Skate of the Union

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One thing that the economy has no effect on? Bombing hills. onClick="window.open('http://espn.go.com/action/skateboarding/gallery?id=4830124','Popup','width=990,height=720,scrollbars=no,noresize'); return false;">Gallery¬Ľ.

I, for one, am glad to say goodbye to 2009 and pray 2010 is a better year for skateboarding. Like most every facet of our nation's economy, skateboarding took a big hit in in the past year. It may not appear that way from the outside, what with the biggest contest purses in history and big budget Nike commercials on television featuring Paul Rodriguez and Ice Cube, but trust me, things ain't pretty in Skateville. Jamie Thomas, pro skater as well as the owner of Fallen shoes, Zero, Slave & Mystery skateboards, bluntly puts it best when he says, "Skateboard sales have been sucking this year."

That's an understatement. I own three NJ Skateshop stores in New Jersey and this past Holiday season was our worst in seven years. I have friends across the country that have owned skate shops three times as long and they're saying the same thing. Barak Wiser, who is the head buyer and operations manager for the Skatepark of Tampa, sadly admits, "I know there are a lot of shops that closed up in Florida."

It's not just the little mom and pop retailers that are getting beat up either; it goes from top to bottom, from the highest earning pros to heads of companies. Skate apparel manufacturer Volcom's third quarter stock was down 18 percent. Quiksilver, owner of DC Shoes, net revenues were down 13 percent, 538.7 million dollars compared to 606.9 million dollars in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2008.

Pro skater, Greg Lutzka, explains, "The economy is definitely hurting our industry because people aren't buying as many boards and aren't spending as much money. It's hurting our board sales because, as a pro, our boards sell for 60 dollars when a kid can go buy a local shop deck for 35 dollars."

Even shops owned by pro skaters are selling more shop decks than the pro decks. Mark Brandstetter, of Nocturnal skate shop in Philadelphia, said he sells two to three of his cheaper priced Nocturnal shop decks to every one pro model deck -- that includes his partner, Kerry Getz's pro model!

Skate company heads are having to make difficult calls, too. Jim Thiebaud, owner of Deluxe Distribution gets bummed when he says, "We did three rounds of internal layoffs last year. Each one was incredibly tough. People who work at Deluxe do so because they believe in what they're doing and back the gig. Letting someone like that go sucks."

Thomas has faced similar decisions: "We've cut back in every area of the company." One of those cuts was to pro skateboarder Dan Murphy who was let go by his sponsor Mystery skateboards, after receiving a pay cut just weeks earlier.

"I don't think it's just skateboarding," Murphy says, "The economy in general isn't on top right now. Obama needs to live up to his "Change" speech and start changing things to help the economy. I received a pay cut and understood because sales are down in general. Without sales, people's salaries have to be cut."

Even an established icon like Tony Hawk is feeling the shift, "My Jeep contract got dropped at the end of 2008. But it wouldn't feel right accepting Detroit 'bailout' money, anyway."

"I've had a few of my companies give me pay cuts." Lutzka admits, "I always try to keep a positive attitude whether I'm making no money, or I'm making money skateboarding. I'm still gonna do it because that's what I love to do."

The economy's fluctuation may be a little easier to handle for a guy like Lutzka, a high profile skater who earns top dollar on the contest circuit, but for a more low-key pro like Murphy, it changes things. "I need to pay a mortgage so all I can do is rip," Murphy says. "I have to skate my a** off and hope that I can make enough money to pay my mortgage or I'm going to get foreclosed on like millions of others in America."

Thrasher's 2009 Skater of The Year, pro skater and Reign skate shop owner, Chris Cole says, "A couple of people close to me have been laid off. It sucks! I've been trying to save my money and whatever extra I have, I want to invest in stuff like Reign. I try to make sure I am not buying something just to buy it."

So how will the skate industry make it through these tough times? Thiebaud isn't overly optimistic. "Unfortunately it will cause some companies to go under. But let's be honest, the true die-hards are going to find a way to keep their s**t going. One way or the other, skaters will make it happen."

Hawk has seen every generation of success and failure the skateboard industry has ever faced, including the awfully lean years of the early '90s. He's certain, "there's not a chance of it ever getting that bad again. Skating's foundation is much stronger now. And there are way more participants." But he has no illusions, either: "I believe that we'll once again only have a handful of recognizable brands in the skate industry once this recession passes."

Thiebaud plans for the Deluxe brands to still be standing. He poetically puts his industry peers on blast: "If the rest of the dorks are smart, they will pour their energy into cool events, videos, tours, etc. and you are going to see some great, exciting skating."

Thomas keep it even more simple: "We're working harder to keep kids psyched on skateboarding."

Additional reporting in this article done by Noah Johnson.