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Boarding is soaring

The Baltimore Sun

Jason Chapman skated through the tough times.

He had first gotten on a board after watching Michael J. Fox ride behind cars in Back to the Future. And he thrilled to the counterculture that was skateboarding in the 1980s. But like most of his compatriots, he was caught off guard by an economic downturn that caused many venues to close and left even the sport's biggest stars broke and looking for work by the early 1990s.

In those bitter years, Chapman and his buddies nursed their passion by gathering at the square in Fells Point to skate all day every day. It was their only outlet.

They could hardly have imagined that 15 years later, their sport would have its own pro tour, one that would come to town with highly paid superstars and plop elaborate ramps and hundreds of tons of dirt on the parking lots around M&T; Bank Stadium.

But that's exactly the reality. The AST Dew Tour landed in Baltimore yesterday, and for the next three days thousands of young fans will watch skateboarders, motocross tricksters and BMX bike riders who mean far more to them than Miguel Tejada or Ray Lewis.

Chapman opened the Charm City Skate Park and Shops in Canton 13 years ago. Precipitously, the sport he loved began a sharp recovery. ESPN started broadcasting the X Games in 1995. A few years later, Tony Hawk's name and face appeared on some of the world's most popular video games. Shows with skating links such as Jackass and Viva La Bam sprouted on MTV. The negativity that had seeped into skating culture during the lean years ebbed away.

The sport's popularity might have dipped slightly since that boom but not nearly as much as during previous bust periods in the late 1960s, late 1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s. Skating lovers and entrepreneurs such as Chapman believe the sport is now so engrained in American culture that it will never return to the shadows.

"I don't think it can ever go back to the way it was," said Chapman, who has watched his park grow every year. "It's so much different now. We're so much more accepted."

The numbers back him up. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers' Association tracks participation in many sports and found that 11.1 million people participated in skateboarding last year, compared with 10.8 million in 2000. Of those 11.1 million, 60 percent participate frequently, the sort of core that can save a sport from dead periods.

"It seems to have reached a point where the numbers can only go up," SGMA spokesman Mike May said. "It's no longer a fad. It's here to stay."

Skate parks, many built by local governments, dot the landscape from Aberdeen to Annapolis and Columbia to Taneytown. There is a cable channel, Fuel TV, devoted entirely to skateboarding and other action sports. A place in the 2012 Olympics might be on the horizon.

The Dew Tour is another example of the mainstreaming. NBC funded the venture because it saw broad connections between skaters such as Bucky Lasek and the youth market that advertisers crave.

"All types of consumers now buy skating-related goods," said Cullen Poythress, senior skate editor at TransWorld Business magazine. "The reason is that it's often aligned with youth, vibrancy and creativity. Those things never go out of style."

Skating isn't alone on the action sports landscape. The X Games, Hawk's Boom Boom Huckjam tour and now the Dew Tour have linked it with BMX bike riding, motocross and surfing, among others.

The sport's winter cousin, snowboarding, became an Olympic event in 1998, and American Shaun White emerged as a star in Turin last year. White, with his shaggy red hair and California drawl, has been linked romantically with starlets, and he now appears in American Express commercials as a jet-setting adventurer.

In-line skating and wake boarding (like water skiing on a board) are also popular among young athletes and fans.

"The real appeal of all these sports is that you don't have to make the team," said Sal Masekela, ESPN's lead commentator for the X Games. "You just pick up the tools, and, all of a sudden, you're part of a lifestyle. You don't have to stop when school's over and there are no more games. There's this artistic, individualistic flair that really appeals to kids."

Marketers like action sports because the performers are still affordable and offer obvious connections to young consumers, said Ryan Schinman, president of Platinum Rye Entertainment, which matches large companies with celebrity endorsers.

"I think, obviously, it doesn't work for everybody, but if you're trying to market to teens, you're really hitting them in their sweet spot," Schinman said. "They're not playing as much tennis or golf. If you look to the streets, kids are riding skateboards like I used to ride my bike. This is a way to reach them."

The downside, he said, is that teens are savvy and likely to reject any pitch that doesn't seem organic.

Each sport maintains its own fan base and culture. But as the oldest other than surfing, skateboarding has lived through remarkable surges and dips in popularity.

The first boom dates back to the 1960s, when California surfers turned to skating as the sidewalk alternative to wave-riding bliss. But the market quickly glutted and the sport spent a decade out of the spotlight before the artistry of California-based riders made it cool again in the mid-1970s.

Scores of new skating venues popped up in those years, but another bust hit in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the cost of liability insurance caused many facilities to close. The sport didn't fall as far that time. A new wave of stars, led by Hawk, became heroes to 1980s teens. Hawk was so successful that he bought a huge house, outfitted with a vert ramp, as a 17-year-old. A nationwide recession hit hard, however, and skating experienced another desolate period in the early 1990s.

"When people freak out economically, the first thing that goes is the extras," Chapman said.

Established stars such as Hawk bled money, and skaters turned away from organized competitions on vertical ramps to a more improvisational, street-based style. The culture took on a nasty edge, with boards featuring images that insulted police officers and other skating brands.

Again, the bust didn't last long.

ESPN's X Games came along to spread the gospel of action sports, and, by the late 1990s, skaters were bigger than ever.

Hawk, who is retired from competition though not from exhibitions, is consistently ranked among the 10 most recognizable athletes in the world by teenagers, according to New York-based Marketing Evaluations Inc. He has appeared on The Simpsons and had a ride named after him at Six Flags. The 900-degree spin he performed at the 1999 X Games has become the sport's iconic highlight.

In 2004, Forbes called skating a $5.7 billion-a-year industry and said more kids were riding skateboards than playing Little League baseball.

"I think a lot of people thought that when Tony retired, that signaled the end of the latest boom," Masekela said. "But I think when he did the 900, it was really like the shot heard 'round the world. Now, all these younger kids are household names with endorsements that go way beyond skating gear. I mean, I see Shaun White in those American Express ads and I sit there slack-jawed at how far we've come."

Olympic officials have said that skateboarding could become part of the Summer Games in 2012. That might inspire some misgivings in a culture that has often raged against the establishment. But industry leaders say they'll support any event that might cause another kid to pick up a board.

"As the sport grew, the people who ran it grew up," Chapman said. "We're more mature, more professional."

Poythress sees dads who are still skating and who are liable to hand their kids boards - which range in cost from $75 to $150 for many established brands - instead of bats and gloves. "That's huge," he said. "That sense of passing it along between generations."

Chapman said another overlooked factor that protects skating from downturns is video. Any crew of skaters can now go out with a high-definition camera and shoot footage of its latest exploits. Those highlight reels can be passed along to Web sites and skate-oriented cable channels such as Fuel. Through video, Chapman said, the skating community is linked and vibrating as never before.

A shop such as Charm City, where 20 to 30 kids skate every day, can gain a national profile (a reference to it will appear in Hawk's latest game).

"If I was 12 years old," Masekela said. "I'd be freaking out at how amazing the landscape is for a skateboarder."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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