Boasting the largest purse in skateboarding’s history at 250,000 dollars, Boost Mobile hosted its Pro of Skateboarding contest from June 27 to 29 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
The event has created a buzz within the industry and might be a sign of the evolution of modern skateboarding contests-if not a blueprint for the direction that contests may be headed. Boost is attempting to get skateboarders more of the respect and treatment they deserve as skilled athletes, and more of the money they deserve as people who generate revenue for their sponsors or sponsors of events.
Contests in the 80s saw involvement from corporations like Ocean Pacific and Swatch, and by the mid 90s, ESPN set a new precedent with the Extreme Games. Not only were large corporations involved in skateboarding by sponsoring riders and contests, but networks had been doing their homework (somewhat) and successfully organizing their own events full of “extreme sports.” Today, events like NBC’s Gravity Games and events run or sponsored by the likes of Mountain Dew, Microsoft, T-Mobile, Target, Slim Jim, Ford, and Red Bull are abundant.
And despite stories of “nailing roller skates onto a two-by-four,” the skateboard “industry” began with corporate involvement from surf companies, followed by companies like Mattel manufacturing boards, Pepsi having its own team and demo ramps, and Free Former sponsoring freestyle contests in the 1970s.
To put it quite simply-the major corporations have always been around skateboarding. Perhaps they used to take more from the sport than they gave back, which might have left a bad taste in the mouths of the skateboarders. Today, corporations have acknowledged their mistakes and the mistakes of others, and are forced to work a little harder to meet the needs of the skaters in order to get the response and cooperation they want from the ‘core industry. According to Chris Stiepock, general manager for the X-Games, ESPN is aware they need to work with (and has been consulting) professional skaters and ‘core industry figures like ramp-builder extraordinaire Tim Payne to have courses built, or Don and Danielle Bostick for advice and assistance on running an event-rather than using a bunch of non-skaters to try and pull it off. Red Bull, Mountain Dew, and Boost also emphasize communication with their professional teamriders and industry people to get things done in the best possible manner.
Since the dawn of the X-Games and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, the skate industry has seen a long and strong run of growth and committed corporate involvement and support. With a few purists as exceptions, skateboarders and ‘core skate brands may finally be convinced that large corporations don’t just get involved in skateboarding anymore to line their pockets and pull out when their profit, luck, or ratings are gone.
Chris Overholser, public relations manager of Vans, knows that in the past, some companies have jumped on the skate bandwagon, but plenty others have good intentions. “Vans looks to partner with companies (TransWorld, Ford, Right Guard) who aren’t going to dabble in skateboarding and get out. We strive to work with companies that will provide prolonged support of skateboarding and do it in a credible way.” To put on events such as the Triple Crown of Skateboarding, it’s necessary for Vans to go beyond endemic companies-not only for financial reasons, but to maximize exposure and offer as many kids and fans of skateboarding the chance to enjoy the experience.
Heidi Sandreuter, marketing manager of the Pepsi-Cola Company Sports Group, knows what it’s like to be outside of “the ‘core” and feels that most skaters really appreciate the positive effect that corporate companies have had on skateboarding: “They’ve infused resources, support, and cash to help them (skateboarders) do what they love, build contests like theX-Games or Vans Triple Crown, and give them more opportunities to showcase what they do best.”
The benefits of corporate contests and involvement are numerous and are slowly but surely beginning to outweigh the negative ramifications. Professional skateboarders with families to support are now making large salaries from these corporations and winning large purses from the contests-some of the people working for the corporate companies are from a generation who grew up with skateboarding or transplants from the ‘core industry and genuinely happen to love skateboarding. These corporate events provide jobs for thousands, while the sport, the companies, and the riders are getting exposure like never before, and people are still having fun. However, some still see embracing corporate involvement as “selling out.”
Many are waiting to be abandoned again when skateboarding isn’t hip and profitable. But maybe it’s due time to forgive the mistakes of the past. “Have we lost our soul? Maybe,” says World Cup Skateboarding President Don Bostick, “but at least there are more people skating than ever and more places to skate than ever. I say let’s enjoy it, but don’t get too carried away with it. It can all disappear as quick as it appeared.”
The factors separating the corporate contests from the grassroots, ‘core contests aren’t always cut and dry-just as the motivation for which corporations sponsor or host events can lack consistency. Prize money and the types of sponsors are usually an indication of ‘core versus corporate, but then again, Tampa Pro, which is considered one of the most raw and respected events in skating, has a purse that grows every year and has been backed by Norelco and Red Bull in the past. “When we did Norelco, we needed money for the loop and they came at us at the last minute. We aren’t working our ass off to get corporate sponsors, but we consider it if the right people come to us, we can do it on our terms, the money is there, and the vibe doesn’t change. We are selective, and we stick with what and who we know-and it has been successful. To step outside that and try to do the next best thing might be detrimental to us,” says SkatePark of Tampa Owner Brian Schaefer.
Red Bull has been extremely supportive of skateboarding by hosting/sponsoring dozens of skate events worldwide. Piney Kahn, communications manager for Red Bull, explains their logic: “In the case of SPoT, they came to us and needed a ramp. We had one, so it was an easy solution. Which contests we support depend on who is involved (both organizers and athletes) and who approaches us, we don’t approach contest organizers. When we have a strong relationship with the athletes involved or the organizers, we’ll do everything we can to support them.”
Sometimes the difference between ‘core and corporate is simply the vibe, how much fun the contest is for skaters and spectators, or whether or not the event is being televised. In the case of Boost’s Pro of Skateboarding, as with any new corporate involvement throughout the years, many people were curious-even skeptical. Including the purse, Boost spent over a million dollars making sure the skaters were treated well. FOX Sports Net had cameras all over the venue.
“Initially I felt it had too much of a corporate vibe to it,” says Girl pro Brian Anderson. “But then when all the skating started happening, and guys like John Cardiel started getting as gnarly as they usually get, it all felt like an average contest to me. You sort of ignore the banners and advertising. Mentally, I sort of bypass it.”
Thrasher’s heavy involvement in the Hard Rock contest added integrity to the event because the publication most likely wouldn’t risk the reputation they spent decades building by aligning themselves with something that was out to take advantage of skateboarding. Lindsey Byrnes, Thrasher’s marketing director, explains, “As far as Boost goes, they have been putting a lot of money into skateboarding. For a corporate company, they really seem to work with independent principles. I deal with people there who skate and surf, and they are really cool. I like their approach to this market, I like their team, an
d I even like their ads. If Boost continues to approach skateboarding in the way that they have, I will continue our affiliation with them and my support of them will remain intact. Boost is putting money back into skateboarding, that is what is important.”Furthermore, Boost managed to convince skaters like Heath Kirchart, Daewon Song, Ethan Fowler, and Jim Greco, who are all notorious for not entering contests, to show up. “I’m good friends with one of the team managers at Boost,” says Daewon Song. “I promised him I would come. I’m over contests, but I had to keep my promise. I did two tricks in my run in Vegas and I had to sit down and watch the other guys because they are so amazing. For me, it wasn’t even a money thing, I’m not planning to place against all those other guys anyway.”
Byrnes comments, “Heath, Ethan, Greco, Cardiel, and Daewon came to Vegas because there was no reason for them not to.”
Dave Sypniewski, Boost’s brand manager says, “We pretty much got those guys because we told them they didn’t have to be monkeys or do anything they didn’t want to do (like interviews). All we did was ask them to show up, have a good time, and skate-we made it as painless as possible.”
Less than one month after the Vegas contest, on July 19, T-Mobile, Nokia and EXPN.com hosted Ramps and Amps-a vert event in Randall’s Island, New York that was similar to the Boost Pro of Skateboarding in the sense that it was an invitational event. Some but not all of the competitors endorsed the products of the hosts. Skaters were judges, and the purse was 50,000 dollars to be split between the top three riders. Ramps and Amps also consisted of BMX and motocross, and musical acts for no charge to spectators. If the Ramps and Amps event didn’t intentionally mimic Boost’s event, it certainly shows that skate contests are evolving in a new and similar direction.
Don Bostick isn’t so quick to adorn Boost or Thrasher with a halo for their efforts with the Pro of Skateboarding event. World Cup had been working with Boost and IMS on an idea for a world tour in 2001. When that fell through, Boost and Oakley created the Pro of Skateboarding. “They hired Thrasher magazine’s Jake Phelps to run the event,” says Bostick. “And in the words of a major executive from Oakley, they, ‘Plan to rise above the clutter of other contests.’ Here’s the way I see it: Jake doesn’t run skate contests and I don’t run a skate magazine, but I guess if someone were to offer me enough money, I’d figure out how to run one pretty quick. The fact that Jake even considered taking the gig is a joke. Why they didn’t ask Brian Schaefer to help is beyond me. In the end, money talks and the skaters will go where the money is, and I think it’s a problem.”
Bostick also sees a dilemma in how ‘core events don’t depend on sponsors outside of the industry. The problem he sees is that the industry is riding on corporate sponsorships. Outside of shoe companies, there aren’t many skate industry companies putting anything into skate competitions outside of sending some product to a few amateur events. “I do applaud World Industries for stepping up two years ago with World War 3 and Girl skateboards for helping with Slam City Jam, and I guess some companies at least buy banner space at Tampa. But seriously, without the corporate-sponsored events, what would we have?”
Bostick has a point, and until the ‘core companies start getting more involved, as Thrasher did in Vegas, or Girl did at Slam, the larger corporations are going to keep doing their thing and reaping the benefits. And until larger companies penetrate the ‘core events more efficiently, these smaller contests will remain more grassroots and less hyped-with smaller purses.
According to Sypniewski, Boost plans to host another Pro of Skateboarding next year with emphasis on correcting the mistakes it made on its first attempt-potentially a better voting system and an improved street course.
The X-Games is entering its ninth year, The Gravity Games is in its fifth year, SPoT just celebrated its tenth anniversary, as did Slam City Jam. Red Bull first built portable halfpipes in 1996 and still use them today. Corporate or ‘core, rivals or partners, skateboard contests will most likely be around as long as skateboarding is. And these corporations and events must be doing something right, because they keep on keepin’ on.