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Where have all the heroes gone?

The infamous film director Sam Peckinpah knew how to do it: at the end of his movie The Wild Bunch,his heroes die a gory, blood-spraying, bone-splintering, gut-oozing death. During a test preview, people ran from their seats to vomit next to the candy counter, and religious fanatics got on the horn and gathered a posse to protest and attempt to run the movie out of town before it finished. Some people screamed at the projectionist, while others watched, spellbound.

The critics reacted likewise with reviews that spanned the reaction meter: the movie was described as both beautiful and revolting. But my point is that as the stars of the picture – the seven heroes who take on an entire Mexican army – are being ripped apart by bullets and splattered across the screen, they’re being burned into your memory. They knew how to make an exit. Pro skateboarders and their sponsors would do well to watch The Wild Bunch repeatedly until they get the message: if your heroes have to die, do it in grand fashion – die a hero’s death.

The skateboard industry in the 80s, on the other hand, did just the opposite, forcing the stars of the time (the last real batch of heroes) to fade like impotent men, clanking their walkers off to the geriatric activity center. Nature’s course is to introduce a younger and stronger generation, but the way the industry treated this new generation, ignoring the previous level of talent it took to be pro, is disgusting in its short-termed vision.

We all know skating died in the early 90s, and everybody’s belt tightened, but when the green started to creep over the horizon a few years later, a lot of the companies began to hop around in frantic glee. They strained their brains with the task of finding a tool that could scoop up as much money up as possible. The tool, of course, was the pro skater – the root personality of skateboarding. Collectively, the skateboarding industry as a whole has done a magnificent job of erasing – or at least watering down – almost everything that professional skateboarding used to stand for.

A trend started in the early 90s that continues today (although it does show signs of slowing): companies began to crank out pros like they were making rows of paper angels. The job was so thorough that to consumers, the majority of pros have as much selling power in the skateboard market as Arlo, the sideburned Rollerblader.

In the late 80s, top professionals were selling between 10,000 and 20,000 boards a month. As a skater you went to the store and bought a specific model, and your decision was swayed a little bit because of the shape and graphics, but mostly because your favorite skater rode the board. As a skater, your board choice helped define you. If you liked having fun, goofing around, and wished you could do rad inverts and light your board on fire at the Tahoe contest, you bought a Lance Mountain board. Pretty simple. If you wanted to be a sick street skater you bought a Mark Gonzales (and paint-penned your board). If you wanted to be the best vert skater in the world you bought a Tony Hawk (and copied his sticker placement). Did you want to skate smoothly and stylishly? Then you bought a Caballero, wore your Jimmy Z pants just like him, and so on.

Each pro had their own defined identity and personality, and was revered to a degree that you only dreamed you could attain – you wanted to be them to a certain extent. They could cause riots when they came to town for demos; hotels would get thrown into anarchy when filled with pros at contests. They were stars. Today, the overall strength of a pro is so weak that many older pros continue to thrive due to the previous star-quality of their name. While they cling to that, stronger, more talented pros get painted with the same watered-down whitewash used for the mass of generic skaters.

“There’s no reason for a kid to buy a pro’s board today,” Tod Swank, owner of Tum Yet says bluntly. “And what’s left for kids to buy with no pros? There aren’t any more heroes today, that’s why kids buy blank boards.” While the industry is a mess right now, Swank thinks that the small-company revolution, which began with World Industries and subsequently changed the way the skating industry operated, was a needed one that had a positive impact: “It wasn’t exactly healthy before because the Big Five companies didn’t evolve, and then Steve Rocco came in and paid pros two dollars a board.” Pros made roughly one dollar a board previously.

But every kid and their fifth-grade cousin looked at the new skater-run companies and saw how “easy” it was. They undoubtedly imagined how much fun it would be to count all that skate cash. They cooked up instant companies that needed pros and created a vicious circle: to make an instant pro, just add an infant company. As the number of companies began to mushroom out of control, the amount of pros inflated proportionally. The infrastructure of skating eroded, and today we’re reaping what we’ve sowed.

Starting from the mass of weak pros we can see the trickle effect: Contests don’t matter – it’s cool to look indifferent as you skate that street course. Videos don’t matter – most are average film-your-wife-having-a-baby caliber and lack the commitment and quality when compared to the movies of the past. There is some hope in this department; the new Birdhouse video was shot on film and used a heavy budget. But too many pros and too many companies have spread the butter too thin, and kids now rarely focus on specific riders.

Frank Messman, CEO of World Industries, thinks that there are perhaps ten pro riders in the sport who sell boards purely on the power of their name. His proof is the fact that World’s logo boards are perennial sellers, whereas a lot of their pro models bounce up and down in sales according to graphics. “We’ve had the same logo boards for years and they sell awesome,” he says. “They sell to the newcomers, and so they seem ‘new’ to them.” This sales trend is not exclusive to World; almost all the major companies experience the same selling power with logo boards.

But why are kids buying logo boards? In today’s market, the company image has taken place of the individual pro rider – the team riders’ collective personalities now funnel into the company’s image. And today you can create an image (rather than having to build one like you did in the old days) on riders’ reputations, contest stats, and personality. Because they have more control over their identity, companies find it easier to maneuver and they can aim their image at the appropriate market. Tum Yeto and World Industries are examples of companies that have blanketed the consumer with choices so that – hopefully – no matter what the demand, they’ll have something kids want, whether it’s Pooh graphics, cartoon demons, stark punk imagery, or quirky-cool street skaters. World has this down to a science. “It’s definitely a conscious thing, the way we have a brand for each age group,” Messman says. Young newcomers to the sport buy World, the next group (ages thirteen to sixteen) buy Blind, then All City, A-Team and Shaolin Wood have the older skaters covered. “Zoo York had something that we didn’t, so that’s why we got Shaolin. That attracts the fifteen to twenty year olds,” says Messman of World’s one-stop shopping capabilities. “We sell almost as many boards as the big companies did in the 80s, maybe ten or twenty percent less, but it’s close. It’s not from a single brand, though, it’s spread out across all our different ones.”

Although the industry (or some people in it) is clever enough to pinpoint demographics, how do you sell to them? How do you create the company’s image? “It’s hard and there is definitely luck involved. It’s difficult to get it right,” Messman says. “Once you lose an image, it’s difficult to rebuild the brand. It’s almost easier to kill the brand.”

The most important factor in moving product is image. In the past the professional skateboarder contributed heavily to the brand’s reputation; today the swaying power belongs to graphics. And with most companies changing their graphics every five or six months to increase sales, less association is attached to the rider and his graphics, and the pro’s identity becomes even more watered down. Once it’s watered down enough, there’s only a small step to go from logo boards to blank boards. When you get anywhere near blank boards people start jumping up and down, frothing and leaping into the whole “Who supports the industry?” debate. Messman, though, has no problems with blanks: “They haven’t taken anything from World sales. If you have a strong enough image, your product will sell.”

And you won’t get any arguments from shops. “Little kids don’t want Blind, they want World Industries and Wet Willie,” says Freddie Lwin at Wavelengths in Bakersfield, California. “The skaters who are a little older, like twelve to fifteen, want skulls – almost the opposite of cartoon graphics. And Toy Machine always sells good.” Freddie points out that older kids care about the quality of the wood, but where they get their opinions is anyone’s guess. “They want Element wood, and I’ll tell them Element and New Deal come from the same place – same wood – but they’ll wait for the Element board,” he says. This explains why a company can create brands in the first place; kids think they’re all completely different companies. Freddie also backs up the consensus that few pros sell boards based on the power of their name. “Tony Hawk boards always sell,” he says. “We always sell out of them, and I think part of that is because of how he’s presented on TV.” For most of the popular pros, their name boosts sales, but not necessarily sales of their model. “Zero sells because of Jamie Thomas, and people buy Girl because of Eric Koston,” says Freddie.

Across the country in Michigan, Modern Skate proves that the consumer trend isn’t affected by geography. Little kids still want the cartoon graphics and the older kids still want good wood – or what they think is good wood. But Modern Skate’s Scott Ray made a unique comment that goes upstream of popular thinking: that shapes matter little. “I have so many kids asking for tape measures, measuring the width and wheel base – it’s weird,” he says. “I’m always like, can’t you just look at it and stand on it and see if you like it?” He also commented that consumers don’t differentiate between a vert and street board, their decision is mostly based on graphics and shape. Some companies note that in most cases vert boards sell dramatically less. Scott also emphasizes the importance of demos to shoot up sales, but they have to be the right kind of demo. “Invisible came to town and skated good, but they didn’t really hang out, they just did the demo and left. Hanging out is important; it’s more personable. Toy Machine came and shot bottle rockets into the crowd; their personal interaction was good. We sold lots of Toy Machine boards after that.”

Scott fingers World Industries, Tum Yeto, Birdhouse, and Zoo York as consistent sellers. No surprise there – if you break down the demographics, each group is represented.

Zoo York has pulled off the most amazing coup in skateboarding in the past few years. Based in New York City, their image is just that: quintessential New York. All the dirt, grime, roughness and creativity that rolls around the city is represented by Zoo. And kids are eating that up like a Jenny Craig conventioneers at Dairy Queen. “Our graphics and imagery play a big part in our success,” says Zoo York’s Rodney Smith. “It’s New York – one of the oldest cities in the States – and it’s the center to so many things. There is definitely a New York attitude, and everybody wants to be a part of that.”

Despite their low-key style, Zoo had a very precise infrastructure from the beginning. “We had a plan to follow the corporate path, butin moving product is image. In the past the professional skateboarder contributed heavily to the brand’s reputation; today the swaying power belongs to graphics. And with most companies changing their graphics every five or six months to increase sales, less association is attached to the rider and his graphics, and the pro’s identity becomes even more watered down. Once it’s watered down enough, there’s only a small step to go from logo boards to blank boards. When you get anywhere near blank boards people start jumping up and down, frothing and leaping into the whole “Who supports the industry?” debate. Messman, though, has no problems with blanks: “They haven’t taken anything from World sales. If you have a strong enough image, your product will sell.”

And you won’t get any arguments from shops. “Little kids don’t want Blind, they want World Industries and Wet Willie,” says Freddie Lwin at Wavelengths in Bakersfield, California. “The skaters who are a little older, like twelve to fifteen, want skulls – almost the opposite of cartoon graphics. And Toy Machine always sells good.” Freddie points out that older kids care about the quality of the wood, but where they get their opinions is anyone’s guess. “They want Element wood, and I’ll tell them Element and New Deal come from the same place – same wood – but they’ll wait for the Element board,” he says. This explains why a company can create brands in the first place; kids think they’re all completely different companies. Freddie also backs up the consensus that few pros sell boards based on the power of their name. “Tony Hawk boards always sell,” he says. “We always sell out of them, and I think part of that is because of how he’s presented on TV.” For most of the popular pros, their name boosts sales, but not necessarily sales of their model. “Zero sells because of Jamie Thomas, and people buy Girl because of Eric Koston,” says Freddie.

Across the country in Michigan, Modern Skate proves that the consumer trend isn’t affected by geography. Little kids still want the cartoon graphics and the older kids still want good wood – or what they think is good wood. But Modern Skate’s Scott Ray made a unique comment that goes upstream of popular thinking: that shapes matter little. “I have so many kids asking for tape measures, measuring the width and wheel base – it’s weird,” he says. “I’m always like, can’t you just look at it and stand on it and see if you like it?” He also commented that consumers don’t differentiate between a vert and street board, their decision is mostly based on graphics and shape. Some companies note that in most cases vert boards sell dramatically less. Scott also emphasizes the importance of demos to shoot up sales, but they have to be the right kind of demo. “Invisible came to town and skated good, but they didn’t really hang out, they just did the demo and left. Hanging out is important; it’s more personable. Toy Machine came and shot bottle rockets into the crowd; their personal interaction was good. We sold lots of Toy Machine boards after that.”

Scott fingers World Industries, Tum Yeto, Birdhouse, and Zoo York as consistent sellers. No surprise there – if you break down the demographics, each group is represented.

Zoo York has pulled off the most amazing coup in skateboarding in the past few years. Based in New York City, their image is just that: quintessential New York. All the dirt, grime, roughness and creativity that rolls around the city is represented by Zoo. And kids are eating that up like a Jenny Craig conventioneers at Dairy Queen. “Our graphics and imagery play a big part in our success,” says Zoo York’s Rodney Smith. “It’s New York – one of the oldest cities in the States – and it’s the center to so many things. There is definitely a New York attitude, and everybody wants to be a part of that.”

Despite their low-key style, Zoo had a very precise infrastructure from the beginning. “We had a plan to follow the corporate path, but not give up the grassroots identity,” says Smith. “We never wanted to lose that.” They’ve done a good job, because Zoo definitely has a raw, street-level image. Their success comes from that image, and not necessarily the notoriety of their pros. In fact, Smith says that he occasionally gets flak because his riders don’t do all the up-to-date “cool” tricks. He seems to shrug off this criticism: “Our team is mostly East Coast skaters, and we have an East Coast style. We’re not against anything, that’s just the way it is.”

One of the reasons Smith seems so confident is because Zoo has a strong plan of attack for sales. “We don’t advertise the materials we use on boards or any of that stuff, we try to educate kids on having fun with skating – that’s our main goal,” he says. But he realizes that while pro names may not be the major push behind sales, they still contribute: “Now, if a pro skater isn’t doing his part, that’s a different thing.”

Zoo didn’t merely photocopy a successful company’s plan and insert their logo, they talked with shops and distributors to see what they could improve on. “A lot of shops and distributors were getting pissed with graphics changing so often,” says Smith. “We were keeping some graphics for a year, almost like in the 80s.” He also points out the importance of graphics in boosting Zoo’s image. “We’ve specifically designed graphics that represent where we’re from and our imagery,” he says. “The buildings and all of New York, everything about it, is there for us. Our graphics aren’t bad, they’re not offensive or something disgusting that’s going to sit on a shop wall for months.”

Scott Ray at Modern Skate backs this up: “I can never keep enough Zoo York in our store.”

Birdhouse is a company that’s in the process of bringing back some old-school marketing methods (popularity of pros) and mixing them with some new flavor (graphics) to build an even stronger identity than they already have. Jay Strickland, Birdhouse’s team manager, is in a unique position because he saw the company as a skater before he hopped on. “I saw Birdhouse from when I didn’t work here, and first and foremost it’s Tony Hawk’s company,” he says. “Once Jeremy Klein started doing the graphics it really took off, and now that Andrew Reynolds is starting to go big time it’s a perfect mix between our riders and our graphics, creating a strong overall image.”

But it took some trial and error, especially because they wanted to change the cute, cuddly image they had cultivated through their graphics into a harder, cleaner image. “Oh my god, I used to get so much shit from skaters for one of Andrew’s graphics, the candy cane one, that I was seriously bummed,” says Strickland. “Now it’s better – more balanced.”

Birdhouse’s graphics and talent may be balanced, but Strickland still thinks that skateboarding’s overall situation is screwed up: “Go into a shop and you’ll see a hundred boards on the wall and, kids think, ‘Who the hell is that guy?’ The whole pro thing has lost the superstars. There’s still Muska, but back when the Bones Brigade was around, it was a stronger feeling. It’s so different now.”

Birdhouse is trying to correct that. They’re pushing their riders full bore and are sinking serious bucks into a major skate film (one location had four separate film cameras set up) that not only highlights the skating, but the personality of each rider. “Skaters see Birdhouse in a broader spectrum; they don’t look at Andrew and see that his shoes match his shirt – they know Andrew because he kickflip noseslides down a rail,” says Strickland. “Same thing with Heath.” Concerning name power, Strickland notes that Tony’s last graphic (Hawk Skeleton) sold “out of control” even though it had a plainer five-color graphic compared to the usual eleven-color.

The more we talked, the more Strickland returned to the strength of his riders. “Reynolds has picked up a lot; with his TWS cover and the video coming out he’s going t

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