Living in the Past- Or Not; The New Old Skateboarding

I can’t be the only one it’s occurred to that skateboarding seems to have dodged its historical cycle of disappearing and being reborn every ten years. I think that’s a good thing, though shrinking to nothing and more or less starting over had the advantage of letting everything be fresh and rediscovered.

True, sales fell from their peak by maybe a third. But a third is better than nine tenths. And sales are growing again though inevitably not at the rate of three or four years ago. And I suspect, though I can’t quite prove it, that they’d be growing even if it wasn’t for the BAM phenomena.
Somehow, skateboarding has broken through and is established and accepted in a way it never has been before. At the same time, at least for the moment, it’s still got a bit of an underground, urban edge to it.
Strangely enough, the fact that skate didn’t follow its pattern of completely cratering is both a good and, in some ways, a bad thing.  This article will expand on that (guess I better since it sounds a bit crazy to suggest that there are benefits to crashing) and look at some ways that maybe our business model has to change given that we didn’t crash. No doubt I will have thought of some before I get much further along here.
In The Beginning
The cosmologist, mathematicians and particle physicists tell us that the universe began in a “Big Bang.” Whatever that is. It started as a point particle of infinite density and temperature. Whatever that means.   It’s been expanding in all directions since then and if the string theorists can get their nine dimensional act together they may be able to unite electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces with gravity and tell us if there’s enough dark matter to ever stop the expansion and I’m sure you all understand that as well as I do.
Yikes, that sounded like something Jim Fitzpatrick would have written. I miss reading his stuff.
So anyway, in a few billion years we could have a real problem (I mean aside from the sun dying) but my point is that when you start from nothing, like skateboarding kind of has done in the past, you can create whatever you want and a lot of people won’t understand it. Or care. Or even know it’s there.
You can see why that might be kind of a good thing for a small industry. The people and companies who are the bedrock of the industry are in control.   The 800 pound gorillas don’t even know you exist or, if they do, they don’t care. Customers, retailers, and brands share certain common interests and perception. As competition emphasizes marketing, prices and margins tend to remain high.
Clubby little deal isn’t it? And it works great until people start to discover you, or somebody wants to grow.
Our Universe Expands
Skateboarding has had its Big Bang and there’s no going back. Skate parks, cheaper, quality hard goods, fashion focus, national media attention, maybe the Olympics, blah, blah, blah. You know it all. Good or bad? I don’t know, but apparently it’s irresistible. But, to continue the cosmological analogy, when Copernicus announced that apparently the earth went around the sun and wasn’t the center of everything, some people weren’t anxious to accept the new reality and the same may be true in skate,
To be honest, I’m not all that anxious to accept it either. I liked the business model where skaters controlled skating for skaters and, in the process, could make a few bucks themselves. I thought it kept the industry about the act of skating, rather than blowing it up into the echo of a fashion trend I’m afraid it might become. I don’t want skating to be just a sport.
On the other hand, I tend to be a bit of a green eye shaded kind of business guy and I’ve learned that sometimes when industries change you either have to go with the flow or go away. What does that mean?
Remember Snowboarding?
  • After a phenomenal period of growth, snowboarding consolidated down to the point where five or so large, multibrand companies sell most of the hard goods.
  • Hard good prices have fallen and continue to fall. Everybody makes good product differentiable only by marketing and most of them make some of in China, or somewhere like China, as a competitive necessity.
  • Sales of pro rider snowboards now account, I’m told, for only around five percent of total deck sales.   It use to be more.
  • Soft goods and accessories are an important- maybe the most important- source of income and potential growth for snowboard companies. Seeking opportunities for growth that hard goods won’t provide, some snowboard companies interested in moving into the much larger and more profitable fashion business. That means they are running into some heavy duty competitors with more resources and fashion industry knowledge.
  • Distribution was allowed to expand dramatically. Looking for growth, or with the rationale of building market share, brands became available at more and more locations, causing some decline in the perceived value of the snowboard product in spite of the brands’ marketing campaigns.
  • Snowboarding started as an outlaw sport, with some resort’s first action with regards to snowboarding being to ban it. In short order they embraced it and started building terrain parks all over the place.
  • Snowboard shops became multiactivity action sports shops. Hard goods were no longer as profitable as soft goods but were critical to the shops market position. Sales of apparel, shoes, and accessories to non participants interested in the lifestyle, or just in the trendy clothing, because critical to shop success.
I didn’t think I’d get seven items when I started the list. But the comparisons are compelling.   I don’t claim snow and skate are “the same.” Snowboarding is a highly seasonal, destination sport with generally older participants requiring a big cash outlay. Still the comparisons are obviously valid to some extent and we’ve been seeing those trends in skate to a greater or lesser extent.
So What?
Shit, I’m out of clever cosmological analogies. Oh well.
Most of this you already knew this stuff and probably didn’t really enjoy being reminded of it. Don’t blame you. But besides sit, suffer, and bemoan industry evolution, there are some things I think we should try and do.
Let’s agree that any brand, distributor, or retailer that starts arguing with another about how the other guy has screwed up distribution or pricing has to immediately donate $1,000 to IASC.   Elvis has left the building on this one. Cheap decks are going to keep coming in from China and retailers are going to carry blanks and shop decks if their customers want them. Every shop and brand is going to do what they perceive to be in their own best interest.
Cherish, identify and follow those customers who still buy branded decks at full (whatever that means) retail. Give them a discount they didn’t ask for because they come in so often. Be nice to their friends. Give them first shot at new products. The companies and maybe their pros should be contacting them and thanking them. Imagine the loyalty a single email might build. These kids are worth a fortune not just in what they spend but because they are the bedrock of what keeps skateboarding cool.
Go and look at your marketing budget from three years ago. How much have you cut it back and where? Were there some things you should have cut and didn’t, and some things you did cut, maybe because they were easy to cut, and wish you hadn’t? Which ones are working and how do you really know? Tough to figure out, but worth the effort. If you can’t do as much, at least make sure you’re doing the right things.
Where a brand is part of a larger company, try and insulate the brand from the larger corporate circumstances while stealing all the marketing resources and other forms of financial support you possible can. We aren’t starting from nothing anymore and inevitably the “larger corporate structure” is going to cramp your style a bit.
But what I know is that a hand full of relatively small companies have had an amazingly high level of influence and control over skateboarding. Because the people who ran those companies were skateboarders, they did good things for the industry and for their companies. As we grow, and get diluted by the 800 pound gorillas, that influence and control will be reduced to some extent.
On the one hand, no matter how much it’s fought, the cool/urban/underground factor in skate gets diluted by over exposure and mainstreaming. On the other hand, with growth and general awareness of skate, the industry acquires some strength and survivability it didn’t have before. What’s the net? I don’t know. But there’s some business opportunities in there if we don’t automatically stick to what worked before.