The Big Takeover – Corporate involvement pervades skateboarding.

Corporations make easy targets. They are protected as individuals by the Constitution, which means they enjoy the same rights as you or I-they just enjoy them with greater wealth. So it’s no wonder that corporations tend to get hated on, especially in an arena as antiestablishment as skateboarding.

However, corporations don’t always stand as revered figures in the skateboard industry-and no one really expects them to have an influence on skateboarding anyway. But while they’re here, some companies are attempting to wise up and understand that this vast market of targeted youth is going to want something in return. In some ways, they still have a lot to learn.

One of these companies is Boost Mobile, a division of Nextel Corporation, a company Boost Brand Manager Dave Sypniewski says is more commonly associated with suits, ties, and a general boardroom-meeting atmosphere. Hardly a place to find skateboarding. But Boost manages to pull it off, making no excuses about why they associate themselves with skateboarding: “We’re pretty realistic that we’re a mobile-phone company,” Sypniewski says. “To sell phones, we’re using athletes’ names and likenesses to build our brand and help make the connection (to the youth market).”

Sypniewski continues, “We target the youth. We don’t go after anyone over the age 25, so part of translating that message is sponsorship of skaters and also doing (sponsoring) contests.”

The Boost Mobile contest, cosponsored by Thrasher magazine, was held in Las Vegas in June of this year. Size-wise it was slated to be on par with other huge events like the Vans Triple Crown, yet unique because it’s cosponsored by Thrasher magazine. So Boost is doing something right if purists like Thrasher are willing to partner up, and that’s something the company is trying to take the lead on. Sypniewski says, “As someone outside the skateboard industry, we’ve tried to be more responsible than any other traditional corporation. If you look at (our) advertising and what we ask of our skaters, we’re using (them) to promote our brand, but at the same time we’re not belittling or devaluing them in any way. We don’t feel like we’re just coming in and whoring them out. We try to give back to a degree and also understand that we’re providing a service every kid is going to eventually need or want.”

The connection between youth and skateboarding is apparent, even with seemingly disparate elements. Tony Hawk, for example, worked on Apple’s Switch ad campaign, and Eric Koston skated at an Apple store opening. Sony, Doritos, Ford, Fender guitars … the list of corporations goes on and on. It’s basic marketing strategy, and it’s a smart move for corporations to associate themselves with something as big and visual as skateboarding. And it’s good for skaters, too-who wouldn’t take a 30-gig iPod? But it can’t all just be giving away free stuff. Part of corporations getting smarter is a sense of responsibility.

Boost is hoping responsibility will breed credibility-something it already more or less has just by looking at its teamriders: Andrew Reynolds, Geoff Rowley, Rune Glifberg, Ethan Fowler … it’s an impressive list. But sometimes it’s good to have credibility to begin with, skateboarding or otherwise. Ford is a company more easily associated with pickup trucks than skateboarding, but they’ve sponsored Omar Hassan for over three years. As part of the Ranger Team, a combination of skateboarders, snowboarders, surfers, and other sports people lumped under “extreme,” they have to do little more than drive the Ford Rangers the company gives them. “Ford is actually a pretty legitimately cool, all-American car company, and that made a big part as far as the decision of whether I would do it or not,” Hassan says.

Even still, a reputable company and a free truck isn’t always enough. Ford has cosponsored the Vans Triple Crown series for three years now, and yet skateboarders, Hassan says, are aware ofwhether they’re being ken advantage of or not. For as easy as it is to give him a nice truck, the truth is corporations are using skateboarding as a billboard and getting much more back in terms of exposure and legitimacy by association. So there has to be more.

“I wanted to do it in the first place because I’ve seen Ford actually investing not only in events but also sponsorship of skateparks. That’s kind of giving back in a sense instead of just trying to take away,” Omar says. “I think it’s cool they’ve done something solid for as long as they have. It kind of legitimizes what’s going on, but it has to work for both ends.”

Legitimacy. It works both ways-it takes skaters and skateboarding to make something legitimate to the huge target youth demographic. As LEGO spokeswoman Melinda Carter says, “No matter what crowd of kids you ask, skateboarding always ranks as a cool sport.” But it also took corporations, and more importantly, their money, to legitimize skateboarding in the eyes of mainstream America, says Andy Macdonald, who rode for two years on LEGO’s Bionicle line. LEGO now sponsors Bob Burnquist and small wonder Mitchie Brusco with its new Gravity Sports line.

“The only reason why skateboarding is perceived as a professional sport (comparable) to any other professional sport is because of the money that corporate America brings into it. If it weren’t for corporations we’d be skating for thousand-dollar prize money in contests,” Macdonald says. “Corporations benefit by tapping into a market that they otherwise can’t tap into, and that’s skateboarding-the teenage, youth demographic. It’s something that’s very hard to buy. And because of that, skateboarding gets money it otherwise wouldn’t.”

Some feel that corporate involvement in skateboarding was inevitable-simply too big to ignore. Macdonald, a skateboarder with a notoriously large number of corporate sponsors, says their presence was part of that natural progression. That does not mean, he adds, that corporations can simply walk in and take whatever they want. Concerning his two-year sponsorship with LEGO, he says, “I played with LEGOs all the time when I was a kid, I loved LEGOs. But that in itself isn’t enough,” he says. “(If) they’re looking for it (the youth market) without having to give anything back, kids can see right through it. So we thought a way to give back was to sponsor CASL (California Amateur Skateboard League).”

There’s also an issue of personal criteria that (like Omar Hassan with Ford) Macdonald stresses when approached by corporate sponsors. “I’m not going to promote a cigarette or a tobacco or a beer company. That to me, would be a sellout because that’s something I don’t personally represent, a product I don’t believe in,” he says.

There are also those skaters who take a more capitalist approach. Ethan Fowler, who’s sponsored by Boost Mobile, and according to rumors, Fender guitars. (When asked about their relationship, Fowler responded, “I don’t even know if I am. All I know is that they gave me a free guitar.” Jason Ellis, however, does have a pro-model guitar for Squire, a subsidiary of Fender.) Somewhat cryptically Ethan said, “If someone offered (blues guitar player) Reverend Williams a hundred-grand to make three records, what do you think he would have done? I say the more free shit you can get, the better. If someone hands you 100 dollars, what are you going to do? Spit on him?”

When asked if corporations could become threats to skate shops and the industry, Fowler responds, “There’s never going to be a corporate threat, because they’re never going to catch on. They’ll never hold the admiration of the skateboarder.”

This notion is shared among skateboarders-they know that the boom won’t last and hold few illusions about where the corporations will stand when it’s gone. “In the end, it’s always going to go back to skateboarding companies,” Hassan says. “They’re the ones who are always going to support you. I mean, Ford’s supported me 110 percent, don’t get me wrong. But as far as skateboarding goes, my heart still lays with my board sponsors.”

As much influence as corporations may draw at this point, it’s still the true skateboarders who will determine what’s important to skateboarding, Hassan says. It’s correct that corporations are getting smarter, that companies like Boost Mobile, Ford, and LEGO among others are giving back and being responsible-and that’s great for skateboarding-but the harsh reality is that skateboarding won’t always be as popular as it is now. And to those critics who tear into corporations and say they have no place in skateboarding, an unlikely but sensible voice rises in defense.

“A lot of people say skateboarding’s not a sport, it’s an art form-it started in backyards,” Andy Macdonald says. “The thing is, that’ll never go away. As big as skateboarding gets, as much as skateboarding is on TV, as much as skaters are going to be riding for corporate sponsors, there are going to be people who don’t care who Eric Koston rides for. They care about skating a curb or a bank. It’s still in the backyards.” 110 percent, don’t get me wrong. But as far as skateboarding goes, my heart still lays with my board sponsors.”

As much influence as corporations may draw at this point, it’s still the true skateboarders who will determine what’s important to skateboarding, Hassan says. It’s correct that corporations are getting smarter, that companies like Boost Mobile, Ford, and LEGO among others are giving back and being responsible-and that’s great for skateboarding-but the harsh reality is that skateboarding won’t always be as popular as it is now. And to those critics who tear into corporations and say they have no place in skateboarding, an unlikely but sensible voice rises in defense.

“A lot of people say skateboarding’s not a sport, it’s an art form-it started in backyards,” Andy Macdonald says. “The thing is, that’ll never go away. As big as skateboarding gets, as much as skateboarding is on TV, as much as skaters are going to be riding for corporate sponsors, there are going to be people who don’t care who Eric Koston rides for. They care about skating a curb or a bank. It’s still in the backyards.”