There is surely nothing like Asbury Park, New Jersey, anywhere in the world. It would be a superb location for a Hollywood reenactment of the war in Beirut. It could provide an invaluable lesson in the unfortunate economics of post-tourism resort towns. Once billed as the “Gem of the Jersey Shore,” Asbury Park currently serves as a storage facility for the state’s invisible people. The town is bracketed on either side by some of the most ostentatious beach homes on the Eastern Seaboard, yet its immediate backdrop is one of dilapidated fun houses, abandoned motels, broken glass, and a condom-strewn boardwalk.
But from Friday, July 31, through Sunday, August 2, it was an excellent site for the second stop on the Vans Triple Crown of Skateboarding tour, an extreme extravaganza that brought more excitement, money, and people to Asbury Park than any time since Bruce Springsteen packed in the crowds at the music venue he made famous, the Stone Pony.
It’s a logical juxtaposition–a sport as noisy and misunderstood as skateboarding set against the stillness of a beachfront ghetto. In most towns across the country, skateboarding is effectively illegal; cops routinely chase gangs of skaters from one spot to another. Where better to market a marginalized sport than in a marginalized community?
Of course, the Triple Crown was much more than a contest; it was a cultural event. Saturday’s crowd seemed to consist of skate groupies already attached to the tour, and the 100 or so spectators who actually drove out to the Pompeii of New Jersey to witness America’s “last truly exhilarating sport.” On Sunday the Vans Warped Tour descended upon the skaters and their entourage, a sort of adrenalized Lollapalooza, featuring 30 bands. The result was a Shriner’s convention for the pubescent punk set; kids gussied up in 13,000 pairs of combat boots, baggy pants, and wraparound sunglasses wandered through an impressive complex of promotional booths drinking Mountain Dew, natch, and grabbing up free trinkets plastered with various company logos. Some of the kids even stopped by to watch the skateboarding, marking a stark contrast to the previous day’s turnout, which numbered in the very low hundreds. But then, it was a weekend full of contradictions, not unlike skateboarding itself.
The Triple Crown and the Warped Tour are just two of the sorties in a Vans promotional blitz to become the premier company in the “alternative sport and lifestyle” market. Vans has signed up as cosponsors G-Shock, Mountain Dew, Rolling Stone magazine, and Hard Rock Cafe. ESPN–which produces its own annual alternative sports circus, the X-Games–is creating hour-long broadcast segments from each leg of the Triple Crown.
Skateboarding–and the culture surrounding it–has recently become big business. According to a product manager at the Manhattan-based Blades Board and Skate, skateboard sales have nearly tripled over the last three years. Vans’s revenue has doubled over the past four years. Needless to say, such a growth spurt has whet the appetites of the big guns in the sporting goods industry.
“There are companies like Nike getting involved that want a piece of that pie,” says Steve Van Doren, vice president of promotions at Vans and the son of its founder. “We want to get our hooks in it.” The fact that Vans, a David to Nike’s Goliath, has accomplished just that is a testament to the stubbornly grassroots nature of skateboarding. Vans has occupied a place in every skater’s heart since Spicoli used one of their shoes to test the potency of his pot in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Skateboarders–existing in a category shared only, perhaps, by Jesuit monks–have proven notoriously resistant to corporate co-option. According to Van Doren, this is the third time in 30 years he’s seen Nike attempt to court skateboarders. In August 1997, Steve “Birdo” Guisinger, founding owner of Consolidated Skateboards, initiated a grassroots “Don’t Do It” campaign–a play on Nike’s “Just Do It” ads–to persuade skaters not to buy Nike products.
This culture of corporate xenophobia is bred of experience. The financial livelihood of skateboarding has been determined by what skaters know as the “10-year cycle.” The sport experienced explosive booms that climaxed in the years ’67, ’77, and ’87. On the tail of each boom came devastating busts. The only companies to stick it out through the lean years were those that were either skater-owned or (like Vans) skater-dependent.
Is it any wonder that some pro skaters have declined to participate in ESPN-sponsored events? Jim Thiebaud is a former pro skater and current part-owner of Deluxe, a skateboard company that gets props from both skaters and suits. “I would much rather send our pros to a contest that’s done by skateboarders for skateboarders, that I know is going to be around when skating’s no longer on TV,” he says. But corporate involvement, per se, is fine. “If a pro wants to sign with Coke, or whatever, that’s great. It’s fine if skateboarding gets big, as long as the pros are the ones benefiting from it.”
Kevin Thatcher is skeptical. He’s the publisher of skateboarding’s de facto house organ, Thrasher magazine. He believes that ESPN will generate money that wasn’t there before, but that the money won’t go to the skateboarders. “Pros will be making big money when Buick starts sponsoring skateboarding.”
Still, some sponsored skaters are already benefiting from skating’s fourth boom. Donny Barley estimates that several pros–those in the very highest bracket, mind you–are making well into six figures. Barley, who went pro three years ago, won $3,000 for taking second place in the street skating contest at Asbury Park. Last year, he says, he grossed around $40,000. Not bad for a 25-year-old who’s doing what he loves “heart and soul.” Barley’s ambivalent. He figures that corporate involvement “pays off in some ways, and it sucks in some ways.”
One of the ways in which it sucks, almost everyone agrees, is the degree to which skateboarding is misrepresented to the public. “When they showed skateboarding at the Olympics, they had people coming out of a UFO skating with a bunch of in-liners and BMXers. And they were all wearing silver jumpsuits. I mean, whose idea of skateboarding is that?” asks Thiebaud. Not a skater’s, surely.
Skateboarders do not wear uniforms, even “really radical” silver ones. They do not have coaches; they do not play on teams and they don’t follow rules. The opportunity to escape from the restrictions of ball sports is generally why kids start skateboarding. Pat Byrne, a sunburnt 14-year-old skater from Verona, New Jersey, had never considered skating a sport. “I don’t know,” he said, his eyes still glued to the mesmerizing back-and-forth motion of the skaters on the half-pipe at Asbury Park. “I guess it’s like drawing. I mean, because you make things up.”
No one–outside of ESPN, which is quite sure it’s an “Extreme Sport”–quite knows what to call skateboarding. Mark Gonzales, the patriarch of modern-day street skating as well as a successful painter and writer, draws a blank. “It’s a lifestyle, I guess.” It may be a lifestyle that ESPN and Nike find difficult to sell; one pro says that most of the riders he knows can’t even compete unless they’re baked on blunts. And Saturday night finds a goodly portion of the pro circuit stickering the hotel hallways and chanting “titty run” on their way to the local strip joint. In the end, maybe corporate America simply won’t want skateboarding, saving skaters the choice. Which, more than likely, will be fine with most skateboarders, who were doing okay without them anyway.