British skaters seek independence from the U.S.

Much can be said about skateboarding in the land of the limeys. Britain hasn’t been unaffected by the international growth of skateboarding in recent years, and although it has its share of skateboard companies, Britain is a major importer of American skateboard products, generating about ten-million dollars in annual retail sales.

Skateboarding’s growth in Britain first began in the shadows of the U.S. and has generally followed the cycles of American trends. Today, estimates on the number of skateboarders in Britain range from about 60,000 frequent participants to 300,000 casual participants. Five years ago, the three-million-dollar UK skate market was supported by about 35,000 skaters total.

However, like Britain’s economy, the country’s skateboard industry has been through some tumultuous times. From the late 1980s to the mid 90s, Britain’s economy suffered under the conservatism of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. Unemployment rose to new levels, and businesses were forced to close down by the thousands. The British pound dropped in value to considerable lows, and the country entered a period of economic depression, which only noticeably began to improve around 1995.

Since then, the British economy has shifted 180 degrees, it’s booming, and the skateboard market is healthier than ever. Still, few skateparks, rough terrain, and dodgy weather are all realities for Britain’s skateboarders. But as in other countries, skaters will do what they have to in order to skate. “We have to rely on the resources outside our front door,” says Promotions Manager Ian Gunner of New Deal Skates UK, Britain’s largest distributor.“A skateboarder will skate in the pouring rain to learn how to ollie. He has no choice. Skateboarding is still not accepted everywhere, and it probably never will be. That’s because football soccer is our national sport. Skateboarding is never going to be anywhere near football in popularity. However, to be a good footballer is not ‘cool’ unless you’re someone like star midfielder David Beckham. But being a skateboarder is.”

Today, Britain has three major distributors of skateboards and related products: New Deal Skates UK, Shiner Distribution, and Faze-7, as well as a number of smaller distributors like Slam City Skates Ltd.and Projects Distribution.

Gunner at New Deal UK is enthusiastic about the current economy and the health of the skateboard market: “Skateboarders are being accepted largely, therefore more skateboards are being sold and more shops are opening. It’s nothing like in the United States, but a greater number of smaller and more independent stores are making a living.”

“We’re currently in the third cycle of skateboarding popularity in the last twenty years,” says Shiner Distribution Owner and Sales Manager Chris Allen. “The peaks have been 1976, 1988, and we are now seeing strong growth this year 2000. Growth in the skateboard cycle happens every twelve years or so, but as each cycle passes the growth and decline, curves get longer.”

Shiner Distribution was founded by Allen’s grandfather in 1936 and has been distributing skateboard products since October 1976 when they picked up Lotus and Sims. “The relationship between Britain’s distributors is generally not very good,” he says. “We speak to all of them–a couple are very friendly to your face but would stab you in the back as soon as you turned. Our attitude is why worry about arguing with fellow distributors when you should be getting on with distributing the brands you carry.”

Faze-7 Distribution was founded in 1995 by Joe Burlo, who then launched Blueprint Skateboards the following year. Blueprint has grown to become the most prominent UK-based brand and also one of the most recognized British skateboard companies in North America. The idea, says Blueprint TeaManager and pro Paul Shier, was to give British skaters a chance at sponsorship without having to travel to the U.S. to get it. With a domestic focus, the brand is also poised to make further inroads in foreign markets, including the U.S. “We want to push the standard of British skating more,” says Blueprint Pro Colin Kennedy.

Unabomber and Reaction, the other two prominent British skateboard brands, have distinguished themselves with their unique approaches to the business and also enjoy tremendous popularity and support in Britain. “The companies have their own angles: Unabomber is sort of the gnarlier side of things, Blueprint is more tech, and the Reaction side of things is more fun,” says Reaction pro and South African native Greg Finch.

Unabomber CEO Pete Hellicar founded his company on July 4, 1997 with aspirations to build something that was unique and international in scope around a team of talented and down-to-earth skaters. “I started it for no other reason than to build a company that no one else is coming close to,” he says. “We are a skateboard company–not a British company, a skateboard company. People will see progression in what we do. We’re growing up, really. We’ve got to.”

Hellicar cloaks his brand in the personalities and reputations of its teamriders. “They understand it and make it what it is,” he says. “Ali Cairns left Birdhouse and came to Unabomber because he thought it better represented him.”

Unabomber’s imagery and graphics have an appropriately handmade feel to them. “None of them started in a computer,” says Hellicar. “The people who skate for Unabomber are characters–real characters–and not just shitty marketing. Unabomber is to be taken laterally and not literally. What you see is honest, but there’s always a hidden message in there.”

New Deal Skates UK launched Reaction in August of 1997. “New Deal Skates then ran a team of about six skateboarders,” says Gunner, who was team manager at the time. “In April of that year, three of the riders left to pursue new sponsorship opportunities. Therefore we got to thinking about the future. We already had the distribution set up from dealing with U.S. skate brands, so the obvious solution was to start something new and different.”

Despite the considerable differences in their market positioning, Unabomber, Blueprint, and Reaction do have a few similarities, the most obvious being their U.S.-based manufacturing. All three also produce a similar range of hardgoods, softgoods, and accessories. “Everything your average skateboarder requires,” says Gunner.

Gunner says sales of skateboards and related products in Britain grew about 40 percent over last year, and he expects similar growth next year. He acknowledges that the sport has had a boost internationally from the popularity of the X-Games, Activision’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video games, and the Urban Games. “Skateboarders everywhere are more accepted now,” he says. “You’re not laughed at at school, and adults are accepting it.”

He also acknowledges that the continued growth depends on a sustained or growing economy. “The state of England is much healthier today than it was ten years ago,” says Gunner. “Disposable income has increased, and that income has helped kids and youth activities such as skateboarding. One factor to note is the growth of corporate sponsorships. Sprite in this city Londondoes a lot for skateboarding and contest sponsorships. It’s escalating, and it’s good.”

Gunner points out that one significant change for the UK skate market this time around is the development of domestic brands and UK-based pros. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was one brand, Flip,” he says of the brand that emigrated to the U.S. and introduced the world to the likes of Geoff Rowley and Tom Penny. “Now the kids in this city look up to the UK pros. It’s all gone beyond the Bones Brigade sort of time of the 80s.”

New Deal UK owns and distributes the Reaction brand, whose success Gunner attributes partly to the fact that New Deal UK distributes so many high-demand American brands. “Between five and ten percent of the UK market is product from UK-based companies,” he says. The rest of course, is American. “Sales overall have easily doubled over the past three to four years for the UK -based market, and for Reaction it has easily doubled.”

Despite the success of UK-based brands like Reaction, Blueprint, and Unabomber, none are actually manufactured in the UK. With the exception of a few screenprinting operations, all hardgoods are made in the U.S. Gunner says that most skaters who support the UK brands either don’t know or don’t care that the products come from American factories: “In terms of the turnaround, right now, the UK couldn’t manufacture actual hardgoods.”

An average complete skateboard built with a U.S.-branded pro board, trucks, and wheels costs approximately 160 pounds (224 dollars U.S.). The same setup with a British-label board and wheels would be about twenty pounds (28 dollars U.S.) cheaper, though Gunner suggests that New Deal UK may narrow this gap by raising the prices of its UK-branded products. He cites the London prices of bicycles, about 200 pounds (280 dollars U.S.), and Razor scooters, about 100 pounds (140 dollars U.S.), as examples of how reasonable skateboards are.

Skateboard clothing and shoes are as important in British skate shops as in other countries, but Gunner says most shops rely just as heavily on hardgoods. London shops like High Jinks and Slam City Skates, on the other hand, are located in the trendy Covent Garden area of West Central London–a haven for tourists–and therefore attract a more casual or non-skating clientele. “For the majority of shops around here London, it would be shoes and clothes, because people want to look cool,” he says. “But in the Northern parts of the country, only skateboarders would be going to the shops, so they wouldn’t be focusing on softgoods. It’s definitely more difficult for them–they’re not driving around in a Mercedes.”

Slam City Skates, a long-established London shop, was started in 1986 by Paul Sunman and the owners of Rough Trade, a West London music retailer. Although it began as a retail operation, in 1988 they formed a separate company, Slam City Skates Ltd., to handle distribution. “It’s the single most well-known retail operation in the UK, and its influence has spread worldwide,” says Sunman, who is known for his wry humor, but is nevertheless hesitant about discussing the generally abrasive relationships between Britain’s distributors. “I focus on my own business, but obviously there is a competitive element within our industry,” he says, confident that Slam City Skates Ltd. will continue to grow despite the stature of New Deal UK and other rivals. “‘Biggest’ is not necessarily the benchmark that should be used to quantify things.”

Theo Karpathios is owner and manager of Skate Of Mind, a skate shop in the London district of Covent Garden and a division of the High Jinks streetwear store that launched in December 1996. It wasn’t long after that that Karpathios opened Skate Of Mind. “There was only one way forward–to create a store that was dedicated to skateboarding alone, a hangout were kids could meet, read magazines, watch videos, and get a great selection of skate products,” he says. “Although politics and territorial issues go hand in hand with all business, I believe the skateboard business is taking on the ethics of the sport itself; distributors and retailers have one common goal–to promote skateboarding.”

Karpathios says Skate Of Mind’s sales figures have grown seven-fold in just three years: “This is a direct result of the sport becoming more accessible. Our aim is to make Skate Of Mind a major promoter for skateboarding, being involved in events, skate jams, video premie0s.”

New Deal UK owns and distributes the Reaction brand, whose success Gunner attributes partly to the fact that New Deal UK distributes so many high-demand American brands. “Between five and ten percent of the UK market is product from UK-based companies,” he says. The rest of course, is American. “Sales overall have easily doubled over the past three to four years for the UK -based market, and for Reaction it has easily doubled.”

Despite the success of UK-based brands like Reaction, Blueprint, and Unabomber, none are actually manufactured in the UK. With the exception of a few screenprinting operations, all hardgoods are made in the U.S. Gunner says that most skaters who support the UK brands either don’t know or don’t care that the products come from American factories: “In terms of the turnaround, right now, the UK couldn’t manufacture actual hardgoods.”

An average complete skateboard built with a U.S.-branded pro board, trucks, and wheels costs approximately 160 pounds (224 dollars U.S.). The same setup with a British-label board and wheels would be about twenty pounds (28 dollars U.S.) cheaper, though Gunner suggests that New Deal UK may narrow this gap by raising the prices of its UK-branded products. He cites the London prices of bicycles, about 200 pounds (280 dollars U.S.), and Razor scooters, about 100 pounds (140 dollars U.S.), as examples of how reasonable skateboards are.

Skateboard clothing and shoes are as important in British skate shops as in other countries, but Gunner says most shops rely just as heavily on hardgoods. London shops like High Jinks and Slam City Skates, on the other hand, are located in the trendy Covent Garden area of West Central London–a haven for tourists–and therefore attract a more casual or non-skating clientele. “For the majority of shops around here London, it would be shoes and clothes, because people want to look cool,” he says. “But in the Northern parts of the country, only skateboarders would be going to the shops, so they wouldn’t be focusing on softgoods. It’s definitely more difficult for them–they’re not driving around in a Mercedes.”

Slam City Skates, a long-established London shop, was started in 1986 by Paul Sunman and the owners of Rough Trade, a West London music retailer. Although it began as a retail operation, in 1988 they formed a separate company, Slam City Skates Ltd., to handle distribution. “It’s the single most well-known retail operation in the UK, and its influence has spread worldwide,” says Sunman, who is known for his wry humor, but is nevertheless hesitant about discussing the generally abrasive relationships between Britain’s distributors. “I focus on my own business, but obviously there is a competitive element within our industry,” he says, confident that Slam City Skates Ltd. will continue to grow despite the stature of New Deal UK and other rivals. “‘Biggest’ is not necessarily the benchmark that should be used to quantify things.”

Theo Karpathios is owner and manager of Skate Of Mind, a skate shop in the London district of Covent Garden and a division of the High Jinks streetwear store that launched in December 1996. It wasn’t long after that that Karpathios opened Skate Of Mind. “There was only one way forward–to create a store that was dedicated to skateboarding alone, a hangout were kids could meet, read magazines, watch videos, and get a great selection of skate products,” he says. “Although politics and territorial issues go hand in hand with all business, I believe the skateboard business is taking on the ethics of the sport itself; distributors and retailers have one common goal–to promote skateboarding.”

Karpathios says Skate Of Mind’s sales figures have grown seven-fold in just three years: “This is a direct result of the sport becoming more accessible. Our aim is to make Skate Of Mind a major promoter for skateboarding, being involved in events, skate jams, video premieres, and so forth.”

He is also enthusiastic about Britain’s domestic brands, which account for about seven percent of Skate Of Mind’s total deck sales. “As far as British labels go, Blueprint and Reaction are getting more popular in soft- and hardgoods,” he says. “Although it’s pricepoint that first attracts a skater to a British-label board, many of our regulars will not ride anything else once tested.”

Gunner believes the main challenge for U.S. companies hoping to do business in the UK is simply “getting recognized.” Magazine ads alone aren’t the answer, he warns: “Some kids nowadays in this country think that Dyrdek is the name of a shoe, and not a rider.”

The two largest skateboard magazines in the UK are Sidewalk Surfer and Document. The UK skateboard-magazine tradition was established by the now-defunct R.A.D. magazine (Read And Destroy), founded by Tim Leighton Boyce in the mid 80s. R.A.D. ceased publication in the mid 90s after the staff left to launch Sidewalk. Today, the popularity of Sidewalk and Document in Britain is enormous. “They’re buying Sidewalk and Document before TransWorld in this country,” says Gunner, adding that 411 Video Magazine is very popular.

Document is a joint creation of Ian Sansom and Percy Dean, who together launched it in early 1999 with Dean as editor. “The UK scene had been at a one-magazine, one-viewpoint checkmate for too long,” he says. “No one had the balls to offer anything new. I wouldn’t say our aim was to offer something unique, but more to offer motivation and an alternative viewpoint in a world where there was none.”

Sidewalk Surfer, the indirect descendant of R.A.D., was launched in 1995. “We decided to create a new skateboard magazine because R.A.D. had been handed around to various publishing houses that didn’t give a shit about the history of the magazine or indeed skateboarding in general,” says Editor Andy Horsely, who was among the R.A.D. staffers who left to launch Sidewalk. He believes British skaters need an alternative to American skate magazines–they need a magazine that understands their plight. “The thing with producing a magazine in Great Britain is that we as skateboarders know the trials and tribulations that the general skateboard public have to go through just to get the enjoyment out of it, so we aim at that. Obviously, the American industry plays a super huge part in Britain’s skate market–kids go wild at demos and crave all the newest videos, et cetera. So I guess we have best of both worlds.”

Dean at Document agrees that British skaters need both the American magazines as well as their domestic titles, although there is a growing sentiment that British skateboarders should support British magazines and companies. “There is no versus in my eyes,” he says. “It’s all just skateboarding. Without the American industry, the publicity it generates, and the money it makes, skateboarding on a whole would still be in the dark ages, and there wouldn’t even be a British skateboard industry. That’s not to say I’m not proud of where our companies are now and what they’re currently doing for our own skateboarding independence. I just see the whole ‘fuck the U.S.A.’ movement as counterproductive, much like biting the hand that feeds you, because like it or not, at this fragile time in our development it still does.”

“Many people are getting sorted out on British companies,” says Horsely. “Skaters who have been going off for years are now able to support themselves with equipment and a bit of hard cash. I just wish that people could afford to give guys over here the massive amounts of cash that the U.S is able to.”

Business conditions, including taxes and tariffs, are generally the same throughout the UK. Although differences in the cost of living in London proper and smalller northern towns are immense, a London shop can purchase goods for the same price as a shop in Edinburgh, Scotland or Swansea, Wales.

According to Gunner, few shops exercise the alternative of ordering directly from U.S. distributors. For now, the handful of UK-based distributors will continue attending to their respective stables of U.S. and domestic brands, and hope none of those brands bolt in search of greener pastures. There’s only so far one can go, he says, before ending up right back where it started: “The UK market is big–but it’s not that big.”

-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-

UK Facts

Population: 60 million
Skateboarders: 35,000 active, 300,000 casual
Gross Domestic Product: 1.29-trillion dollars
Skateboard-related annual retail sales: 10-million dollars
Land area: 244,820 square kilometers (94,525.5 square miles)

Slightly smaller than Oregon, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is located in Western Europe on islands between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, northwest of France.

Also known as Great Britain, the UK was the dominant industrial and maritime power of the nineteenth century, and played a leading role in developing parliamentary democracy and in advancing literature and science. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one-fourth of the earth’s surface. The first half of the twentieth century saw the UK’s strength seriously depleted in two World Wars. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous European nation. The UK currently is weighing the degree of its integration with continental Europe. A member of the European Union, it chose to remain outside of the European Monetary Union for the time being. Constitutional reform is also a significant issue in the UK. Regional assemblies with varying degrees of power opened in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 1999.

Source: Central Intelligence Agency World Fact Book 2000 (cia.gov).

, and so forth.”

He is also enthusiastic about Britain’s domestic brands, which account for about seven percent of Skate Of Mind’s total deck sales. “As far as British labels go, Blueprint and Reaction are getting more popular in soft- and hardgoods,” he says. “Although it’s pricepoint that first attracts a skater to a British-label board, many of our regulars will not ride anything else once tested.”

Gunner believes the main challenge for U.S. companies hoping to do business in the UK is simply “getting recognized.” Magazine ads alone aren’t the answer, he warns: “Some kids nowadays in this country think that Dyrdek is the name of a shoe, and not a rider.”

The two largest skateboard magazines in the UK are Sidewalk Surfer and Document. The UK skateboard-magazine tradition was established by the now-defunct R.A.D. magazine (Read And Destroy), founded by Tim Leighton Boyce in the mid 80s. R.A.D. ceased publication in the mid 90s after the staff left to launch Sidewalk. Today, the popularity of Sidewalk and Document in Britain is enormous. “They’re buying Sidewalk and Document before TransWorld in this country,” says Gunner, adding that 411 Video Magazine is very popular.

Document is a joint creation of Ian Sansom and Percy Dean, who together launched it in early 1999 with Dean as editor. “The UK scene had been at a one-magazine, one-viewpoint checkmate for too long,” he says. “No one had the balls to offer anything new. I wouldn’t say our aim was to offer something unique, but more to offer motivation and an alternative viewpoint in a world where there was none.”

Sidewalk Surfer, the indirect descendant of R.A.D., was launched in 1995. “We decided to create a new skateboard magazine because R.A.D. had been handed around to various publishing houses that didn’t give a shit about the history of the magazine or indeed skateboarding in general,” says Editor Andy Horsely, who was among the R.A.D. staffers who left to launch Sidewalk. He believes British skaters need an alternative to American skate magazines–they need a magazine that understands their plight. “The thing with producing a magazine in Great Britain is that we as skateboarders know the trials and tribulations that the general skateboard public have to go through just to get the enjoyment out of it, so we aim at that. Obviously, the American industry plays a super huge part in Britain’s skate market–kids go wild at demos and crave all the newest videos, et cetera. So I guess we have best of both worlds.”

Dean at Document agrees that British skaters need both the American magazines as well as their domestic titles, although there is a growing sentiment that British skateboarders should support British magazines and companies. “There is no versus in my eyes,” he says. “It’s all just skateboarding. Without the American industry, the publicity it generates, and the money it makes, skateboarding on a whole would still be in the dark ages, and there wouldn’t even be a British skateboard industry. That’s not to say I’m not proud of where our companies are now and what they’re currently doing for our own skateboarding independence. I just see the whole ‘fuck the U.S.A.’ movement as counterproductive, much like biting the hand that feeds you, because like it or not, at this fragile time in our development it still does.”

“Many people are getting sorted out on British companies,” says Horsely. “Skaters who have been going off for years are now able to support themselves with equipment and a bit of hard cash. I just wish that people could afford to give guys over here the massive amounts of cash that the U.S is able to.”

Business conditions, including taxes and tariffs, are generally the same throughout the UK. Although differences in the cost of living in London proper and smaller northern towns are immense, a London shop can purchase goods for the same price as a shop in Edinburgh, Scotland or Swansea, Wales.

According to Gunner, few shops exercise the alternative of ordering directly from U.S. distributors. For now, the handful of UK-based distributors will continue attending to their respective stables of U.S. and domestic brands, and hope none of those brands bolt in search of greener pastures. There’s only so far one can go, he says, before ending up right back where it started: “The UK market is big–but it’s not that big.”

-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-

UK Facts

Population: 60 million
Skateboarders: 35,000 active, 300,000 casual
Gross Domestic Product: 1.29-trillion dollars
Skateboard-related annual retail sales: 10-million dollars
Land area: 244,820 square kilometers (94,525.5 square miles)

Slightly smaller than Oregon, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is located in Western Europe on islands between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, northwest of France.

Also known as Great Britain, the UK was the dominant industrial and maritime power of the nineteenth century, and played a leading role in developing parliamentary democracy and in advancing literature and science. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one-fourth of the earth’s surface. The first half of the twentieth century saw the UK’s strength seriously depleted in two World Wars. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous European nation. The UK currently is weighing the degree of its integration with continental Europe. A member of the European Union, it chose to remain outside of the European Monetary Union for the time being. Constitutional reform is also a significant issue in the UK. Regional assemblies with varying degrees of power opened in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 1999.

Source: Central Intelligence Agency World Fact Book 2000 (cia.gov).

and smaller northern towns are immense, a London shop can purchase goods for the same price as a shop in Edinburgh, Scotland or Swansea, Wales.

According to Gunner, few shops exercise the alternative of ordering directly from U.S. distributors. For now, the handful of UK-based distributors will continue attending to their respective stables of U.S. and domestic brands, and hope none of those brands bolt in search of greener pastures. There’s only so far one can go, he says, before ending up right back where it started: “The UK market is big–but it’s not that big.”

-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-

UK Facts

Population: 60 million
Skateboarders: 35,000 active, 300,000 casual
Gross Domestic Product: 1.29-trillion dollars
Skateboard-related annual retail sales: 10-million dollars
Land area: 244,820 square kilometers (94,525.5 square miles)

Slightly smaller than Oregon, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is located in Western Europe on islands between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, northwest of France.

Also known as Great Britain, the UK was the dominant industrial and maritime power of the nineteenth century, and played a leading role in developing parliamentary democracy and in advancing literature and science. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one-fourth of the earth’s surface. The first half of the twentieth century saw the UK’s strength seriously depleted in two World Wars. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous European nation. The UK currently is weighing the degree of its integration with continental Europe. A member of the European Union, it chose to remain outside of the European Monetary Union for the time being. Constitutional reform is also a significant issue in the UK. Regional assemblies with varying degrees of power opened in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 1999.

Source: Central Intelligence Agency World Fact Book 2000 (cia.gov).