Rolling for Dollars


The thousands of skateboarding fans fortunate enough to be cooling inside the first union center in sweltering Philadelphia for last August’s ESPN 2001 Summer X Games were well rewarded. Among the sport’s luminaries, Bob Burnquist pulled a fakie-to-fakie heelflip 540, a remarkably technical combination. Tony Hawk pulled his signature 900 after a few scary slams, sending the crowd into a frenzy. But an impish skater named Matt Dove stole the show. Dove desperately attempted a varial 720, in which he spun two full rotations while turning his board beneath him. He slammed again and again before finally nailing the landing in dramatic fashion.

During the competition, Dove wore a white T-shirt with E-$-P-N scrawled vertically on the front in pink and black magic marker. The acronym stood for “Extreme Profits Network.”

For ESPN, the First Union Center must have felt something like the wilting temperatures outside. What few of the spectators in the stands knew was how close ESPN had come to losing the skateboarding events at those very Games.

Speaking of being well rewarded, this is the story of how skateboarders, with the help of pro football players and inspired by women golfers, have taken on a a couple of major networks and are winning.

All any reporter had to do at last summer’s X Games was ask Matt Dove about his T-shirt. A throng of media gathered around the base of the halfpipe while he stood dripping sweat, the magic marker on his shirt having run into a pink-and-black blur. A man in his early twenties shoved a copy of Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America in the reporters’ faces as if offering a visual aid during Dove’s rant: “ESPN does nothing but make money from this contest. We don’t get crap. We get $400 for last place for the Top 20 in the world. Four hundred dollars—that was my hotel bill. I want [ESPN] to listen to our demands. This stadium is filled. One dollar per person isn’t even close to what we get paid for being here.”

Only days earlier, eleventh-hour negotiations between ESPN’s attorneys and the attorney for a new professional skateboarding organization (the United Professional Skateboarders’ Association) had averted a threatened boycott by the skaters. At issue was a clause in the contract that athletes had grown accustomed to signing since the X Games began in 1995. Essentially, the athletes signed away the rights to their images and likenesses in exchange for participating in the Games. That had always chafed some skaters because sponsors of the Games then obtained the rights to their images and likenesses and used them in advertising without compensation. But in 2001’s contract, skaters saw an especially egregious stipulation.

Disney, which owns ESPN, was filming an IMAX movie on the Games. By signing the contract, the athletes would forfeit the right to any compensation. For some skaters, like top vert rider Andy Macdonald, that was enough to make their simmering discontent with ESPN finally boil over.

Macdonald is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and he had issues over appearing in a film without receiving SAG rates. “I remember getting chased around the street course in 1997 because I crossed out the ‘images and likenesses’ [portion] on the contract,” Macdonald says. “One person doesn’t have much of a voice. I could never convey to everyone that you should not sign away your name and likeness in perpetuity.”

Maybe a skateboarder’s promotional rights wouldn’t have meant much a few years ago, but marketing execs are aware of what the public still may not realize: Skateboarding is fantastically popular and potentially lucrative, and mainstream sports are actually drawing fewer participants. According to National Sporting Goods Association statistics reported last year by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal, the number of U.S. boys aged seven to 17 who participated in baseball plummeted nearly 13 percent from 1995 to 2000, from 7.9 million to 6.9 million. Football and basketball participation also fell. But the number of skateboarding boys aged seven to 17 increased nearly 130 percent, from 2.7 million to 6.2 million. And the number of girl skateboarders in that age group doubled, to a total of 1.2 million.

Hardball with network execs was also about to increase. In summer 2001 Macdonald and other like-minded skaters convinced the other skaters to stick together. A nascent players’ association that some of them had organized hired an attorney to advise them how to negotiate with ESPN.

The day before the X Games’ practice was set to begin, UPSA drafted a press release to be distributed to the major media outlets and threatened to boycott if the IMAX clause wasn’t removed.

An hour before the first practice, UPSA members convinced every skater to refuse to participate. The skaters remained outside the First Union Center while Macdonald approached X Games executive director Jack Wienert and explained the group’s beef. The media giant changed its mind. The contract would be changed, the skaters were told. Not only was it changed for the skaters, it was changed for all X Games athletes.

“I was one of the most frustrated athletes working with ESPN and [with NBC’s] Gravity Games,” Macdonald recalls. And why not? Of all sports likely to unionize, skateboarding in some ways seems to be the least likely. The individualist nature of the sport is what draws kids to it in the first place.

“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.”