Boarding is soaring

The action sport, which has had its ups and downs, seems firmly established and even has its own pro tour

June 22, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

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.

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