.
When sports unions negotiate, they use something called the employee empowerment unionism method. Under this, every player, even a new or low-level player, is guaranteed a minimum wage from their team, but they all have the option to negotiate higher wages based on their value to their team.
That’s why an NFL player like Aaron Rogers earned more than $66.9 million in salary and bonuses in 2018 from the Green Bay Packers, but the average rookie’s salary is somewhere near $480,000. (If these amounts seem low for professional athletes, note that they do not include outside money from brand partnerships or product endorsement deals.)
Players in these associations have been able to unionize because they are employees of the teams they play for. Sponsored skateboarders, however, are not employed by their sponsors. Most are independent marketing contractors who have their contracts renewed every year or every couple of years.
Trying to convince sponsors to hire skateboarders as employees, which would be a huge change to the fundamental structure of skateboarding sponsorships, is not a feasible route to unionizing. However, there could be other ways for skateboarders to organize as athletes and protect themselves.
when skateboarders unite
While individualistic sports like tennis and golf do not have unions, because the athletes are not employees of any specific team, tennis players do have the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and the WTP (Women Tennis Professionals), which resemble unions.
Recently, tennis players have been upset that tournaments outside the ATP — the U.S. Open, French Open, and other grand slam titles — all of which pull in millions of dollars in ticket revenue and TV deals, don’t give much of that money to the players. That’s where the ATP can step in and say that their athletes won’t compete unless they get a bigger slice of the pie.
If sponsored skateboarders formed this type of association, they could at least specify that competitions pay higher minimum fees to any skateboarders who participate in them, if not also negotiate for equal pay between men’s and women’s competitions. Pulling skaters out of contests would be the closest thing an organization like this would have to going on strike.
But it’s worth pointing out that because not all professional skateboarders compete in contests, a contest-oriented association wouldn’t do much for the majority of skateboarders who stick to filming video parts.
Plus, a group like the ATP only has any power because big stars like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic (ranked number one in the world and president of the players’ council) are all outspoken members of the ATP. If those kinds of players were to boycott a tournament, the organizers collecting money from ticket sales and TV deals would have to stop and listen to the players’ demands.
Likewise, a contest-focused skateboarders association would need people like Shane O’Neill, Nyjah Huston, and Leticia Bufoni to be part of it. If Manny Santiago is the only one protesting to get more from Street League, Street League has little to lose by ignoring him.
But considering that Street League and the Vans Park Series are getting tied up with the Olympics, contest skateboarders probably have more power now to band together and collectively negotiate for better competition earnings or even medical insurance for injuries that happen on the course. American Olympic athletes are currently considering unionizing, but this kind of stuff moves slow, so until then we’ll have to look at union models outside the sports world.
Because sponsored skateboarders are considered independent contractors or freelancers, any kind of benefits, insurance, or workers compensation (when they’re injured) would be handled on a case by case basis between a skateboarder and each of their sponsors.
But because this is skateboarding, most skateboarders don’t get those things in their contracts. If they would ever want to “strike” and refuse to skate, they would most likely end up forfeiting their sponsorships.
Guilds, which do not seek out employment opportunities for their members but instead help negotiate for wage minimums and protect their members from exploitation, might be a more realistic unionizing structure for skateboarders.
The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is one model to consider. SAG-AFTRA represents 160,000 actors, stunt doubles, announcers, recording artists, and other media professionals. Members pay a $3,000 initiation fee to join and $220 in annual dues, plus 1.5% of any earnings over $500,000.
Hypothetically, if a Skateboarders Guild was formed from the SAG model, it would have way fewer members and lower membership costs. Maybe $500-1,000 to join, $100 annual dues, and a small percentage of any contest earnings or royalties over a certain amount. That money could be pooled together to go toward healthcare costs for those who need it or be invested in a pension fund that members could withdraw from years later when they retire.
For SAG-AFTRA members to receive healthcare credits and retirement funds, they must prove that they’re working. Skateboarders can’t clock in and out of a job like writers or performers can, but skateboarders could have minimum requirements to remain eligible for guild benefits.
Whether that would be upholding a certain amount of video and photo output, going on tours, or participating in demos and signings, there would have to be some way to tell who’s actually “working” and who’s just becoming a Stoner Loc. Skateboarders are already pressured to create content for their sponsors, but in this scenario, they would have added incentives to keep up with their careers.
To increase its membership numbers, the hypothetical Skateboarders Guild could also allow filmers, photographers, and editors to join. The media folk would just have to meet their own set of work requirements, like contributing to an SG-approved full-length video or publishing a certain number of skate photos each year. With more members, the guild would have more power to petition for better benefits for everyone.
COULD ANY OF THIS WORK?
Although a sponsored skateboarders union or guild could potentially benefit a lot of low- and mid-level ams and pros, especially toward getting them better health insurance, we’ll probably never see one.
Contest skateboarders have wanted to get the benefits of a union in the past. During the 2001 X Games, the vert skater Matt Dove wore a homemade T-shirt that read “Extreme $ Profits Network.” He did this to try to pressure ESPN to increase the amount of money given to lower-ranking competitors so that not only first and second place skaters walked away with any real earnings.
Tony Hawk had echoed a similar sentiment in his 2000 autobiography, writing: “One thing I think skaters need now more than ever is a group or union of some sort…You may think it’s great to win $10,000 at a contest…but only one skater bags that, and a lot of the time the television networks are raking in millions of dollars.”
But when it came to putting together an actual union, contest skateboarders didn’t make much progress.
matt dove’s “extreme $ profits network” shirt at the 2001 x games
Years ago, Andy Macdonald and Buster Halterman founded the United Professional Skateboarders Association (UPSA) in order to help skateboarders get group healthcare options. However, their only significant victory was at the 2001 X Games.
That year, ESPN wanted to use competition footage in an IMAX movie they were making, and they’d asked the skaters to sign appearance releases without paying them for their appearances. “We threatened to go to press with a boycott,” Macdonald said. “Within an hour, ESPN caved and removed that clause.”
Around 2002 another vert skater, Chris Gentry, formed the Pro Riders Organization (P.R.O.). The organization would have given employment protections to action sports athletes, including skateboarders, BMXers, and motocross riders, but it too fizzled out.
Macdonald, who was also a member of P.R.O., described the reality of maintaining skateboarders unions as not just difficult but contradictory. “Organizing a group of people who got into skating because they don’t want to be organized has mostly proved an exercise in futility.”
chris gentry’s p.r.o. skate union
Ryan Clements, who helps a lot of pro skateboarders manage their money and sponsorships, told us he thought a skateboarders union wouldn’t work because the top earners would have no incentive to join.
“The most skilled people in society don’t need a union….Guys on Nike that are at the top of their game would already earn more than what the union wage would be. Then you’re making enough money as a pro skater that you could handle all of those expenses…like healthcare and all those things that a union provides.” Clements said.
Since endemic skate brands don’t have nearly as big of budgets as the huge shoe brands (Nike, adidas, Vans, etc.), Clements also thought that a union could potentially hurt some brands.
“What you would get is smaller brands that couldn’t afford what the union demands. The brands don’t have skaters, or at least the ones [who are] part of the union…and then the skaters don’t have sponsors because the sponsors can’t afford the minimum. That could be a tough situation to be in.”
Basically, sponsored skateboarders’ best bet at getting the benefits of a union would not be to form a union. Instead, the top earners would have to decide on their own to help the bottom earners by asking sponsors and contest organizers to do more for the “average joe pro.” And we all know how often the haves love to uplift the have-nots….