Rolling for Dollars

How a Bunch of Independent Skateboarders Unionized and Won

"The reason why we're skateboarders is we don't want to be organized," Macdonald said. "We don't like the structure of team sports."

With the advent of the X Games, though, skaters realized there was a bundle of money to be made. They also noted that they were making only a small proportion of it. In order to control their own destiny, they would have to find a way to speak with one voice.

Intimations of an organization of professional skateboarders had been whispered ever since the X Games first appeared (it was known as the Extreme Games then). In Tony Hawk's autobiography, Hawk, Occupation: Skateboarder, published in 2000, he focused on the subject in the final chapter. "One thing I think skaters need now more than ever is a group or union of some sort," Hawk and a co-author wrote. "You may think it's great to win $10,000 at a contest, and you're right, but only one skater bags that, and a lot of the time the television networks are raking in millions of dollars."

The same year the book appeared, a core group of skaters began meeting to discuss how they could get organized. There were stops and starts, but the seeds had been sown.

The skaters found an ally in Ellen Zavian, a D.C.-based attorney who has worked for the NFL Players Association and the U.S. Women's Soccer Team. According to Macdonald, Zavian was brought aboard to negotiate the IMAX clause with Disney. She quickly proved her value and was soon hired as UPSA's executive director.

Since last summer's X Games, the skateboarders' union has been emboldened. After all, a group of scabby-shinned skaters had stared down ESPN. Soon after, NBC contacted UPSA about its action sports event, the Gravity Games. NBC and the UPSA hammered out an agreement before those September contests.

Compared to negotiations with major TV networks, UPSA's other goals seem banal. Macdonald recently received presentations from the NFLPA on health insurance, athlete services, and retirement plans. Just imagine trying to secure health insurance as an individual when your job is to throw yourself off a dozen stairs onto a railing or 15 feet into the air above a halfpipe.

The NFLPA's executive director, Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders, encouraged Macdonald. "It was great to meet Gene Upshaw," he says. "He was so supportive. He said, 'We were right where you guys were, 35 years ago.' "

Another major goal, according to Zavian, is to seek out mainstream sponsorship. "There's a marketing arm of this organization to group-license images," Zavian says. "It's a group as a whole, and we would license the athletes as a group."

For example, if a sports card company wants to make cards of skateboarders, it can work out a deal with UPSA for the license for all of its skaters.

Zavian and Macdonald compare their union with women golfers. The LPGA holds its own events and its athletes control its board. That's what UPSA aspires to. Who knew female golfers and pro skaters had anything in common?

"It's fairly simple," Macdonald explains. "We're about getting our fair share."

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