On a crisp spring morning near Seattle— too hot with a jacket on, too cold without one—Matias and Ron Miguel are planning their next trick amid the towering pines on the banks of Puget Sound. The brothers—17 and 18 years old, respectively—are eyeing the brand-new skatepark built on the land they call home, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation. Technically, it opens tomorrow, but the duo have appointed themselves the unofficial protectors—and test riders—of the skatepark behind the fence.
It’s a thing of beauty, with fresh, still-slick concrete spray-painted with the art and slogans of the S’Klallam tribe. It hits the sweet spot between being adventurous enough for experienced skaters and not too intimidating for first-timers. But most importantly, it’s new. “There’s a skatepark not too far from here, and the ledges there don’t even have coping,” Matias says, describing the black protective pieces on the rims of all the skate park features to ease grinding. “It’s all chunked up. And the thing I skate the most is the curb ledge—it’s just fun. I can’t skate hubbas [a stair feature] or handrails yet—that’s scary.”
Matias and Ron’s plans are interrupted by the appearance of a big black van with tinted windows that bumps down the adjacent street. Riding along outside on a skateboard, hanging on to the open passenger-side window and laughing, is a lanky, tatted-up skater who couldn’t care less about rolling alongside a two-ton vehicle that could squash him with one rash move of the steering wheel. The van makes a turn into the parking lot and the skater breaks away. He rides up to the side of the skatepark, excited and beaming. He doesn’t hesitate before he drops in, and between the tattoos, the devil-may-care attitude, and his brash agility, it’s obvious that the skater is Ryan Sheckler.
“Uh oh,” Matias says. “Now I’m going to fangirl.”
At 24, Sheckler has been a professional skater for almost half his life, a prodigy who has grown with the sport to become the world-famous face of street skateboarding. At 18 months, Sheckler took his first ride on a skateboard; by the time he was 4 years old he was sleeping every night in his helmet. He turned pro when he was 13, and even before then, sponsors were clamouring to sign him. Besides Red Bull, he includes Plan B Skateboards and Etnies—which has sponsored him for more than 15 years— as long-term business partners.
Sheckler epitomizes the current state of affairs in skateboarding: Not only does a professional skateboarder have to be one hell of an athlete, but now, thanks to the omnipresence of social media, he has to know how to market himself with the same kind of force and dexterity that he shows in the skatepark. This means traveling the world to shoot video parts and distributing them online, keeping up with sponsor obligations and participating in charitable events that are documented in real time on the Internet. This is on top of the actual work of competing in events ranging from the X Games to the Dew Tour to Street League. “As an amateur skater, when you’re just skating for fun, you don’t have to go on trips, you don’t have to go to autograph signings or photo shoots or go promote a company,” Sheckler says. “But the second you sign that contract, you have to agree that the whole time you’re going to give everything you have to these companies. People don’t want to put in the extra work, but you have to.”
This is a far cry from the days when skateboarding had two essential rules:
(1) Don’t be afraid to climb fences to access a prime skate spot, and
(2) Ignore all the signs that instruct people not to climb fences to access those prime skate spots.
Now, communities routinely include skateparks as a point of civic pride. The Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe’s skatepark took two years to build and was funded in conjunction with Sheckler’s charitable foundation. It’s one of many: The online registry ConcreteDisciples.com lists more than 3,000 skateparks in the U.S. And with those skateparks, predictably, come more skaters—around 6.2 million of them in the U.S. alone, according to the 2013 Skateboarding Participation Report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
But the statistic that really tells the tale behind the state of skateboarding is not the number of participants; it’s the household income level of those skaters. For those who consider themselves “casual” skaters—those who get on the deck less than 25 times a year—more than 26 percent of them report having a household income of more than $100,000 (around £60,000) a year. What this means is that there are many families with a substantial income that can be dedicated to skateboarding as a once-in-a-while hobby. What this has spawned is a big-money industry dedicated to capturing this money; according to the Retail Distribution Study commissioned by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association—which also tracks skate spending—in 2012, skatespecific retailers generated $713 million (around £424 million) in revenue.
All of this equates to tons of opportunities for pro skateboarders, with many companies looking for fresh faces to sport their gear—and they know that covering the day-to-day of athletes’ lives via social media is an easy way to reach casual fans.
The immediacy of sponsors adds pressures that the previous generation of professional skaters didn’t have. For Sheckler, there were times when one slip-up during competition would send him into a spiral of doubt. It wasn’t just a bad day—it was his livelihood at stake. “I used to really freak out if I had a bad contest, like, ‘Ugh, my sponsors are going to drop me, I’m not the same, I’m not relevant to them anymore,’ ” he recalls. “My dad really calmed me down on that one. He’s like, ‘They still love you. With everything else you do? You can have one bad contest or two bad contests, that’s not life changing. That’s not the decider.’ ”