It is fair to say skateboarding is enjoying something of a mainstream moment. Having been allocated a place on the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020, a sport for so long confined to the fringes of the industry now finds itself preparing to play a part in the planet’s preeminent multi-sports jamboree.
For Street League Skateboarding (SLS), the California-based organisation which operates the world’s leading professional street skateboarding series, Olympic inclusion presents a clear opportunity. Last month, the tour teamed up with World Skate, the IOC-recognised global governing body that will oversee events in Tokyo, to ensure its world championship serves as the official qualification pathway to the Games.
More importantly, though, it is hoped the Olympics can serve as a platform to raise the profile of skateboarding worldwide whilst bringing new fans and sponsors into a multi-billion dollar industry that prides itself on being a counter-culture lifestyle first, and a competitive sport second.
Launched in 2010 by pro skater and entrepreneur Rob Dyrdek, SLS also sees the Olympic narrative as a means through which to further develop its own international growth aspirations - indeed, it is perhaps no coincidence that the tour has added new events for this year in the host cities of the last two Summer Olympic Games, London and Rio de Janeiro. The first of those events takes place this weekend at the British capital’s Copper Box Arena, with many of the world’s best professional male and female street skaters set to compete in what will be the opening stop on this year’s SLS World Tour.
Ahead of the event, SportsPro caught up with SLS general manager Kaitlyn Banchero (above) to discuss the tour’s ambitions in the UK and elsewhere, its new partnership with World Skate, and the long-term impact of Olympic inclusion.
How did this event in London come about?
It’s been a real journey, the past 12 months. We’ve built this business, setting out with the intention of creating more opportunities for more skateboarders and creating a format that really played to the accessibility of skateboarding in terms of a unique competition format that is exciting and can really be engaging for a fringe audience, not just a core skateboarding audience, and have more ties to what you see in more traditional sports in terms of instant scoring and creating those buzzer-beater moments.
We built that over multiple years since 2010, and in the past couple of years we’ve been focusing more on international expansion and how we serve what is truly a global skateboarding community. It’s always been part of the roadmap - how we start working with the key cities around the world that support sports, can understand this product and can also really engage with the intangibles that skateboarding brings along with it, such as an engaged youth audience and positive community contributors.
How important has skateboarding’s forthcoming inclusion on the Olympic programme in Tokyo been, both in terms of those discussions with cities and your overall expansion process?
The Olympics helps fuel the strategy in terms of partnering with World Skate, who have the responsibility the IOC has given them to govern skateboarding as it’s going to sit in the Olympic framework. It made a lot of sense, given that SLS’s format is going to be the one that is adopted for the Olympics, that we would team up. We have very complementary skill sets - they understand the infrastructure on a global level that’s required for Olympics, and we really understand how to deliver a season that leads to a world championship, how to manage the competition format, how to deliver these events around the world.
Obviously having the Olympic rings at the end and everyone agreeing that positioning SLS as the exclusive world tour and world championships, that will lead to the Olympics and determines who will be representing their countries at the Olympics, has helped catalyse some of these conversations with cities.
How are preparations progressing ahead of your London debut?
Because everything has been moving a mile a minute in terms of evolving to this next phase on competitive street skateboarding, we did get into the game with London a lot later than we typically do with a city. But our team has been doing this for a really long time and the city has been very supportive so we were able to hit the ground running.
Right now we’re in market trying to raise awareness about what a Street League Skateboarding event really is. I think the beauty of Street League is that it’s not your average skateboarding contest, so it’s an opportunity to engage a fringe audience that is more casual or newer to skateboarding versus just a core audience.
An artists' rendering of the course design at London's Copper Box Arena.
What’s public interest in the event been like so far?
We’ve seen really strong early response. It’s our first time doing four sessions so it’s a longer weekend than we’re used to given we’re adding women. The feedback that we received was that events in London follow a session strategy so we’re definitely leaning in on learning more about consumer behaviour around going to events and how we translate skateboarding to better serve that.
I think we do face a natural challenge in that a skateboarding competition is not necessarily super well-known in terms of what an experience for a fan is like. We convert a lot of believers when they do come but that first entrance into market can be a little bit challenging. I’m hopeful that the people who do come are excited about SLS returning in future and we can continue to build audience awareness about the event.
Skaters work just as hard as any other athlete in a gruelling activity. Concrete doesn’t lie. They just persevere and are creative and self-disciplined and they deserve this opportunity.
What are your long-term objectives in London and the UK market?
The city is very dedicated to building a skateboarding relationship long-term. They see the value in what it brings in terms of serving the community in a variety of different ways. The intent is for SLS to return annually. Certainly we’ll assess after this event and see what we can do better, how we modify some things, but generally speaking we’re all excited about the opportunity and talking about what the future could look like together.
What's the nature of the opportunity you see in Rio de Janeiro, and are there any other markets on your radar?
Brazil is a huge audience for skateboarding. It’s truly such an accessible sport. The barriers to entry are very low and the price points are great for any socio-economic background. Brazil is a great opportunity for us to go and serve that market and we have a ton of Brazilian icons that are SLS pros both on the men’s and women’s side.
Australia has long been a country that we’ve talked about going to and Asia is a huge area of interest for us for obvious reasons. I think there we have a unique responsibility and desire to work with communities in Asia that are hungry for skateboarding. They understand the influence that it has on fashion and culture, and that’s really attractive to them.
How has the Olympic story around skateboarding impacted on your commercial outlook in general? Has it opened the door to different types of brands, for example?
We’re starting to be able to tap into the non-endemics more, especially with the Olympics on the horizon. I think 2018 will be a great opportunity to start to garner more of that interest from a regional standpoint. We were a little bit late to market [in London] to be able to access some of the brands’ budget - ultimately a lot had been allocated. But there’s a lot of interest to come to the event. We see in most of our conversations that there’s an understanding of the power of skateboarding and a desire to learn more.
SLS is well positioned to help create a bridge between a skateboarding community that is very passionate and engaged but also has high standards around the product. SLS has a reverence for that and wants to deliver against that so we can be a bridge between brands who want to create an emotional connection with those consumers.
SLS champion Nyjah Huston.
When skateboarding’s place in the Olympics was confirmed in 2016, there was an audible backlash from many within the core skating community who strongly opposed it. Are skaters themselves now coming round to the idea?
We’ve seen that that initial reaction was in, I don’t want to say fear, but uncertainty about what that meant - a really passionate protection of the sport and the culture that they love and have been doing for decades, ultimately in conflict or in adversity to a lot of established organisations. It was really about just wanting to understand what it meant.
The more that we can show them and prove to them that this is going to mean more opportunities for more skateboarders - which is really SLS’s mission - while maintaining the authenticity of skateboarding and making sure that it’s not being diluted or losing the essence of what makes it unique and true, that’s for us to prove over the next couple of years
Skaters work just as hard as any other athlete in a gruelling activity. Concrete doesn’t lie. They just persevere and are creative and self-disciplined and they deserve this opportunity. That was always the intent of creating SLS: how do we give them the opportunities that other athletes receive? So I think it’s the next natural progression, that every four years there’s this other amazing opportunity on the table as well.
That said, skateboarding’s Olympic place is not guaranteed beyond Tokyo 2020. As someone working to promote the sport at all levels, is it frustrating knowing you might not feature in future Games?
It’s a great first step that the IOC has identified their belief and understanding of what skateboarding has to offer in this day and age. It’s difficult, certainly, to plan on a two-year cycle and not really know what comes next.
One of my concerns is that skateboarding right now is in its infancy in terms of its infrastructure. SLS has invested a great deal to build the platform that’s necessary to prove the power of this, but ultimately we can only go so far. If the IOC is really looking to skateboarding to bring a youth audience and whatnot to the Olympics and we have one shot, I just wish that they would also provide additional resources for this development period so that we can do the necessary things like additional storytelling, dimensionalising the athletes, and really creating these human connections.
The competition moments are so exciting and incredible and obviously the point that they work towards. But also being able to tell the stories around who they are as humans, what drives them, what makes them skate, their background, are going to be really important in terms of creating a larger global audience that the IOC is also looking for.