We Win. Now What? Ruminations on the Future of Skateboarding

The “AHAA!” moment at the ASR show came early for me. I’d just flown in from the SIA winter sports show in Vegas and literally walked in the door at ASR when I heard that the ubiquitous ASR Board Trac seminar had already started. I was fifteen minutes late. When I walked in, they were questioning ten “typical” teenagers about their buying habits and perceptions. I think it was five surfers and five skateboarders. Three or four were team riders. It was clear that being team riders skewed their points of view a bit. Nothing like getting free stuff to change your buying habits.

 
I listened for maybe thirty minutes. Then I had to turn to TransWorld Surf Biz Managing Editor Sean O’Brien and whisper, “Hey Sean, is this suppose to be just about skateboarding?”
 
Congratulations to Us
 
Skate was clearly the driver of the discussion. Surfing seemed largely a sport. Skating was somehow more. Skateboarding has, I guess, become something of an arbiter of style and fashion for a lot of kids.
 
That sounds kind of high and mighty. I wrote it pretty much from the gut and now that I think about it, it bothers me that I even had the thought. The consensus is that we’ve dodged the recession bullet with no more than a minor flesh wound (Assuming you believe it is a recession without a significant drop in consumer spending and that we’re in recovery mode. Can consumers start to spend more when they didn’t spend much less?).
 
We are skateboarding and we are immortal. Unless they cut off our head maybe? Or close all the skateparks in California. Check out the box on this page and do something.
 
What an enviable market position. What did we do to deserve it and how do we keep it- at least for a while?
 
Skate is Not Snow or Surf
 
Okay, you knew that. Perhaps I should be more specific. In snow, the top five to seven companies control maybe 85% of hard goods sales. Maybe more. Burton is first, followed, not necessarily in order, by K2, GenX, Rossignol and Salomon. Yes, I’m pretty damn sure GenX is either number two or number three by number of snowboards sold.
 
None of these companies, including Burton with its Gravis shoe brand, is one hundred per cent dependent on snowboarding for its revenues. None of these companies is under $100 million, and Salomon-Adidas is over $5 billion. They sell a significant amount of product to people who don’t participate in snowboarding. They want to grow, and are widening their distribution to do it. You can generally find their snowboard products in some places where you would have been surprised to find them a few years ago.
 
You need a mountain to snowboard (or at least a big hill). Buying all the gear you need to participate is pretty expensive (less than is use to be) and the expensive stuff is mostly special purpose. You don’t wear your snowboard boots to walk around when you’re not at the mountain, that is. You can’t do it all year around (unless you have a really big travel budget) and you are weather dependent.
 
For surfing you need an ocean. Or maybe, someday, a wave machine that generates high quality waves in an indoor facility. Let’s hope Surf Parks LLC pulls it off. You’re weather restricted (weather makes waves as I understand it). Buying what you need new probably will set you back six to eight hundred for a board, wet suit and bathing suit plus some accessories. Except for the bathing suit, its pretty much special purpose stuff.
 
It seems to me that the biggest surf companies are largely soft goods makers. Quiksilver had revenues of $615 million over its last four quarters. Vans did $353 million (I don’t know if I call Vans a surf company or not. I wonder if that’s a problem or an opportunity for them?) Surf soft goods brands are interested in pushing their distribution as well. Look, if you’re going to grow, you have to do it be expanding distribution. Once you get to a certain size, you just can’t get meaningful increases through the specialty distribution channels.
 
Meanwhile, over in our part of the world, we’re got a handful of large, multibrand skateboard companies with a primary focus on hard goods and skateboarding in general They sell some soft goods, sometimes under other brands, but it’s not their focus. The majority of f their revenue comes from selling skateboard hard goods to skaters. They have not, for the most part, expanded their distribution outside of specialty shops and smaller chains. They believe, and I think they are right, that it would kill their credibility with their core customers.
 
They aren’t giant companies. I don’t have any numbers but I’d be stunned if any of them topped $100 million in skate and skate related sales. I’ll be surprised if they are over $50 million and $20 to $30 million might be more typical. 
 
Though you can be weather constrained, you can pretty much skateboard anywhere. And, though decks wear out pretty quickly if you skate hard with existing skateboard technology, it’s a lot cheaper to buy what you need to skate then to surf or snowboard.
 
Skate shoe and softwoods companies, of course, are pushing madly into the broader distribution channels. Skate shoes are a limited market no matter how big skateboarding gets compared to casual shoes. There were 100 footwear companies exhibiting at ASR compared to around 70 six months ago.
 
So here we sit in skateboarding with a handful of hard goods companies that have been in skateboarding forever are largely run by skaters or former skaters focused, in their own best interest, on hard goods, riders, skateboarding’s vibe, and helping skateboarding progress. They are still their customers in many ways. They are still proselytizing missionaries for skateboarding.
 
That is pretty much a distant memory in snowboarding. Surf has the same problem though, in my judgment, not to the same extent as snow.
 
Shoe and soft goods companies get to sell to the general action sports, lifestyle market. Skateboard hard goods companies have to sell to skateboarders. I suspect it’s with some interest, if not envy, that the hard goods suppliers watch the shoe and clothing companies grow and diversify while they stay focused on a market that is nearly all young males.
 
ASR
 
We better hope the hard goods companies keep doing what they are doing. It is, I think, skateboarding’s unique competitive advantage over activities. ASR wasn’t able to give me the final show numbers before my deadline. What I felt was that traffic was down, things were generally a little quieter and the show was smaller. Company managers were talking about tighter budgets and “meeting reduced expectations.”
 
Given a recession, September 11th, overlap with other shows and a Super Bowl weekend, maybe that was inevitable. What troubled me more than that was my perception that the horde of new, little companies that usually come and go at ASR like the tide, weren’t anywhere to be seen. Okay, it’s probably a lousy time to be starting a business. But the presence of those companies is, to me, a barometer of just how exciting things are in skateboarding. When I don’t see them I worry. 
 
I worry that the hard goods companies that are the foundation of the industry will succumb to go big into clothing or shoes, or expand their distribution too much. I’m not quite sure that’s possible, given the start and the resources and the market positions that the shoe and soft goods companies now have. But it must be tempting.
 
It’s nice to be a big company I suppose, but it’s maybe even nicer to have a rock solid market niche that consistently earns money, keeps you close to your customer, and is a likely survivor in the event of a downturn. I hope the skateboard companies look at it that way. It would be good for all of us.
 
 
SIDEBAR
 
The law that releases California skateparks from liability expires December 31, 2002. Word is that it will be left to each skatepark manager to decide what to do and without this liability protection, a bunch seem to be saying they will close their parks. That would be a bad thing.
 
So, if you don’t want to risk having skateparks in California closed, YOU have to give California State Senator Bill Morrow, who spearheaded the original legislation, the leverage he needs to get the new law, SB 994, passed. You should tell him you appreciate what AB 1296 (the expiring law) has done by providing safe skateboarding venues for young and beginning skateboarders, and that you support SB 994, the new law.
 
You can do this at the following web site: http://republican.sen.ca.gov/web/38/feed.asp
 
Or you can write Senator Morrow at any or all of the three following addresses. Send a copy of your letter to each address for maximum impact.
 
2755 Jefferson St., #10                   State Capital Room 4048  
Carlsbad, CA 92008                       Sacramento, CA 95814
 
27126 Avenue Paseo Espapa #1621
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
 
This is important. Do it. Even if you don’t live in California but especially if you do.