Which Way Is Up?

The last time skating boomed was in the mid 80s, and back then, it was all about vert.

The most famous pros were ramp and pool dogs, to which the magazines devoted most of their coverage, and ramps peppered backyards around the world. Street skating hadn’t taken over yet, having only been officially labeled as such a year or so previously.

For the record, it was originally called street style.

Then, at the end of the decade as skating’s popularity dwindled, it looked as if some sort of extra-powerful strain of that unpopularity disease infected vert skating.

Skating as a whole was pathetically unpopular, but vert was on the verge of extinction. Some people and magazines proclaimed it was in fact already dead. Gone the way of the dinosaurs and freestyle. According to these forecasters, except for a few weirdo hillbillies who hadn’t heard the news and continued riding transitions in some backwoods, the last axle stall would have happened in the early 1990s.

Vert did recover in the mid 90s, but in a different form, a stronger and leaner one. In many ways it’s healthier than street skating. It doesn’t have the sheer number of participants that street has-not even close, barely a fraction’s worth-but regarding the pro ranks, it’s kicking street’s ass. There isn’t one sponsored vert skater I can think of who doesn’t deserve to be sponsored. However, I can think of dozens of professional street skaters who shouldn’t be.

Most would agree, the vert pros leading the pack-in innovation as well as contest leaders-make the most money. But if you aren’t on top, the income drops proportionately. Unlike street, there aren’t hundreds of “pro” skaters of questionable ability watering down the market, turning it into a massive quagmire. With vert, you can’t live off the glory days of the past like so many street skaters do. If you’re dogging it, it’ll show, and somebody else will move into your slot.

That said, there aren’t a lot of skaters to take your spot. Vert’s drop in popularity in the early 90s seriously thinned the herd, ridding the pack of the weak. And it also stunted the flow of newborns. Currently, you can count on one hand, even if you’re missing a few fingers, the young bucks of vert. There are a few potential kids, but they still have a long way to go before they’re pro caliber.

Ramp skating is a drawn-out process, one that demands you learn at least the basic fundamentals. You can pop off your curb, but it takes a lot more balls to learn to drop in on a vert ramp. In a way, that’s exactly vert’s draw, and skating owes a lot of its current popularity to that.

Inside The Idiot Box

For most people not connected to skating, vert is the gateway to our favorite activity. They see it on TV, and it looks thrilling with all that flying through the air-that crashing and flipping and spinning. If the audience lacks the expertise to spot switch or differentiate between a hard flip and a frontside kickflip-and what non-skater can?-viewing street skating is considerably less impressive. We know it’s gnarly, but the guy in Iowa with his hand buried deep in a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts wants to see people fly through the air. And so do his kids. Chances are once one of them will buy a board and start rolling around. And although he’ll spend most of his time street skating, vert played a part in getting him rolling in the first place. As screwed up as the X-Games are, they showed the world what type of skateboarding worked on the idiot box.Outside The BoxFor the most part, within core skating, we all respect each other equally. Vert skaters who can’t kickflip love Rodney Mullen, and street rats who haven’t dropped in on a fourteen-footer love Bob Burnquist. They may not do it, but every pro street skater I’ve spoken with holds vert in high regard. For example, Josh Kalis went through the effort of tracking down Tony Hawk’s phone number so he could congratulate him on landing the 900. Kalis later told me that there w nothing comparable to that trick in street skating.”Street skaters sort of think it’s (vert) crazy,” says Bucky Lasek, explaining his street peers’ reaction to some of the tricks he and other top ramp pros do.

Role-Playing

Respect is fine, but as Lance Mountain, one of the most famous vert skaters ever, points out, “You can’t eat respect.” So what’s a vert skater’s role on a board company? Most teams are stacked with street dudes, and a few sprinkle a vert pro on as a bit of seasoning. “A company’s job is to give him (a vert pro) an identity that’s tied to skateboarding,” says Mountain, owner of The Firm, Bob Burnquist’s board sponsor. Mountain doesn’t break skating into categories. “When I started skating, I just knew it as skateboarding,” he says. The big change happened in the early 90s, when skateboarding dropped in popularity. One skate magazine in particular and a few companies tried to pump up street skating and kill vert. Before then, nobody really spent much time analyzing what “type” of skater they were. “They (The industry) labeled something that was unhealthy to make it healthy,” Lance says. He cites Burnquist and Mark Gonzales as two examples of skaters who skate whatever they want. Bob can tackle some serious rails, and Mark pops the best eggplants in skating. “They’re just good skateboarders who are open-minded,” says Mountain. Steve Berra is a surreal example of how a skateboarder can be any “type” of skateboarder. When he started on the four wheels, he thought a sponsored skater would have to skate vert and street. Naturally he killed it on street, but the guy tore vert ramps up. Check out his old Blockhead video parts, Steve could have entered a pro contest at the time and placed. He’s even got good style to top it off. In the mid 90s, he landed a blunt kickflip on vert, apparently, just because he had the urge. Mountain says skaters used to rebel against other sports or activities, but today it’s different. “Now skaters rebel against different types of skating, because skating is so big.”

Asked what he feels a professional vert skater’s role on a team is compared to a street skaters, Mountain responded: “Every professional skateboarder’s role is to inspire others to skateboard.” And Bob is a perfect example of that. The other day Bam had just finished skating Bob’s ramp with him. Bam doesn’t appear to consider himself a street skater, just a guy who wanted to skate a vert ramp. But he was clearly inspired by Bob, excitedly explaining, “Bob just does the loop (Bob built one on his ramp) in his run like it was nothing.”

Light-Years Ahead

Mountain thinks that vert skating is blazing forward at such a crazed pace that some skaters canà­t keep up. “They’ve progressed so far beyond (the average skater), and the gap is too large. They (Kids) see vert skating as a whole other activity than skating.” Vert skating is bookended. Most kids who skate ramps are just learning. Then there’s the pros landing tricks people hadn’t even thought of yet. The problem is that there aren’t too many skaters in the middle. “Vert might have to take a step back, it’s too gnarly (for most kids learning),” Lasek says.

In a lot of ways vert is a fantasy activity, and the top pros are famous in a different way than top street pros. The type of exposure is what makes the difference. Most popular skaters are all over the videos and magazines, but it’s almost exclusively vert skaters who are featured in mainstream commercials, TV shows, movies, and one of the more recent popular phenomenons: video games. Activision’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater video-game series is one of the most successful video-game series ever. And it’s profoundly affected skater’s popularity in a weird and unpredictable way. Bob was in the first video game, dropped out of the next one, and came back for the last version, THPS 3. “I saw a dip in sales,” says Mountain of the period when Bob wasn’t in THPS. “It’s not a peer market, it has more to do with name recognition and image.”Lasek agrees. He knows he’s popular because of his skills on a board, but he’s aware that if he were still in Baltimore shredding the place up without the TV, video games, and mainstream coverage, his royalties from just board sales would be a fraction of his total income today. “The amount of time in the public eye-that’s what matters to sponsors,” he says.”There’re probably only three or four vert guys who sell boards,” says Mountain. Lasek agrees and thinks he has more endorsement deals and sponsors than he would if he were a street skater.Top vert pros are recognized by the mainstream while most street skaters aren’t. Lasek says skaters sometimes react to him “like a personality or famous actor just came into town.” Often a visit to the skatepark turns into more than a regular session. “It turns straight into a demo. All the kids want to see is me do the video parts.

“I skated a YMCA park with Tony (Hawk) a few weeks ago and once he padded up, the vert ramp area was instantly jammed full of skate rats. But, encouragingly, a lot of the young kids who haven’t categorized skating and just skated, dropped in the ramp with him.

“Ten-year-old kids posed backside airs, a few landing some below coping. With the amount of skateparks popping up all over the world, kids now have, for the first time in a decade, easy access to vert,” Lasek continues. “But many also have a tweaked perception of ramps, any ramp. I was skating a five-foot-tall mini ramp, and a twelve year old hopped up on the deck. His friend yelled at him, ‘Come on, skate the street course, don’t skate vert.””A lot of (the new) skaters aren’t well informed,” says Mountain. “Vert skating has to do with image and visibility.” Hence the increase in popularity when a pro skater becomes a pixilated character, instead of a similar boost coming from winning a contest. “I get recognized a lot by people who don’t skate but play the video game,” says Lasek. “It’s unbelievable.” Like a lot of vert skaters who are aware that the mainstream, and sometimes the industry, pigeonholes them, Lasek blows it off. “I’ve always street skated, just to take a break from vert. It sucks to do too much of anything.”gnition and image.”Lasek agrees. He knows he’s popular because of his skills on a board, but he’s aware that if he were still in Baltimore shredding the place up without the TV, video games, and mainstream coverage, his royalties from just board sales would be a fraction of his total income today. “The amount of time in the public eye-that’s what matters to sponsors,” he says.”There’re probably only three or four vert guys who sell boards,” says Mountain. Lasek agrees and thinks he has more endorsement deals and sponsors than he would if he were a street skater.Top vert pros are recognized by the mainstream while most street skaters aren’t. Lasek says skaters sometimes react to him “like a personality or famous actor just came into town.” Often a visit to the skatepark turns into more than a regular session. “It turns straight into a demo. All the kids want to see is me do the video parts.

“I skated a YMCA park with Tony (Hawk) a few weeks ago and once he padded up, the vert ramp area was instantly jammed full of skate rats. But, encouragingly, a lot of the young kids who haven’t categorized skating and just skated, dropped in the ramp with him.

“Ten-year-old kids posed backside airs, a few landing some below coping. With the amount of skateparks popping up all over the world, kids now have, for the first time in a decade, easy access to vert,” Lasek continues. “But many also have a tweaked perception of ramps, any ramp. I was skating a five-foot-tall mini ramp, and a twelve year old hopped up on the deck. His friend yelled at him, ‘Come on, skate the street course, don’t skate vert.””A lot of (the new) skaters aren’t well informed,” says Mountain. “Vert skating has to do with image and visibility.” Hence the increase in popularity when a pro skater becomes a pixilated character, instead of a similar boost coming from winning a contest. “I get recognized a lot by people who don’t skate but play the video game,” says Lasek. “It’s unbelievable.” Like a lot of vert skaters who are aware that the mainstream, and sometimes the industry, pigeonholes them, Lasek blows it off. “I’ve always street skated, just to take a break from vert. It sucks to do too much of anything.”