When it comes to big corporations in skateboarding, I’m more baffled than threatened. I have a lot of questions. I know skating is more popular now than ever before but does that really mean Sean Malto can effectively sell Mountain Dew to the masses with his skateboarding prowess? Does anyone who doesn’t skate really care about skateboarding in any profitable way? Does P-Rod’s Axe scent smell better if you apply it with your non dominant hand? I’m not an advertising expert or a demographer. I’m barely an expert on skateboarding. Maybe my inner skate rat just can’t comprehend that anyone really gives a shit about skateboarding.
Not too long ago I got a request to join pro skateboarder Greg Lutzka’s network on Linked In. Lutzka has gotten a lot of support from corporations outside skating’s fold. He’s had sponsors like Rockstar Energy (*), Onnit Supplements and even Harley Davidson. When a channel of communication was opened to Lutzka, I was excited. Here, finally, was a chance to get a lot of things cleared up, and get the perspective of someone who has benefited tremendously from corporate sponsorship
Just what is it that outside corporations value in the endorsement of a professional skateboarder? What do they expect from their riders? What opportunities beyond money can they provide for skaters they sponsor? Most of all who is the target when Rockstar pays a guy like Lutzka to put their sticker on his board? Is he valuable because they think he can get skaters to buy their product? Or is the marketing aim broader, along the lines of the universal demographics companies pull when they pay football stars, pop musicians, or Hollywood celebrities?
Conversely, I was also hoping to give a corporate-backed skater a neutral forum for talking about how the big money players enhance their career. This was not going to be a hit piece. The “core” skate industry is a cutthroat, highly political and cliqueish place. I could certainly imagine how having a majority of ones income coming from outside that little incestuous economic circle could be not just profitable for a skater like Lutzka, but liberating.
After I contacted him via Linked In, Lutzka agreed to an interview without any hesitation. I also prompted him on what I was about and what I wanted to talk about. We went through the process of clearing up an interview time. With Lutzka its was easier than most.
In the interim, I went about getting even more familiar with Lutzka’s career. He’s a ripper. He won Tampa Pro three times. He’s got stacks and stacks of clips. He’s a fixture of the Dew Tour, and was frequently seen on network skateboarding broadcasts and online streams. His solid skating has earned him a well deserved place in the big time.
Looking at his sponsors gave me a few surprises. Rockstar Energy was obvious. (Frankly, though, I never see skaters drinking energy drinks ever, not even the park marks who like to debate Street League results and play skate all day in the flat). Osiris. OC prefab ramps, Independent, Ricta wheels. O.K. Pretty standard roster.
Then there’s the other stuff: Kicker audio. A company that makes the audio equipment the meatheads who cruised Wabash Avenue in my hometown used to stuff in their lowered mini trucks. Of course, more than one skate rat had some kickers Macgyvered into their shitty hoopties too, but I digress. Onnit supplements is on the list, this one makes me roll my eyes. I immediately think of buffed up dudes with mullets and Zubaz spouting off terms like “leg day” and “feel the burn”, but I’m surprised when I mention this on the PBD facebook page and lots of members chime in on how much they like Onnit’s supplements. Chalk that up to my ignorance. Onnit also produced one of the best Lutzka video promos: a moody vid of Lutzka cruising the streets of Austin Texas on a lonely night. There isn't a contest ramp or skatepark obstacle to be found in the clip. It looks like something Dan Wolfe would film. Definitely not the standard square-headed corporate promo piece. It had soul. Kudos to Onnit for that one.
Harley Davidson sponsors him. That’s really intriguing… skaters have spent decades emulating biker culture in all sorts of ways, it’s either a no-brainer or a strange turnabout that Harley is hooking up a pro skater now.
At any rate, it's a broad and interesting list of endorsements, and I’m really amped to talk with Lutzka about what it really means to be backed by so many “corporate” sponsors. The plan is to get the perspective of someone who isn’t a naysayer or a “core” partisan. The day comes, and I’m ready to go.
Problems start when I get a call from Greg about 5 hours before the scheduled time. He’s on a long drive and has nothing to do. Me, I’m in the middle of cooking dinner for my family, and my wife is about to come home from her 11 hour work day,meaning I will have to run interference on my daughter to keep her form tackling my wife when she walks through the door. I’ve got some time though, so I prop up my recorder next to the saute pan and roll with it.
Lutzka is a smart and well spoken guy, so I start with a sort of abstract, philosophical question, a question that I feel is the lynchpin of the whole “corporate” conundrum.
I ask, straight out, something to the effect of this: When companies like Rockstar or Harley Davidson hire a guy like Lutzka, what is it they are paying for? Are the paying for someone who can sell to skaters? Or are they seeking to gain a more general cache for their product? An image boost that can enhance their brand to the general public? What is it that they think a great skater can do for them?
Perhaps I bungle the question, or maybe it is just too broad, but Lutzka tells me he doesn’t fully understand the question. Fair enough. It happens with my interview style sometimes. I also sense some hesitation to talk deeply about sponsors, but that may just be me reading too much in. I get specific instead. I decide to ask him about Harley Davidson.
The Harley Sponsorship, as I mentioned, fascinates me. For nearly a hundred years, Harley Davidson has been the premiere embodiment of freedom, rebellion, and a sort of palatable quasi-outlaw lifestyle in the American mass consciousness. These are the same things skate culture has aspired to represent in it’s relatively small subculture. From Jim Muir, to Jason Jessee, to Max Schaaf, so many skaters have taken their stylistic and social cues form biker culture, skateboarding can almost be seen as a sort of tag-along younger sibling. What does skating have that Harley hasn’t already monopolized in the market of consumer images.
Lutzka perks up at this question, and I can immediately tell he is very proud of his association with Harley Davidson. His answer is, essentially, that even though Harley has massive cache with the public, they are seeing a generational gap, a gap that they think skaters can help reach. In this it is interesting to hear that, unlike so many other skaters, Lutzka was not into Harleys before his sponsorship. They actually put him through cycle school and hooked him up with his first bike. I think he is more grateful for that than any checks he gets.
It’s a telling example of the sort of bizarro world inversion that is taking place in modern big-time skateboarding, a phenomenon that has older skaters feeling like they have stepped beyond the looking glass and wound up in a strange hostile world.
I also ask Lutzka if he has ever pressured to do something by one of his outside sponsors that he disagreed with or thought was inappropriate or just misguided. He brings up a crucial point in his answer.
The whole reason outside companies sponsor guys like him is to represents their products in subcultures and contexts the corporation knows nothing about. It makes no sense, Lutzka explains, for someone to hire him, and then make him do a bunch of stuff that is at odds to what he is all about. Dictating boneheaded marketing stunts or trying to impose some sort of imaging message on skateboarding flies in the face of what the smart companies are paying for when they hook up skaters. Skateboarders are not simply a commodity for these interests, but a point of access. You blow your rider’s credibility and not only is your investment wasted, but also your entry in to the market you are wooing.
What I’ve heard from my own personal connections and simple observations bear this out. Even after a decade of dominance in the skate shoe market, I know from connected friends that Nike still devotes considerable thought and capital on how to crack the most stubborn vestiges of skate culture. Despite wild financial success, Nike still knows that it is an outsider, and unless Nike can remedy that, there will always be a market they can’t reach. This is why they pay top dollar to a guy like Lance Mountain, or take the time and capital to do something like a limited edition Chuck Treece shoe. It’s why they still write Chet Childress checks even though he is now more of a wandering artist/stoke sower than a prominent pro. There’s a solid market-based reason Adidas coordinates events by contracting with The Boardr instead of putting their own extensive promotions people on it, and why they continue to keep Gonz front and center in their marketing.
That famous Tony Hawk quote about The Olympics needing skateboarding more that skateboarding needs the Olympics is not just a platitude. The Olympics need to get eyes that are not reaching. They won’t do that if they screw up what makes people love skating in the first place.
The smart money is not pumping in resources to change skateboarding, they’re spending money to be part of the club, a part that, incidentally, wants to sell you stuff. There is an insidious side to this for sure, but the bottom line is this: corporations don’t want to change skateboarding. Skateboarding as is has something they want: an inroad to new consumers.
The big corporations already have Little League, The NFL, and every other mainstream sport in their pocket, and they have saturated these markets with decades of involvement. They want to branch into our world because it is a place where they can reach the sort of consumer they won't ever get from blaring ads on Monday Night Football. Turn skateboarding into Football and you lose that inroad. It is more profitable and less expensive for a business to become a part of something than it is to exert massive resources to change it. This is why friendly takeovers are always preferred to hostile takeovers in the corporate world. Its basic marketing and economics.
If they start changing skateboarding, making it into what they already know, they are going to drive away the very people they are investing so much capital to reach in the first place. Corporate entities and their minions can be rock stupid, but most of them aren’t that stupid. Turning skateboarding into sportsball would be strangling the golden goose with a Monster-branded wallet chain.
Predictably, my interview with Lutzka gets cut short. I ask him if we can continue another time and he seems pretty agreeable, although I still sense he is a bit gun shy. Maybe he is worried about alienating sponsors or being taken out of context. More likely he is just not into what we’re talking about. After all, talking to me isn’t like broing it up with most of the highly connected skate media.
In short, a second interview never happens, but the little bit of info I did get got me thinking, and my experience following Lutzka on social media put some other issues on the table.
The real downside of the corporate invasion is not the mutation of skateboarding into something we’ll hate, it's about intrusion and attention and the penetration of our culture’s little bubble, its about the fact that watching a clip online means you are as likely to have to watch an ad for Geico as for Girl. The skate media is no longer a place of refuge from all the cheesy shit many of us turned to skateboarding to get away from in the first place. The walls have been breached.
And that really sucks.
*Greg Lutzka has parted ways with Rockstar since we talked. He has since picked up sponsorships form Zevia Soda, and Amy's Organic Foods.