How skating has grown up
Coming to it as an outsider, the first thing you get told is that skateboarding is changing. The cause of this flux is contestable, but its existence is agreed upon.
When you ask skaters in their 20s what they think the biggest shifts in the craft have been recently, they are likely to suggest the Internet. Nick Boserio, of Nike SB’s Australian team thinks that the web encourages people to display more of their work than is necessary, watering down the overall perception of quality in the field. “It creates pressure to come up with a bunch of shit all the time. When you had to wait for a video you would concentrate two, three, even four years of your life into three and a half minutes, now it’s like you film everything and put everything on the Internet."
“Now it seems like lots of the stuff in between is what is released. You don’t have to be constantly producing your craziest stuff. You still save that. It’s everything else that gets put out. “
This perception perhaps has something to do with nostalgia for the old modes of digesting skating, through tapes and zines. “You’d get really excited and watch it over and over again,” Boserio reminisces. However, after pondering the more disposable nature of footage now, he corrects himself. “Actually, if it’s a good part, you still love it just the same. You still watch it over and over.”
The web has certainly made skateboarding more accessible. Skating’s crannies, regardless of age or obscurity, can now be uncovered by a hungry audience with a few judicious key strokes, and that ability to discover and consume new (or old) material certainly helps broaden its appeal.
However, when you ask Lance Mountain, who has watched skateboarding unfold over several decades how he thinks it has evolved, his response has more to do with a growing audience size, and the commercial realities that go along with that, than mode of access. “There’s money in it now,” he says bluntly.
“That feeling you get on a board—that stays the same. The difference is when parents, teachers, and other kids saw it they were like ‘When are you going to grow up? When will you stop playing with that toy? You're going to be a failure, that's not going to turn into anything. You gotta get a job,’ they were scared that we were just going to be spurned from society.
“Now the majority of parents I see come up and say ‘how can my kid make it into the Little League of this?’ Because it's been proven that you can make a living out of it. It's been pioneered and developed, and now people wonder, ‘What can we get from this?’”
What Mountain is saying is not an indictment of skating’s increasing commercialism, “I wouldn't trade it for anything…To be part of something being pioneered, I mean it's still being pioneered today.” He does however note, that as skateboarding’s audience, and therefore the power of skaters as potential consumer group grows, so too does the attractiveness of trying to bring more order, and therefore a more manageable revenue stream, to the activity.
Football has FIFA, cycling has the ICU and the International Olympic Committee has it all, but so far, there's nothing that approaches that kind of authority in skate. Mountain thinks a governing body is an anathema to the spirit of skateboarding, and says that anything that limits freedom of expression and diversity within skating is harmful to skateboarding's health.
“[Skate] contest in its infancy was a way for skate companies to take their riders, who they make product with, and say ‘watch these skateboarders’ and the kids would make up their own decision. They’d say ‘I like that guy, I like that look’ it wasn't that there was a winner who takes all the endorsement money, because that narrows it down and makes it unhealthy. With basketball you can do that, there's one way to play. But there's thousands of ways to play skateboarding. The beauty of skateboarding is that the good ones don't do the same thing.”
So far, as Mountain hints, much of the money from skateboarding has come largely from skaters selling other skaters the things they need, rather than selling the idea of a winner (and his endorsement) to an audience that observes without participating. Pro-skaters have the same sort of appeal that allows musicians to sell badges and t-shirts, and their films are also consumable, but skateboarding also has the advantage, from a business point of view, of requiring the purchase of actual, material goods. There are more music and football fans than there are musicians and football players, but if you like skating, you probably skate. This has made it an attractive area both for core companies who focus on the manufacture of boards and parts, and larger sports and apparel brands, like Nike, who seek to funnel expertise learned in other areas towards the specifics of skate. As a pro-skater, standing out and winning fans can prove particularly lucrative, as it allows you to strike deals as both a sportsman and a rockstar.
An “I like that one” model of diversity has certainly worked well for Stefan Janoski, whose first pair of ‘Zoom’ shoes with Nike were an unprecedented success. It isn’t hard to see why, the kicks mix the dressed up retro-sensibility of a pair of Oxfords with soles you can actually skate in. Whether they’re enlivened, as they are next season, by bright colours, or subdued in black and bone, they’re an attractive proposition, and one that has, along with his other sponsorship deals, allowed Janoski to live a life of comfortable bohemia.
Eric Koston too, is doing well for himself, to the point where he now boasts considerable skill with a golf club. In the midst of thoroughly destroying a group of journalists on the golf course, he explained to me he likes the game “because you get to drink beer and talk shit with your buddies” – a description that makes the CEO’s sport* seem almost analogous with skating. So fond has Koston become of golf, he used the sport as the inspiration for his second pair of skate shoes with Nike, the Koston 2’s. Apparently, the way you place pressure on your feet as you swing a club encourages a certain curvature in golf saddle shoe uppers that also gives excellent ‘board feel’. Spikes have of course been replaced by soles more equipped to handle the rigors of skating. “This style is more mature, certainly,” Koston says of his latest collection. “But I think that's in line with the way skate is changing.”
While there are those that would likely wither at the thought of a guy in a suit skating home from his job as a lawyer, there’s no doubt that skating is, in a lot of ways, growing up. It’s an industry more global than cottage, involving big brands, big names and big amounts of attention. Even those that don’t indulge in skating know all about its stars from playing video games, and a lot of those boys that grew up skating are still doing it. Add to that the legions of kids picking up boards for the first time each day, and you have a pursuit that, while it is still being pioneered, is no longer a toddler. However, its peculiarities set skating apart from other sports. Teams belong to brands, not cities, and while their members bond, they don't compete together.
“Well in skateboarding's infancy it was just hippies and surfers playing on something because waves were bad. And that developed into vertical skate, which developed into something that could be done professionally. To stand out in something that didn't have any precedent, well, the greatest people rose to the occasion,” Lance Mountain says.
Now it seems skateboarding is swapping one kind of legitimacy – the mystique of the outsider – for another, perhaps more commercial, but still creative, form.
“Skateboarding is all of it,” Mountain continues. “There's a part that's sport, and that part needs to be dealt with properly, and there’s part that's art, and without one or the other, without the balance of them, it’s neither.”
*To be fair, given his founding of Fourstar Clothing under the Girl Distribution banner, Koston's business nous alone has earned him a place on the green.