Sitting front row, there were scores of fans pleading for selfies with superstar athletes and groups of beautiful women firing off seductive glances. Logos of marquee sports sponsors like Nike, FOX Sports, and Monster saturated one's vision. While this event had many of the same trappings of a Los Angeles Lakers game, it was actually the most recent competition held by Street League Skateboarding (SLS) at USC's Galen Center.
Skateboarding isn't a new phenomena but thanks in large part to SLS, it's becoming much more lucrative. There are four events on the 2014 SLS tour, and each one pays at least $100,000 in 1st place prize money, with the total series purse exceeding $1 million. There is also an overall winner at the season's end, known as the "Super Crown" champion. Last year's winner, Chris Cole, took home an extra $200,000 and a customized Nixon watch and ring valued around $100,000. Additionally, athletes generate revenue from their sponsors.
Ironically, the SLS format is perhaps most analogous to golf's PGA tour. The locations change as do the "courses" on which the athletes compete. Like a golf course, the SLS course is different at each event and can favor the styles and skills of particular skaters. Both sports also attract top athletes from countries around the world like Brazil, France, and Puerto Rico.
While the SLS payouts aren't as sizable as the PGA's, where winning a single tournament can create an instant millionaire, the PGA tour has existed since 1916. SLS has only been around since 2010. This season, Nike became the title sponsor and FOX Sports 1 assumed media coverage from ESPN2 earlier in 2014. It's likely just a matter of time before SLS matures and can offer considerably larger purse sizes.
Beyond the prize money, SLS is increasingly cool and coveted. Skaters go big, risking life and limb to continually raise the standard of excellence. SLS has a venerable superstar in Nyjah Huston but also many worthy adversaries like Paul Rodriquez and Sean Malto. Such heightened completion has attracted sellout crowds not just in the US but also in countries like Spain and Germany during previous seasons.
While pioneers, like Tony Hawk, helped popularize skateboarding, the sport itself has come a long way to break into the mainstream and garner consistent international attention. Many buildings still boast signs that read, "No skateboarding allowed." And public benches often possess metal rivets that prevent skaters from grinding on them.
Factions of skaters who were disallowed and ostracized now lead the way for future generations. Cities boast dedicated skate parks, and skate brands donate to grow the sport. Subsequently, skating participation is on the upswing globally, as skating can be enjoyed virtually anywhere and boards are relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, indoor facilities allow kids to skate year round.
Many ancillary businesses have exploded alongside skating rise in popularity. For example, skate brand Diamond Supply Co. has attracted a cult-like following, even donned by musicians Miley Cyrus and Rick Ross. Meanwhile, video game and other premium digital content plays still offer significant upside, given the ever-changing technology landscape. Such opportunities have begun to attract the venture capital community, as SLS recently raised money from Causeway Media Partners, which is led by Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck.
Looking ahead, the greatest catalyst in the growth of skateboarding may stem from the Olympics, if the sport is added in the near future. This would provide skaters the opportunity to represent their countries on the highest international stage, while also growing their own personal brands. In support of this initiative, SLS recently partnered with the International Skateboarding Foundation.
But even if skateboarding does not become part of the Olympics, SLS appears acutely aware of its responsibility to millions of young skaters across the world with hopes of one day competing professionally. SLS has taken action by hosting the first ever Pro Open, giving skaters the opportunity to compete against the touring pros.
"Skateboarding is a truly global market. For our team at SLS, it's not just about having a successful company; it's about expanding the entire market and driving participation. Long-term, we're focused on building infrastructure for future skaters and skate businesses," said SLS President, Brian Atlas.
Only time will tell if SLS will one day challenge the PGA tour and other professional leagues for ratings and purse sizes, but the growing economics and infrastructure equate to a strong foundation for the skating profession. More than ever, future generations of skaters are incentivized to one day "go pro."
Follow Kai Sato on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@KaiDaywalker