Big Business

I remember years ago, when Nike had their second try at breaking into skateboarding, my friend Alex told me about limited edition Nike SB collaborations and the price they went for at auction.  The team of mostly underground skaters(at the origin of the second incarnation), and he theorized, “I bet someone over at Nike said, if we do this right, we can own skateboarding.”  Neither of us had any idea how right he was.

So much has been written on the matter, from industry insiders who have access to more information than me, to the so many industry people who don’t want to talk about it.  But this began before Nike had their second attack on skateboarding.  I’ve been skating since the late eighties, learned about the industry in the early/mid-nineties, I’ve seen the photos of Alva skating on a ramp with the Pepsi logo, Rodney Mullen touring with Swatch, we all know this is not the first time pop-culture and the mainstream has moved into skating like a swarm of locusts to suck it dry of everything it is worth and stands for, just to earn a couple extra bucks under the paranoia of staying relevant and ahead of the alleged consumer curve.

Prior to the second incarnation of Nike, Adidas was in the game for years with the weird athletic team ads(and only a small gap between their second move into skating, following Nike’s success), also, Nike I believe, owned Savier, a short-lived shoe company with a REALLY heavy hitting team.

Before going further, let’s not kid ourselves, there was good money in skateboarding, good enough to live on and save, for some, not all.  That has always been the way, one guy on a team is getting five-thousand a month, another fifteen-hundred.  Money existed because skateboarding pretty much belonged to skateboarders in the United States, there was some janky-setups for board presses around the world, but pretty much up until the early ’00’s, if you wanted legit product, you ordered from the US.  Then everyone started making their own boards post 9/11 and checks weren’t as heavy from deck sponsors, money started existing strictly in legit shoes/clothing and cheap wheel/truck/bearing/grip companies, still skater-owned, for the most part.

You also had the ‘weird’ sponsors, the backpack company, the whatever company that for some reason, had a skate team.  If you look historically at the teams for these companies, they mostly consisted of underground guys who were completely legit, but probably weren’t making the money they needed off the core sponsors they rode for, because at the end of the day, there is only so much money to go around.  With the team lineups of these companies, you could deduce(or at least hope) the riders were doing this just so they could stay away from the day job that would have held them back from skating, why else would guys like Machnau and Comer(at that particular time in skating) have a backpack sponsor that seemed to not produce a backpack able to carry a skateboard?

Aside from that, what comes to mind are two skaters, very young at the time, who have their own stories, their own pains and baggage, which I believe pushed them in the direction they went.  Also, this was a time when skating started selling off companies to investors, it wasn’t spoken about or down in large numbers, but companies were being sold, and the skaters, who are now embracing it at an absurd level, back then, were shocked at the outsiders lack of true love for skateboarding, and seemed to have now jumped on the outsiders’ ship.

Getting back to some other influences early on, the two skaters.  One of these skaters, as he grew older, admitted he was in it for the money, from the get go, claimed that anyone who said otherwise was a liar.  Of course, this is a clear justification of his own actions, which at the age when he admitted this, could have been influenced by those raising him.  Other than that, it is still a justification, claiming everyone else would act the same as you, so you can sleep at night without mulling over the idea that you’re exploiting/playing skateboarding for a payout.

The other skater, claimed he was only making the choices he was to take care of himself and ensure a decent future for himself.  That seems like a decent argument, especially for the state of skateboarding at the time, where careers ended at 20-24 years old and a knee injury ended your career and stopped the checks from coming(think Ben Schroeder, who said, “Think if Antihero/Vans dropped Cardiel after his injury, that’s what happened to me.”  It was happening to a lot of people, all with their own versions).  However, this argument is quickly thrown out the window when you look at how this skateboarder chose to live and continues to live, e.g. – if you are only trying to ensure a little financial security for the future to come, why are you buying cars that have a cost which could cover your living expenses for years, even close to a decade to come, if this is only about financial security?

We can’t be so harsh on the professionals and insiders, as outsiders from that, we are the true community as much as they are, and together we make everything skateboarding is.  We are skateboarding as much as the ones capable of pushing the limits who we fiend for footage over.  We can only understand our place, to support what we love and care about, to promote companies that invest in humans who aren’t us, or the companies themselves, to give these individuals every opportunity to push what’s capable on our boards even farther or with perfection or their own personal touch that means more than any skill.  We want to support skateboarding, to be paid to devote the time we do towards skateboarding, it’s what we should all desire for each other, as much as, if not more than we want for ourselves.

And this is where the argument gets distorted, where the loophole lies, where the initial start of war was made.

Here we had a company, that sponsored these gnarly underground and hardcore skaters, I don’t know what the pay was in the beginning for the riders.  But no one can deny, when Nike SB was created, almost all of us tried a pair or two, were drawn to a pair or two, and we justified these purchases through the riders who were backing them, we drew conclusions and made assumptions, based off advertising, who and what this was going to be.  It seemed so legit.  Build a team from the underground, give us what we all want, more of those we never see but pine for, while developing product.  They were very smart, the limited editions and collaborations, the team choice, colorways, they did their research, they had the money for the best.  Converse caught a second wind, Adidas did as well, same business approach.  Same team building.  All these things that skateboarding wasn’t, and that action sports is.

They began by offering the sweet life to the underground royalty, those making just enough to be coerced into getting what the higher paid team riders received, maybe more at the moment, fellow team riders feeling relief and giving support that this core skater, who deserves so much more than they’re getting, has this opportunity, and possibly for some chance to do something possibly legitimate, or at least get a little cash before the idea burned out.

And, who didn’t skate converse just like a pair of shelltop Adidas, despite not being skate shoes.  I even had a friend who skated in the Adidas model, Samba, in the nineties.  Muska throwing down in a pair of Jordan’s.  That’s different, that’s choice, that’s style, not a gimmick, not evidence of legitimacy, and not long lived, everyone always returned to the core brands.

Things became weird at first, there could be a skater who rode for an energy drink to make a living wage, so that they could ride for legit board and shoe sponsors, sort of a moral compromise to feeling okay about seeing the carefree budget-free lives of the handfuls or few around them.  And that was okay, it became understandable, especially once you get into the politics and realistic state of our nation’s inequality and tax laws, get paid by this dude to ride for the most core brands who need representation more than ever.

Arguments don’t matter, results do.  And here is the result.  What these companies seemed to start as, was nothing but a lie, a pupa stage to launch from.  The rumors of the weird bubble tests for prospective riders and corporate meetings of which core shoe company to take down next, the contract obligations these people who ride skateboards will put up with, the exploitation of skateboarding to make money, set that aside.

You still have the situation where two to three companies have teams so large the riders can’t even realistically have a full and shared part in a video.  I get shoe teams can be twelve or fifteen strong, a shared part or two in a video is understandable.  But it’s beyond that.  And here’s how it happens.

Slowly you offer money too good to resist to the right people, then others will take a handful of thousands of more dollars a year than they do with the core company, add to that the minimum buys that these companies require shops to buy…

…Let’s dwell on that for a minute.  You have a company saying, you have to buy at least ten grand worth of product, suddenly this small shop is full of Nike product, some they can’t sell, some they sell out of.  Then the consumer wants more of what they sold out of, so they make another minimum purchase for the quick income, before they know it, they’re shop is more Nike than anything, even if it isn’t the Nike product the consumer wants.  Nike is still everywhere, and there is less money for the core companies, those orders become smaller, the riders get pay cuts, some can’t afford to still ride for the company or the company goes under, who is left to offer them money to cover bills, skateboarding is all these guys know.  Some have families, need that lost income back.  And look who is there to save them and gain their loyalty by picking them up off the ground from this other company that couldn’t survive.

For so long we’ve sat back and said, who cares, let the fools who want money make their money, we sat back thinking we’re keeping things core.  But the numbers are starting to clearly work against skateboarding.  We’re losing so much quality and so much of what skateboarding is, the right moves are being made, but so many more need to realize, it’s up to us, it’s getting to the point where the industry riders don’t have a choice unless they want a part-time job, shops can only offer a model or two of Lakai, Emerica, Etnies are hard to come by, Es, Vox, Osiris, these companies are a myth to many local skate shops, save a pair or two.  Even Vans and DC can be spread real thin at the core shops.

We need skateboarding to stay within skateboarding, it is a weird bubble that can’t exist within society, yet here it is, in ads, television, movies(not film), where it all exists in cages, these reservations, skate plazas and parks, within these confined and controlled areas where we can be watched like zoo exhibits and be gawked at, we are allowed to exist.  The mainstream obsession blows out our street spots, degrades and destroys, chains us up and kills the nature of skateboarding.

Skateboarding belongs to skateboarders.


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