Ever heard of Rodney Mullen, Kareem Campbell, or Reese Forbes? What about Jason Lee, Tony Hawk, or Bam Margera? If the last three names ring a bell it's probably from movies, MTV, or Play Station.
All of the above are pro skateboarders, heroes to millions of kids around the world. Each started out like any other little boy, ripping up the streets, infuriating neighbors, terrorizing security guards and generally breaking his parents' hearts. Who knew they'd come to fame and fortune because of the very passion that got them into trouble in the first place.
Ron Bertino is not nearly so rich and famous as Tony Hawk, but at 25 years old, he's a veteran who's put in a solid 8 years skating professionally. Bertino rides for ATM Skateboards and is sponsored by Grindking Trucks, Ironhorse Grip Tape, Dark Star Wheels, and Dr. Waterpipes. He's a street skater, which means ledges, rails, walls, and just about anywhere other than vertical ramps.
"My mom bought me my first board," Bertino said. "As soon as I could nail tricks I entered contests and got some attention. Becoming a pro skater is all about sponsors noticing what you do, which happens when other kids put the word out that your stuff is good."
If sponsors spot a talented skater, they "comp" him boards and other merchandise (give them to him for free), then stand back and watch how he develops. "An amateur needs to prove himself and not just with his skating," said Bertino. "He needs to have a good attitude and be well liked in the industry."
Sponsors build a mini-campaign around an amateur, featuring him in ads and videos, selecting him for demos or full tours. "Tours are the best. You can't beat traveling for free, getting out there, seeing the world. I've been to Europe a couple of times," Bertino said. "Although there are downsides, like bunking six to a room. That can get old, fast." And then there's the money.
According to Bertino, "turning pro does change your life as far as money is concerned. You go from having little or nothing to living large. It's a very young culture, so it's easy to get caught up partying. That can make the cash disappear as fast as it came in. I mean, kids don't think about investing, or even taxes," he said. "Sooner or later, though, they learn."
Skateboarding is the number one extreme sport of choice among male teens, which makes it deceptively influential where merchandising is concerned. In 2003, skateboarding also had the second most overall participants of any extreme sport, over 11 million. In-line skating finished first with 19 million participants. But the skateboard demographic is about far more than actual boards. The real money is in the peripheral products like shoes and clothes. "Before the shoe boom, pro skaters were totally underpaid," said Bertino.
And boom is an understatement. Just look at the skyrocketing sales of Vans, eS, and DC, all shoe companies that cater to the skate or so-called 'urban' market.
If a pro skater is really smart, he becomes a captain of this elusive 'urban' market, because there's big money to be made. Many well-known skaters have launched clothes, shoes, boards, and peripherals manufacturing companies. In turn, such companies (like World Industries, Globe, and ATM) gather together the best skaters to ride for their teams. According to one CEO of a prominent skate shoe company, "Who is better qualified than we are to cater to our own culture? We know that skateboarders favor what's under the radar, that stuff is only cool until the mainstream taps into it. If it's already out there, it's too late."
And do skaters-turned-corporate executives share the wealth with those riding for their team? "We pay our skaters well," said this CEO. "Anyone riding pro these days makes a very good living. Mid-level skaters earn $50 to $100K a year, while the really good guys make between $500K and $1 million. But believe it or not, it's rarely about the money. Basically skaters get paid to do what they would be doing anyway, which is trying to skate better than the laws of physics allow."
Reese Forbes is a top pro skater who agrees that companies run by skaters really do keep things real. "If I can help sell more shoes so the company can make enough money to pay their people properly, then I'm happy to do it. Very few people understand that what we do is extremely difficult. I mean, apart from the physical risk of tearing out your knee, or breaking your ankle, it's very trying mentally".
"Pro skating is intensely competitive," he said. "You can start to wonder if you're defined by the tricks you nail or the person you are."
Like all skaters, Bertino and Forbes have suffered their share of serious injuries, broken wrists, torn knees, and sprained ankles. But nothing so bad they'd ever consider leaving the sport. "I don't really know why I do what I do," Reese said, "but I get psyched by the challenge of something really complicated And then there's the sheer joy of landing it. That's the coolest feeling in the world." Forbes rides for Vita Shoes, Element Skateboards, Quicksilver Clothing, Destructo Trucks, and Spitfire Wheels.