Just as the lines of diverse music genres have continued to outgrow preconceived labeling, the world of non-traditional sports, generically coined “extreme games,” is experiencing its own maturity, gaining a greater acceptance for being respected athletes, serious professionals and individual artists. What was once referred to as a hobby for rebellious teenagers with a thirst for adrenaline, has developed into major corporate interests, media-conglomerates, well-organized events and high stakes earning potentials for both athletes and sponsors. Just this summer, the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas held host to the largest purse in the history of skateboarding, with the Boost Mobile Pro offering a total of $250,000 in prize money, and first place earnings of $40,000 in both Street and Vert. Yet despite the general household consensus, that half-pipe money didn’t go to Tony Hawk, but to his fellow team skater, Bucky Lasek.
And Bucky didn’t stop there. Following the competition, he went on to win two more gold medals at the X Games and another at the Gravity Games, earning him over $50,000 more. Not such a bad summer for a name relatively unknown outside the skate community. And though Hawk may not be atop the leader board, his most recent endeavor, The Boom Boom HuckJam tour assures that all athletes involved secure a well-deserved paycheck. Sure it’s a competition, but like their fellow athletes filling arenas and stadiums each season in those other sports, Hawk is seeing to it that his colleagues are paid to entertain the crowds. It may not be Kobe money, but if the past few competitions continue to grow, it just may get there.
Boob Boom HuckJam, a vaudevillian festival, booked with six weeks of tour dates in major arenas nationwide this fall, brings the best in BMX, skate, motocross and music to kids who usually only see their heroes in magazines or sparsely televised events. Like larger music festivals, the premise here is to crossover audiences and share one stage (or ramp) at a time. Of course, when it’s billed as Tony Hawk’s own event, not only are the fans going to show up, but the media and corporate sponsors are sure to follow. Now a household name, Hawk has brought the ragged sport to new levels of recognition, but it’s been a long, struggling process from skateboard to boardroom. Lasek, who rides for Hawk’s own company, Birdhouse, finds both the sport and his longtime friend’s recent success comical, but not surprising. “Well, the funny thing is, is that he’s had success since age fourteen, and everyone [in the sports world] knew it, but until TV, or the Stock Market realizes it, that’s when it becomes a big deal. Not until he started winning all these contests on TV, and had the video game come out, which made tons of money, that’s when people actually start paying attention.”
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And they are certainly paying attention now, with skating and extreme sports becoming a corporate branding tool for everything from sports drinks to cell phones. But the sport, and the individual athletes aren’t complaining, as it’s bringing in a much-needed backing that has forever supported the more mainstream sports. There is a career path skaters and riders can strive for now that was only weakly constructed in years past. “When we were growing up, we had the NSA (National Skateboard Association) that ran all these contests and stuff, and then you eventually turned pro, so basically it’s all the same,” Lasek explains, “but what’s happening now is the corporate people come in and they kind of help out setting up more events…giving an opportunity for the young kids to compete and to step it up.” Where he was a young skater with only small sponsorship money and even smaller purses to split between top finishers, today’s athletes have a multitude of salary options. “There is a career side, which comes from competing and corporate sponsors,” Lasek notes, “but then there is another side, which is footage and videos, so there are different routes to go.” But those aren’t the only paths, as Lasek and fellow top skaters are becoming adolescent idols the likes of Shaq, Jeter and all those pixilated guys in Madden Football.
As if the Boom Boom HuckJam tour, your own skateboard company and being known as the king of the half pipe weren’t enough, Tony Hawk’s popular video game, ProSkater, released by Activision, is rising up the ranks of gamer favorites. Lasek is a featured skater, and is now moving further into Jordan territory with the popular skate shoe company, Vans, in current development of his own ProModel footwear. It’s quite a bit to handle, being in a video game and having your own shoe, but it didn’t happen overnight. “Well, it’s hard for me to grasp it.” Lasek admits, “but it’s not like somebody just handed it to me, it’s something that has been built from the ground up, and it definitely went through stages,’ adding, “with the video game, Tony just kind of came to me, and asked me about it, and I was like, ‘yeah, sure, that’d be great.’ And then you just kind of put in your info and they just go off of that. With the shoes, you usually have shoe sponsors approaching you if you’re marketable, as far as like, are you known, are you pretty consistent, you’re not like a fly-by-night kind of guy, so they base it off of that…and then you pretty much make your own shoe.”
And when the kids wear the shoes, like any of us that have ever owned a pair of Jordan’s, it feels good, but you still can’t dunk from the free-throw line. Most kids can ollie, but dropping in on a twenty-foot vertical ramp takes more than good sneakers. Accessibility, an individually paced learning curve and the explosion of street culture has brought the numbers of Street skaters to an all-time high, but the numbers attempting Vert remain relatively low, furthering the mystique of the big-air masters. “Kids don’t really want to take the time to learn, and it takes a lot of time to learn vert” Lasek says, before confessing, “you have to overcome your fears and become comfortable with them. And you have to progress on top of that. There are definitely kids that are coming up on vert, but as far as comparison, I’d definitely say there’s a lot more street guys. I think at first it takes more dedication to skate vert, ‘cause you’re dealing with fear. But on street, the only time you’re really dealing with fear is when you step it up to that level, where you’re taking it to the next level. But on vert, you’re actually walking right up to it and you’re dropping in on this huge ramp. And you’re looking at it as ‘oh my god, I’m gonna die,’ but the thing is, you build up to it, you know, you start at the bottom. But a lot of kids aren’t up to go any further with it.”
Skating, surfing and snowboarding have all undergone major technological advances over the past ten years, pushing athletes and their equipment to the limits, but the rapid developments in the world of digital video has now made skaters and riders into well respected filmmakers. What was once made up of grainy home videos of trashcan wipeouts and steep hill crashes has become a multi-media haven with handheld cameras, quicktime movies and independent production houses run out of neighborhood basements. MTV’s Jackass star, Bam Margera is a prime example. “Well Bam, he’s a pretty accomplished skater, and he kind of went and did this thing on his own where he makes these videos, but now he’s producing music videos for HIM, (a European Goth-Metal band) and they’re pretty big. Their video went #1 and he’s doing their second video now.”
There may be changes all around, but as he gets ready to head out on the road with Tony and the rest of the Boom Boom crew, Bucky is just happy to be skating. And while he’s going big, bringing new tricks to the repertoire and constantly pushing the boundaries, he’s doing it the way it’s always been done, letting others experiment with the latest craze, as he humbly skates to the top of the winners platform on a board much like the one he learned on almost twenty years ago. “When it comes down to it, there are so many different skateboards, but I’ve only skated the 7 ply maples, ‘cause everything else seems to come and go, so I still ride the old school stuff. The shape varies a little bit, the wheel base varies a little bit, and sometimes the 7 ply is a little thicker or thinner, and they try to throw some different curvature in the wood, different grain runs, there’s all kinds of little things, tweaks that they’re doing, but all in all, it’s just a piece of wood.”
It may be just a piece of wood, but it’s made him quite a decent living.