When we think of an agent we probably picture a goon in a suit scheming ways to squeeze extra money out of skaters. We also probably don’t think about them as being allies or advocates, or that they would work for pro skateboarders when there’s more money to be made with pro footballers or basketball players.
But a few agents actually have worked with skateboarders for some time, and with the Olympics coming up, we decided to talk with one to find out just what the hell they do and why a pro skateboarder might want one.
Circe Wallace is an ex pro-snowboarder turned Executive Vice President of the Actions Sports and Olympics at Wasserman Media Group. Earlier in her career, without a law degree or formal training, Circe successfully took her snowboard sponsor to court when they prematurely terminated her contract. She then took what she learned and carved a new role for herself advocating for athletes to get fair treatment and compensation from sponsors and brands.
Over time she’s represented big name skaters like Paul Rodriguez, Eric Koston, and Ryan Sheckler.
We talked with Circe about how she assesses everything from shoe sponsorships to Target commercial appearances, and broke down what an agent considers when packaging high school dropout skateboarders to corporate America.
Because if you’re gonna sell out, you might as well do it properly.
Who were some of the first skateboarders you signed?
My first skater was…oh god, Eric Koston or Paul Rodriguez…I would have to go back into the records to check. There are so many. Paul was 18 at the time and he was relatively unknown. He was on éS [shoes] then. Koston was a pretty big name. I worked with Rune [Glifberg] too, who is still a really close friend of mine. Through that process, I got involved with the industry, and I did Paul’s big Nike deal.
Paul has one of the longest-running shoe deals in skating, right?
I can’t remember when we did his Nike deal, but I think it was 2005. I really think up until Paul came on, [Nike] had a pretty obscure and eclectic team. They were really resistant to doing anything in the traditional Nike sports realm because they had failed so many times to enter the skate market, but they brought Paul in and they were able to really build a dynasty there. Paul is an athlete in every sense of the word, but also just a skateboarder through and through.
How do you convince a brand like Nike that Paul is someone to build a program around?
A lot of it had to do with the internal crew at Nike starting to identify the emerging market share opportunity and looking for someone they could develop a program with over time who fit the Nike DNA. That really was Paul. I give a lot of credit to the team there who saw Paul’s potential to develop into the face of [Nike] SB, for lack of a better term. It was very strategic, and a lot of people were really pissed off about it at the time, which is funny to think about now. People thought that Paul was selling out. I think the crews at Girl and éS certainly did.
It was threatening. He gave Nike the keys to the castle. He legitimized their entrance into the market because prior to that, we were all sitting back and going, “Oh god, this is another SAVIER [Nike owned failed skate shoe brand].” Remember SAVIER? It wasn’t until they had cracked the nut with Paul that [Nike] was able to really gain any market share [in skateboarding].
“There are four companies that own everything now… The deals are not what they used to be, and I don’t know if they ever will be that again.”
And now big brands are the norm.
Yeah! I mean there are four companies that own everything now. It really hurts athletes earning potential because you’ve got Adidas, Nike, VF Corp [Vans], and Boardriders Club [DC, Quicksilver, Roxy]. It has really contracted the space. I haven’t looked at the numbers for a while, but certainly, the deals are not what they used to be, and I don’t know if they ever will be that again.
So your job is mainly finding and securing your skaters with sponsorships outside of skateboarding? Or do you also negotiate with skateboarding board brands too?
I tend to not get involved with hardgoods, mostly just because it is so important to have personal relationships and they are not huge margin businesses, and a lot of those hardgood brands really struggle. I think Girl hates me to this day because Paul left Girl, but Paul left Girl because he wanted to. I had nothing to do with it.
I’m super supportive of the skaters having a direct relationship with those brands. It’s like their [record] label. They have to travel with the team, it’s got to work for them in terms of attitude and comradery, and it’s not like they are getting paid huge amounts of money or that the brands are using their names to sell millions of dollars worth of boards. Having a good wood partner is so important to where you fit in overall.
Do you ever get brands or people who don’t seem to trust you because you’re “the agent”?
I think in general I am perceived as a bit of a pariah because people think, “What do you need an agent for?” But the reality is I’m dealing with one of the big four brands in most instances, who are multinational billion dollar organizations, and most of these kids are relatively unsophisticated when it comes to deal-making or contract law. I’m just there to make sure the deals are fair and equitable and that there’s a level of accountability.
I like to think that part of my responsibility is also to help raise healthy humans and help them understand how to avoid the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol abuse or just squandering your money, or how to have healthy interpersonal relationships. I co-parent in some ways, and I think that’s why I like it.
Outside of doing their deals, I’m also working with them to help them understand how to prepare for their future and enjoy their lives, not just make mad money, which is definitely important. But being okay is also important.
Who are some skaters that you feel you have guided in a parental way?
Ryan Sheckler. I lost Ryan when he was pretty young. I was too parental. It was right before the MTV show [“Life of Ryan“] came out, but I did package and sell that, but then I lost him so I lost all of my creative measures and control. That was hard for me. I actually asked them to take my name off of it.
I guess it should give people comfort that you have a history of working with skateboarders and you know about the culture.
Oh yeah, like Nyjah’s agent? Never ridden a skateboard in his life. Works for a skater and wears a suit and tie. That doesn’t mean that Nyjah doesn’t have a good agent, it’s just a matter of what’s important to you and what your personal value system is. Who do you want to nominate to interact with these brands that you ultimately represent?
I think sometimes that’s challenging too because you’ve got kids who have worked really hard and then all of a sudden they ask, “How come I’m not getting these deals?” These big huge brands hire these people who are respected in the industry to go do “bro deals” and demonize the agents, when really we are just trying to make sure we are dealing with these big brands correctly.
Maybe we are not “cool” but we really do care about the athlete and we are trying to do what we can to make sure they can get their best shot at success.
Have you convinced a skateboarder who was “anti-agent” to sign on as your client?
I think I did with Rune [Glifberg]. It was so new, you know? Like, “What do I need you for?” A lot of that was me saying, these brands aren’t looking out for you, I’m here to do that. I will bust my ass to make sure that we explore every opportunity that is available to you and maximize your deals and get some deals flowing while you’re in your prime.
On the flip side, say someone comes to you and wants you to represent them. What would deter you from signing a skateboarder?
I don’t know, attitude, marketability…
But when you say marketability you mean…
Appealing to brands outside of skateboarding.
So who’s a skater today who you would say does not appeal to outside brands?
I don’t know, maybe like Dustin Dollin, who I respect, but I can’t package him to corporate America. I haven’t really represented that many of those grimy types because it’s just hard. You want to just let them be free and grimy and really authentic and you can’t package that for mass consumption, nor do I want to. But I have a real appreciation for that level of, to be quite frank, athleticism and creativity. It really does feel like it has more depth than athletics.
“It’s a whole new game. You’ve got kids who are on the contest path at age eight and have very involved parents. We are going to see more and more of that.”
Dollin’s a great example. I think it’s good for people to recognize that even if someone is well-liked in skateboarding, that doesn’t necessarily translate to “marketability” outside of it.
That’s right, and I’m sure he’s got a great deal. I mean, he’s Volcom and Vans, right? He’s had legacy deals and I’m sure they take care of him. But also, he’s not gonna go anywhere else. He can’t create any leverage. I can’t really play the game with him, nor does he need me to.
Let’s do a hypothetical: say I’m a good skater and I’m buzzy and in the market for an agent. How do I find someone to represent me?
It’s really unfortunate. There are plenty of skaters who have a ton a value, but if you look at the top earners today who really need someone to help them manage their businesses, they are competing and winning contests, like Vans Park Series or Street League or the Olympics. If you are a contest skater, you probably have already been approached, or you are smart and you’re meeting with everyone before you make a decision.
So you’d say that most skaters who could be represented by an agent probably already have one?
Yeah. It’s a whole new game. You’ve got kids who are on the contest path at age eight and have very involved parents. We are going to see more and more of that.
How do you feel about that becoming a way kids get noticed and brought up through skateboarding? Back in the day, you had 12-year-olds raised as Baker kids.
I think there’s always going to be a segment of skateboarding that is super raw and really punk in its behavior because that is why most of us were attracted to it in the first place. You want kids that come from highly dysfunctional environments to be able to express themselves and let out their angst through skateboarding if it allows them to have a better quality of life and a good experience at a transitory time.
I think the challenge is that skateboarding is so big now that it has inevitably become more homogenized. Now, there are kids who come out of more structured home environments—no drugs and alcohol use and all of that stuff—so inevitably they follow a formula for success that is much like divisional sports. A benefit of their privilege is access to travel and healthy diets and maybe more engaged parents, and as a result, they are better in that kind of structured and competitive environment and they’re starting so much younger.
I’m starting to see more crossover, just because there’s more opportunity. Look at someone like Jamie Foy. They can have both. I always considered Chris Joslin in that camp. I’d say there’s a handful of them that are able to really maintain that really core street cred while having some real competitive success. That’s the perfect storm.
Another hypothetical: How would you pitch Nyjah vs. Ishod Wair? They both skate for Nike, compete in Street League, and are successful in skateboarding to a high degree. How do you differentiate between them and know when one might be a better fit for a deal than the other?
I probably wouldn’t represent both of them, to be honest. Only because the wage gap there is pretty big, and that’s for one reason and one reason only: because Nyjah wins everything. He’s not more likable, he’s not a better skater, he arguably doesn’t have as good of a style as Ishod, but he is able to leverage his competitive success and the visibility of that success to do bigger deals. There’s nothing I can do to change that. When you have multiple athletes you have a pretty good understanding of what their market value is.
[A skater’s] market value is basically determined by what any single brand is willing to pay for somebody. With someone like Ishod or Nyjah on Nike, it’s like okay, where are you guys gonna go now? That’s part of why skateboarding is in a weird place. The baby brands [Lakai, eS, Etnies..etc] are gone or really struggling or have been bought by licensing groups and aren’t really doing the diligence to continue to appeal to the core market. It’s also hard to do volume and shoes are expensive. It’s disappointing because if you look at those brands, they haven’t done a good job. I don’t even know who’s on DC.
Once you do sign a skater, what sorts of things do you work on for them?
We don’t just sign a contract and then be like, “Okay! See you next year.” We help with everything from helping them get their travel visas to making sure we are pitching to bigger brands who want to engage in the space — whether that’s Apple or PepsiCo— [and] talking about why skateboarding culture is compelling and important. It tends to be a heavy lift because you really have to — especially with skateboarding — help people understand cultural nuances to ensure the safety of your client’s image. I would say that’s where I am best and why working with us creates an advantage. We get you in front of those bigger brands that don’t know who is big in skateboarding.
There’s not just a playbook you can send someone to market a skateboarder appropriately. It takes time and communication and an understanding of why that particular individual is compelling. That’s the fun part really.
True, pro skateboarding careers are pretty fickle.
Yeah, there’s part of me that is disappointed that there is not more of a structured hierarchy and earning potential threshold. A union would certainly be great.
But does anyone who’s not a skater really care about skateboarding content? It’s like a mash of like a rockstar or some kind of super creative character with someone who is just phenomenal on a skateboard doing crazy stuff and that’s kind of an enigma. You can’t even make a comparison to other board sports. Success in skating is not directly correlated to competition or even money.
Do you think the Olympics will make skateboarders more money?
I certainly think the ones that win and get the coverage and all the media will be more valuable. I don’t think it will change things for the rest.
You don’t think the Olympics will bring attention to the less visible figures in skateboarding?
I don’t know. Do you think that it will change the market? I don’t think it’s going to make a huge impact. It will affect a few athletes’ lives, but beyond that, I don’t know. I mean, are we going to see a huge consumer uptake in skateboarding consumer products? I don’t think it did it for snowboarding. I think it made Shaun White a humongous name, but I don’t know if it actually generated more sales. I would have to look at the data. My instinct is it won’t have this huge profound effect on the industry.
I think the real opportunity is in direct to consumer brands that create unique products for niche genres, like skateboarding. Brands will launch differently and kids will buy boards online, and buy most of their stuff through Instagram or whatever as opposed to going into their local skate shop. The disruptor has yet to show up.
I’m hopeful that some skate brands can scale through that model, and allow some of these brands to be run by skateboarders themselves, as opposed to the big multinational conglomerates.
You really think skater founded brands could ever push out the big corporate brands?
I’m a big fan of small business and the uniqueness of action sports. There are still opportunities for emerging and creative individuals to take over some of that market share because the kids want something unique. I feel like skateboarding as a whole is all about freedom of expression and carving your own path and doing it your way and not conforming.
Everyone is holding onto that for dear life because kids come out of the womb in Nikes. They’re not even identifying Nike as a skateboard brand, Nike is just omnipresent.
The pendulum always swings back. I just think it’s up to key stakeholders to make sure that it maintains some level of individuality and that we don’t just end up with something like the kids in China who train from four years old to win a gold medal and can do all the tricks, but have no style and no freedom or that kind of punk rock sensibility that makes skateboarding so fucking awesome.