When I called Mike Sinclair to do this interview, I opened by mentioning I think he’s the most famous TM in skateboarding today. Figures like Sam Smyth may stand out in skating’s storied past, but the big pink guy plastered on flatscreen TVs across the world via VICELAND’s King of the Road has won the hearts of skaters and non-skaters alike. His role in skating is mostly behind closed curtains, but he’s helped out a number of your favorite pros and ams along their way, you just probably didn’t know it.
Not knowing much about Sinclair outside of what’s been televised, I wanted to ask him how certain things operate behind the scenes in the industry. With his hands in both the Tum Yeto [Toy Machine, Foundation] and Nike SB programs, he’s seen every side of the industry in ways few others have. And he’s not shy about disclosing the differences between how these seemingly disparate worlds operate, so here’s what I was able to dig up.
As a Skate Team Manager, have you ever given bribes out to get skaters to get crazy tricks done?
Yeah but with most bets and bribes, unless it’s like $20, usually none of it is real. A lot of it is just hot air to try to psych them out. Like, “I’ll give you 100 beers right here!” Am I really gonna buy someone 100 beers right now? What are we gonna do with 100 beers? Everybody’s gonna party then, and that’s the last thing we need when we still have six hours of daylight left [laughs].
One of the ones I used to do was Go Fish. I ask them what trick they got next try and if they land it, I say, “Go Fish motherfucker!” and I’ll open up my wallet and you can randomly pick one bill out of there, without looking. Usually, it comes out to $5, $10, or $20. There’s rarely $100 bills in there, but they’re still psyched they get to go fish pull out whatever.
Part of your job is finding new talent for your brands. What makes someone stand out from the crowd for you?
I just try to find something unique about the kid no matter what team I’m looking for. You can see potential in a kid based on the way they flip their board. They don’t even have to win the contests or send the gnarliest footage. When I saw Blake Carpenter’s stuff early on I didn’t think he was that good. Later on, there was no question that he was going to be special.
I have to be very selective with Toy Machine or Foundation because the budgets are so small, so if I’m gonna flow a kid I gotta be sure they have a possible chance to really make something happen. With Nike, I can start a bit younger because you can see them grow and there is a budget for that, but Toy or Foundation, I can’t flow a kid for five years just to see what happens. I wish I could.
Usually, there comes a point in time where a kid is really good and then one summer they turn a corner and you’re like holy shit, look at ‘em now. But some kids never get there. Sometimes, there’s a kid who’s really good at 13, then at 17, they’re almost going backward.
What did TM-ing pay like when you first started, and what does it pay like now?
My first job actually in the skateboard industry I was hired to be a filmer for $1,000 a month by Imperial Distribution [Maple & 151 skateboards]. They told me I was also going to be the TM for Maple and Dynasty too. I asked for more money since a lot was expected of me, and our original agreement was just to film the Maple team. They offered me $100 extra a month, so $1100 a month total, and my gas covered for being a filmer for two brands and the team manager for two brands. I loved it but I was having trouble living in California so I looked for something a little more stable. Imperial Distribution was just operated out of a trailer in San Diego at the time.
I worked for quite a few brands after I left Imperial and they all had benefits. My starting base pay as a TM after that was $30,000 a year plus benefits. And with experience, my salary has increased over the years.
You probably have your hands in everything all the time. Do you ever clock in and out as a TM?
It’s ‘round the clock. It’s a bad habit, but my phone is right beside my bed, so the minute I wake up, instead of getting up and jumping in the shower, I get the phone and I press the refresh button on my emails and I’m like, “Oh sick, only 25 right now!” Then sometimes I hit it and there are 85 messages so I get in the shower before I get to it.
There is no clocking out because guys will hit me up at 10:30 at night being like, “I need a box by tomorrow,” and I go, “That’s not even physically possible!” It’s like what can I even do for you at this point but I always try. [Laughs]
“My first job in the skateboard industry I was hired to be a filmer for $1,000 a month.”
What do you do when a rider needs product at the last minute?
I try to make everyone responsible enough to know to plan their own schedules out. I’ve had all kinds of times where I have to get them to go to a skate shop that’s close to them or I go to my garage and grab what I have and send it to them. Or if it’s a situation where someone is flying to Europe the next day and they don’t have grip tape and I go, “Well, alright, I’ll meet you in two hours with the grip tape.” [Laughs] Everything you can imagine has happened.
When I go to contests, I have a little bag I carry that has bolts, grip tape, razor blades, grip gum, extra shirts, stickers. Everything you can think of I try to put in this bag. There’s always a couple little snacks in there too. Something to just hold me over until I can get out of the contest or demo to go get some real food. Red Vines, Runts, Rolos, M&M’s, etc… If the skater wants to put his food in there, he knows it might go missing [laughs].
I know you like eating, so how do your meals differ on a Nike SB trip vs. a Tum Yeto trip?
Tum Yeto is like you’re doing a road trip with all of your buddies from middle school and nobody has any money and you don’t know what you’re gonna do. Tum Yeto isn’t able to give per diems, so if I see someone on a trip struggling, then we’re either gonna share something or I’ll buy him lunch cause we’re not gonna leave anyone out there dying.
It sounds like it would be terrible, but those are some of the most fun trips. You’re not thinking about a good meal, you’re thinking about talking shit and where you’re going next. Even though there is a rough plan, you just don’t know where you’re going to eat or stay sometimes [laughs].
The Nike ones have the same vibe, but they’re more scheduled because there’s a budget. I would say a Nike trip would be like traveling with your family and you’re gonna have a nice meal. Everyone is gonna get fed and everything is fine.
Do you make the call on where the crew eats?
With Tum Yeto, obviously different dudes in the van have different salaries. This guy has a job and that guy has never worked a day in his life, so everyone is kind of nervous to say where they wanna go. I always give them the option and they figure it out. [On Nike SB trips], Scuba [Steve] (Nike SB TM) usually picks out a very nice restaurant that everyone is down for and we have a table of 20 dudes, and it’s like this nice family dinner.
“Tum Yeto trips are like you’re doing a road trip with all of your buddies from middle school and nobody has any money.”
What sort of budgets are you blowing through with Nike SB on food??
For a Nike SB tour, we usually eat two to four meals a day, so a rough budget estimate for a 10-day tour with 10 dudes might range from $5,000 to $7,000. I’ve done a month-long cross-country Tum Yeto tour for $3,500 a few times.
You ever make reservations under Nike to get some VIP treatment?
I’ve never done that cause I’m just not that guy. I’d rather play it down and say we’re a bunch of friends traveling, but we just got on the coolest Nikes [laughs].
One time though, there was a lady who wanted Toy Machine to do a demo in Georgia and we agreed and she paid us and took us out to eat. After the meal she said, “I’m taking off, here are the keys to my house. I’m gonna text you the directions. I’m staying at a hotel. I’m turning my house over to you guys. There’s a stocked bar upstairs.” I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Give us the hotel room. Do not give me the keys. We’re probably gonna burn your house down. I can’t do it. You are fucking up so bad I don’t even know what to tell you.” I had to break the news to the guys the next day. They were like, “WHAT?!” Then they all agreed they would’ve all fucked the place up. I don’t know why she thought that’d be fine [laughs].
Right now a bunch of skate brands are bringing on flagship female skaters. Do you think companies are working to bring this change about together or is it all a coincidence?
I think it’s people following each other’s leads. Skateboarding is so small and other people are looking at what others are doing and they go, “Yeah, it’d be sick if we had a ripping girl too!” I think it’s awesome, but is it a coincidence? I don’t think so at all. There are so many girls out there that aren’t just “good for a girl” they’re actually really good. I think that each brand is thinking, which girl fits on our team? Right now each brand has one girl but in a couple of years you will see three or four girls on each team. I hope I see that.
I think with the success of Nora [Vasconcellos], other people are thinking “We need a Nora!” But to me, Nora is everything. She’s got a good sense of humor, skates street, kills park, does amazing art. She’s one of the raddest there is because of herself, not just her skating. Other people see that and they might try to find themselves a Nora but there’s only one [laughs].
Nike SB has Lacey [Baker] and I think her last video part was one of the best real street parts a girl has ever filmed. Then there’s Leticia [Bufoni], who’s on Nike as well, but I think they’re two different styles and that’s what’s cool about it. It’s not just like Nike has Leticia, but it’s also Nike has Lacey, Nicole [Hause], Pamela Rosa. It’s just like the guys. It’s a whole group of epic people.
What about bringing a girl on one of the Tum Yeto brands? You guys were ahead of it when you had Elissa Steamer, but is there anyone you’re looking at now?
We don’t have any girls on flow. I would love to, but I haven’t connected with anyone to make that happen. I’d rather build it up organically than just have to take someone.
A few years ago, Lacey Baker wanted to ride for Toy Machine. I can’t remember what happened, but we had seen her around and she really loved Toy, then she got on Meow skateboards, and I asked her if she still had interest in wanting to ride for Toy. She thought about it and she wanted to do it, but then she said Meow had been there for her and that she has a great relationship with them and wanted to stay. I said that totally makes sense because I don’t wanna steal any riders. I thought it was cool she was into Toy, but we just blew it early on [laughs].
Stealing riders is probably something you’ve dealt with a lot. What do you do when you notice one of your riders getting offers from other companies?
With the Yeto brands, it’s different. There are no contracts. The riders are there because they want to be. Unless there’s some crazy deal, they’re probably not gonna leave. In the 10 yrs I’ve been there, I don’t remember anyone being upset or unhappy or like fuck this. It’s almost like you and your friends are hanging, then this other group hits up your guy and goes, “Hey you wanna start hanging out with us instead?” Usually doesn’t happen [laughs].
If there’s an offer out there for a Toy Machine or Foundation guy that’s going to better them tremendously, I’ll tell them to leave, give them a hug and shake their hand. Something that can change their life? Yeah, they should go do that. I never want to hold anyone back and I want people to achieve their biggest dreams no matter what.
Who is a skater a lot of brands tried to steal from you?
Tyshawn Jones. When he was 12 years old I gave him Toy Machine boards. I offered him Dekline and Pig but he wanted Emerica and Spitfire, and he got exactly what he wanted. After about a year of working with him, he came out to a couple of contests, came out to California, and released a little split part [with Frankie Spears].
Over the next six months after that part, everybody tried to take Tyshawn from Toy Machine. Flip called, Zero called. Every single person called him, and Tyshawn would call me. “Hey Mike, I just wanna let you know, Flip called me today,” and I go, “Well what’d you tell ’em?” And he goes, [Young Tyshawn Voice] “I told em I didn’t like Flip.” and I’m like, “Good man!” [Laughs] He’d tell me Circa called, Volcom called. He wasn’t looking to quit, he wasn’t looking for a better deal. He already had what he wanted at Tum Yeto.
Then he called me up, and he goes, “Hey Mike, [Jason] Dill wants me to ride for FA.” I’m like, “Look, this is hard for me to do, but you should ride for FA.” And he goes, “What? You don’t think I’m good enough for Toy Machine?” And I go, “No, you’re perfect for Toy! You’re something we don’t have. You’re from New York, you’re young, everything about you I like, that’s why you’re a part of this. But if Dill wants you to ride for FA, he’s going to take care of you. All of your friends are going to be on it, and that’s what Toy Machine is. They’re all friends. It might take another three years for you to become friends with these guys the way to get to where you’re at right now [with Supreme and FA], so I would go with that.”
It was just one of those things where so many people were after him and I’m super happy for him and I’m super thankful that he rode for Toy.
What do you say to people who say big shoe companies are hurting skateboarding?
I’ve worked for some of the smallest companies and for some of the biggest companies and I think it’s whatever you wanna make of it. People are always like how does a small brand compete? But shit man, Nike and Adidas were small companies once too. Everybody starts somewhere.
For example, I still feel that shop decks are making Tum Yeto smaller and smaller. People don’t see how the shop blank or the random local company that has 50 boards for sale will mean there aren’t gonna be any more demos coming through town or your favorite pro isn’t going to get paid by the board company in the future. I don’t think that translates. People just think Tum Yeto is big, but it’s very small. Even the “big” companies like FA are fucking small.
I do know that Dekline didn’t go out of business because of a bigger company. It was profitable when they pulled the plug, but it just wasn’t worth their time, it was so small. The big companies aren’t responsible for putting anyone out of business. Emerica is still going strong and doing cool shit and putting out awesome videos. They’re just not as big as Adidas, and that’s never been the case in the first place.
I just think Nike and Adidas have the brand recognition that works across everything. When someone recognizes a brand, they’re gonna buy it. And it’s not just skaters buying them. It’s everyone in the world.
Skateboarding is always changing and you have to adapt. Even the biggest companies have to do the same, they just have the resources to adapt easier. I’d much rather be looking on the positive side of everything because if you dwell on something, there’s always gonna be a bunch of stuff that sucks. I’m not gonna sit there and be like “Dekline went out of business because Adidas came along and dropped that one video and fucked it all up for us!” [Laughs]
Has anyone within the industry or outside ever called you a traitor for working with Nike?
None at all. Everyone I know has been super supportive.