A league of their own

Ryan Sheckler will be skating ledges like this in a contest setting once Street League gets rolling. Jody Morris

Whispered about for years, pro skateboarder, entrepreneur and MTV star Rob Dyrdek publicly unveiled Street League on March 24. The league aims to be an exclusive pro contest series featuring 24 of the best street skateboarders in the world.

Street League's first news release was circulated on the same day that Joe Maloof, owner of the NBA's Sacramento Kings and the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, stood in Flushing Meadows Park in New York City for the groundbreaking ceremony of his Maloof Money Cup NYC street course. Dyrdek himself was a consultant and spokesperson for the inaugural Maloof Money Cup event held in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 2008. Whether Dyrdek's unveiling was timed to match the Maloof groundbreaking in NYC or whether it was mere coincidence, a gauntlet had been thrown at the feet of current high-profile events such as Maloof Money Cup, X Games and the Dew Tour.

The timing of the announcement made a statement, but an even bigger statement was made by Street League's proclamation that skaters who signed on the dotted line were entering into exclusive contracts. Competitive exclusivity clauses may be the norm in many mainstream professional leagues, including the NBA, MLB and NFL, but nothing like this had made its way into skate competition.

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It's a history changing moment. There's been this moment in all other organized sports, and we've never done it.

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--Chris Cole

"It's a history-changing moment," says Chris Cole, an X Games gold medalist and two-time Thrasher magazine Skater of the Year. "There's been this moment in all other organized sports, and we've never done it."

Under the Street League contract, the 24 athletes involved are allowed to compete in two wild-card events this year beyond their obligations to Street League. But beginning in 2011, the athletes will compete exclusively in Street League events.

That means in years to come your favorite skaters, including Cole, Ryan Sheckler, Paul Rodriguez, Greg Lutzka and Chaz Ortiz may not be showing up at X Games, Maloof Money Cup, CPH Pro in Copenhagen, Maloof Money Cup NYC, Maloof Money Cup South Africa (slated for September 2011), Red Bull's Manny Mania, Dew Tour or any of the other big-money, big-exposure events that have raised their profile and padded their pockets in previous years.

Maloof Money Cup offers $100,000 for first place at each of its contests. X Games offered $40,000 for gold in Skateboard Street in 2009 and both of the aforementioned events are guaranteed exposure to a wide audience through their nationally televised coverage. So with the opportunity to make serious cash and raise one's profile at these existing events, why are these top-notch skaters opting out in favor of the exclusive contract and fewer events of Street League?

Apart from the exclusive participation of the top pros, Street League claims three things will set it apart from the other contests: scoring formats, course design and prize money.

Street League boasts an instant scoring system (the trademarked ISX), four obstacle areas and a format of 10 trick attempts per obstacle. However, the format and scoring described by Dyrdek for the league isn't very different from the format and scoring implemented last summer at X Games 15, in which there were also four obstacle areas, 10 attempts per area and instant scoring.

The course designs will surely be true plaza designs with ideal street obstacles but will they be so different from the plazas for the Maloof contests, the designs of which have been consulted on by skaters including Geoff Rowley, Steve Rodriguez and Dyrdek in the past? Considering the Street League plazas are being built by California Skateparks, the same company that builds the Maloof courses and X Games courses, it's hard to imagine they'll be revolutionary.

The total prize purse for the Street League tour is $1.2 million -- boasted as the largest prize pool in skateboarding competition history with first-place prizes of $150,000 at each event. For Rodriguez, the three-time X Games gold medalist and Maloof Money Cup 2008 champion, those numbers make a lot of sense. "I've been skating every season in eight to 10 contests in a two-and-a-half month span," Rodriguez says. "With [Street League], I could just do three or four contests in a two-month span and still have the potential to make even more money than all the other contests I entered."

Beyond the impressive prize purse, Street League offers another financial incentive never before presented to skaters in competition: revenue sharing. "If all goes well and it has success, all the league profits from products get circulated back to the riders," Rodriguez says. "If we're selling Street League merchandise, we all share in the revenue."

It's not clear what share of the profits from merchandise and gate get distributed to Street League athletes or in what form (contracted bonuses, appearance fees or inflating prize monies, etc.), but in an industry in which many core brands began as little more than skaters with ideas taking hold of the means of production, profit sharing seems to fit nicely with the do-it-yourself tradition.

For Cole, the time factor is even more relevant. "I just got off a hectic last year traveling from contest to contest and I was about to have a baby," Cole recalls. "So being home more felt way better than flying around every single month to another contest. ... I'd rather do fewer events that are more meaningful."

And while the exclusivity clause would seem to be a big sacrifice for the skaters, there are already some exceptions. One of Rodriguez's key sponsors, Mountain Dew, is the title sponsor of the Dew Tour contest series. Under contract with Mountain Dew, Rodriguez has to compete in the Dew Tour for the next few years. "I have my deal with Mountain Dew, with the Dew Tour, and I have to see my obligations through," Rodriguez says. "That was a big deal with Dyrdek, and we just had to stress that to him."

Sheckler has a similar deal with Dew Tour (though Mountain Dew is not his beverage sponsor). He's obligated to fulfill that preexisting five-year deal as well. "So this is my last year of Dew Tour," Sheckler says. For Sheckler and Rodriguez, their Dew Tour obligation counts as one of their two wild-card events for this season. Where will they opt for their second?

"Right now, I'm thinking I'm going to Maloof New York," Rodriguez told ESPN a few weeks ago. On Thursday, Rodriguez was seen getting an early practice session out at the Flushing, Queens venue for this weekend's Maloof Money Cup NYC. Barring a mysterious disappearance before Saturday's qualifying rounds, that means the reigning X Games Street champion will not be on hand to defend his title in Los Angeles next month.

Circe Wallace, a senior vice president at the Wasserman Media Group and Rodriguez's agent, has some concerns about exposure for the athletes she represents. "Inevitably, there are concerns about talent missing out on exposure from key media outlets," Wallace says. "But it really comes down to what the talent wants. ... For Paul to not be able to go and pursue maintaining his title at X Games is extremely challenging for me as his agent. But he really believes in what Dyrdek is doing and thinks that's the right kind of skateboarding for him and it's going to put him in the best light possible. I'm not really in a position to argue that."

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I just have faith that Rob's gonna get it done. He's very savvy but he's relentless. He's gonna find a home for it.

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--Paul Rodriguez

That gets to the heart of why Street League is so appealing to Rodriguez, Cole, Sheckler, and anyone else who signs on the dotted line of Dyrdek's contract: it's for skaters, by skaters. "The difference is how much we're all backing it. We all fully believe in it," Cole says.

Beyond the fact that Rob Dyrdek has made himself a celebrity through his successful television shows, "Rob and Big" and "Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory," he's always been a legitimate street skater. Unlike media corporations, soft drink manufacturers or entrepreneurial families, all of which got into skateboarding when it aligned with their various business interests, Dyrdek carved out a career during skating's exceptionally lean years. He persevered and became an entrepreneur while still holding it down on a board. (Though his part in the 2009 Alien Workshop video, "Mind Field," was brief, the front blunt at LA High that Dyrdek closes out with is impeccable).

Dyrdek still has a few hurdles to clear if Street League is going to succeed, the biggest of which is securing a television deal for the events so he can guarantee the same big-time exposure that events such as Dew Tour and X Games already boast.

Wallace sees television as an essential piece of the puzzle for her clients and the league as well. "I know with our key talents, we're super supportive of anything we can do to help [Dyrdek] secure TV; it's crucial to his success. It's going to work its way out one way or the other. Either he'll get TV and utilize the media and all the other ways to promote something available now or it will go away. Content is king."

While Dyrdek chose not to comment for this story, it's clear he knows that TV is crucial. Sources within ESPN have confirmed that the network has met him, and he's rumored to be speaking with other networks as well. What's not clear is how a TV deal with a network that already features street skating competitions that would be off limits to Street League skaters beginning in 2011 would affect the league's exclusivity. It's worth noting, however, that when Street League announced DC Shoes and Monster Energy as its presenting sponsors on May 21, the release contained the following:

"Beginning in 2011, the pros will compete exclusively in the Street League series and other Street League sanctioned events worldwide."

Rodriguez, for one, is not worried about Street League failing to get a TV deal: "I just have faith that Rob's gonna get it done. He's very savvy but he's relentless. He's gonna find a home for it."

What could "Street League sanctioned events" refer to? Would Dyrdek broker a deal to allow his league riders to participate in certain established events? Could X Games or the Maloof contests get absorbed into the Street League tour? Will Street League get the television rights it needs to succeed? Time will tell. What is clear is that the riders who signed on the dotted line are all in and they're confident the fans will follow. "People will support the Street League if the people they want to see are in the Street League," Cole says. "And supporting the Street League is something I believe is better for skateboarding as a whole."

When will all the other questions that linger around Street League be answered? "We just got to see how the process works and how the community reacts to the contests themselves," Ryan Sheckler says. "We're just waiting for that first one to see what happens."

Any way you slice it, you certainly can't call it business as usual and you certainly can't call it boring. And maybe that's just what skateboard contests need right now.

Additional reporting provided by Chris Nieratko.