Tracing its origins back to 1960s California, skateboarding represents both a popular “lifestyle sport,” and an irreverent subculture that exists in a space between mainstream notoriety and obscurity. Highlighting its progression into the “mainstream,” the International Olympic Committee included skateboarding events for the first time in the delayed 2020 Summer Games. Today, people of all class backgrounds, age ranges, genders, and racial identities enjoy rolling around and performing tricks, such as kickflips, 5-0 grinds, and melon grabs, on nearly any architectural feature that is accessible, including sidewalks, streets, stairs, concrete ledges, rooftops, warehouses, and parking lots.
Further demonstrating the growth of skateboarding, a $2 billion industry supports the lifestyle sport, producing apparel, equipment, and media. Skateboard companies from Alien Workshop to Zero Skateboards sponsor talented riders at the professional and amateur level. Acting as ambassadors for their brands, these riders comprise a promotional “team.” They wear clothing emblazoned with logos, appear in advertisements, try to gain exposure, and compile clips for skate videos. In many cases, skateboard companies release videos of their riders performing impressive tricks as a form of advertising. Existing alongside these actors is an ecosystem of legacy and digital media that likewise promotes companies and their riders, such as the physical Thrasher Magazine, and the Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts of The Berrics, which have millions of followers. Foregrounding the money and business behind skateboarding is important, because it allows us to see pro skaters as workers who perform athletic labor; as I explain below, part of their job is to promote and brand themselves on social-media platforms. Upon further investigation, we find that these alternative athletes face precarious employment, as well as an industry that discourages discussion about their working conditions.
Since my early days as a skateboarder, I wondered how the sponsorship system worked and why some skaters were able to navigate it successfully while others failed to do so. There was also the question of pro skaters who had mysteriously “fallen off” (suddenly disappeared from regular coverage in skate media). The magazines and videos provided little information about these topics, and, to this day, discussion about working conditions is nearly absent from mainstream skate media. As I entered graduate school, I revisited this issue, looking at skateboarding through a critical eye and asking questions about non-standard employment in the neoliberal economy. Just like the skate media of my youth, few scholarly studies have investigated labor and working conditions in pro skating (for examples, see Bastos & Stigger, 2009; Camoletto & Marcelli, 2018).
In order to help better understand such issues, I published a study in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues that offered some preliminary insight about labor in skateboarding. In doing so, I compared the careers of skateboarders to others who work precarious jobs without benefits or guaranteed contracts. Therefore, I likened pro skaters to video-game testers, web-based writers, and fashion bloggers. These individuals are otherwise known as creatives, freelancers, gig workers, or people with “cool” jobs. Professional skateboarders are independent contractors, signing deals with companies for free product and monthly pay in exchange for promotional acts. Such acts may include maintaining a social-media profile or wearing branded clothing for competitions and other media appearances. At least two factors link the working conditions of pro skaters with game testers, writers, and bloggers: (1) there is a highly imbalanced hierarchy with a few high earners at the top, while the vast majority in these fields earn little income and (2) digital media technologies are indispensable for these workers.
While it may seem strange, given that skateboarders are out shredding the offline world, these precarious workers are compelled to use social media and networked devices. Digital dexterity is beneficial for building and securing one’s career, since, for example, a skater who is active on Instagram and boasts 500,000 followers will appeal more to a sponsor. To be sure, this isn’t limited to skating alone; personal promotion via social media is critical for athletes in other sports, such as those in fighting, racing, surfing, and tennis. In these cases as well, athletes who use social media to build their personal brand can secure the sponsorship of companies in the sports industry.
However, as media have become more democratized with Web 2.0, the old skateboarding gatekeepers have lost some grip over the discursive limits of the subculture. In other words, new communication channels have arisen on the web that have allowed skaters to voice concerns about their subculture. A prime case was the founding of a website called Jenkem, which dabbles in more controversial topics than one would find in the pages of Thrasher. In my research, Jenkem proved to be a valuable resource for data on the working conditions of professional skateboarders, with articles and user comments discussing the following topics: contest prize money, skaters’ access to health care, the need for a skateboarders’ labor union, and sponsorship obligations in the age of Instagram. One particularly interesting finding was that companies who sponsor skaters sometimes engage in backhanded, subtle tactics to discipline or oust a skater from the industry by labeling them a “kook.” Referencing a study on working-class sentiments, I argue that the term “kook” provides cover for industry insiders to ostracize skaters without assuming the role of a traditional boss.
In addition to highlighting an underacknowledged subject in lifestyle sports, there is a more practical and political reason to study pro skater labor. Since the early 1970s, neoliberal capitalism has structured economic opportunities in a way that forces many workers to do more with less as wealth transfers to fewer and fewer hands at the top of the income scale. Compounded by other developments, such as automation, deindustrialization, and globalization, neoliberalism has engendered the rise of non-standard, temporary work undertaken by an increasing number of freelancers and independent contractors. Some figures show that independent contractors represent over 15% of the workforce. Skateboarders might seem to have a “cool” job—like video game testers do—but as contractors, they face barriers to unionizing, substandard pay, and lack health insurance, just as DoorDashers and Uber drivers do. To study this area of lifestyle sports is to call attention to an economic reality many Americans now face, whether on or off the board.
L. Dugan Nichols holds a doctorate in Communication from Simon Fraser University, and he is currently a sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Skateboarding is only one dimension of his research, as his interests include political economy, media spectacles, journalism, and the common-sense beliefs people have about the consequences of capitalism. The above text draws from a more comprehensive study on social media and working conditions in the skateboard industry, titled, “Gnarly Freelancers: Professional Skateboarders’ Labor and Social Media Use in the Neoliberal Economy.”