Sunday, May 22, 2016

Marc Johnson and the Increasing Lameness of the Skateboard Industry

Yes, I'm going to talk about Marc Johnson's move from Lakai to Adidas. I know every other skateboarding blogger has already talked about it, and I know people are either already bummed about it or just don't see what the problem is. But I'm going to use what Marc Johnson did as  jumping off point to talk about a much bigger topic, and that topic is really more of an exploration of this question: Does anyone really like the direction skateboarding (its industry, media, and culture) is going?

For starters, let's recap what we know about Marc Johnson's move to Adidas. Adidas recently put out Away Days, a full length skate video. At the premiere, they announced that Daewon Song and Marc Johnson were joining the team.

For Daewon, the move was somewhat expected. Marc, on the other hand, stirred some people up, because back in 2013, he said in an an interview with Jenkem that he would not do that sort of thing. Literally. Here's the quote:

"If a big sports shoe brand paid you 2 or 3 times your current salary, would you consider leaving Lakai to ride for them?

Okay. No, I wouldn’t ride for a mainstream sports footwear brand. I would not skate for Big Company Footwear."

If Adidas isn't a mainstream sports footwear brand, I don't know what is. That by itself isn't so bad. It's definitely hypocritical on Marc's part, because in that same interview he goes on to fully explain why people who skate for big footwear are part of the problem and how those brands are killing skate shops. You know what though? We're all hypocrites, and that interview was 3 years ago. A man is allowed to change his mind, and at the worst, he's not doing anything worse than anyone else who skates for Adidas, Nike, New Balance, or Converse.

What DID suck was according to Mike Carroll, 'ole MJ lied about it and screwed Lakai over in the process. Once again, this was fleshed out in a Jenkem interview. You can read the full story there if you haven't already, but to summarize, Mike Carroll was hoping Johnson would stay on Lakai long enough to sell off some product with his name on it, (a hope backed up by a contract of sorts). Adidas officially announced Marc Johnson as a new pro just a day after promising Mike Carroll that he wouldn't. In short, it was a dick move. The dickishness of that move has been discussed already on vlog channels like SkateSpeech, a slew of commenters all over the web, and of course by Mike Carroll himself in the Jenkem interview that I linked to earlier.

Even though I'm some 400 words deep already, my intent isn't to go on a rant about why Marc Johnson sucks. I'm much more interested in exploring why we suck. By which I mean, why the skateboarding community as a whole has been pretty lame lately and what that means for the future of skateboarding.

Let's start with the shoe brands. Why are big shoe brands bad? Well, I won't tell you that Nike or Adidas are bad, but if we speak in generalities, here's the list of pros and cons.

Big Sports Footwear Brands, e.g. Nike, Adidas, New Balance
  • ·        Often higher quality
  • ·        More widely available
  • ·        Larger budgets for videos
  • ·        Larger budgets to pay team riders well and sponsor more riders at a time
  • ·        Predatory business practices that hurt skate shops and other footwear brands
  • ·        Marketing decisions are dictated by mass appeal and are less likely to incorporate risky design elements in product and promotion

Notice that there are actually more pros than cons and also that the cons are more complicated. I don't think it's crazy to think that those are key reasons that the big footwear companies have been so successful. I'm sure there are plenty of people who don't care about the cons at all. For people like me though, those cons mean EVERYTHING. I hate shopping, but I love skate shops. I love everything about skate shops. I love looking at all the boards on the wall, I like the cases full of trucks and wheels. I love that they don't kick you out for not buying anything. I love that it's the only store in town that you can find people to skate with. I spend all day pretending that I don't skate- I do my work and don't try to talk about skating with people who won't understand. When I go to a skate shop, I don't have to pretend any more- I can geek out about how awesome a video part was, or talk about spots, or whatever. Local skate shops are the best, and when I hear about skate shops that are having financial problems because they aren't selling enough shoes to meet Nike's minimum, it breaks my heart.

If you've never had a good local shop, none of this appeals to you, so let's talk about marketing: skater-driven* companies do cooler marketing. Don't kid yourself, you know it's true. Nike and Adidas often have better skaters, but when it comes to videos, I would gladly take The DC Video, Stay Gold, Ride the Sky, or Fully Flared over The SB Chronicles, Debacle, Nothing But The Truth, Diagonal or even Away Days. And for the sake of fairness, I only compared shoe brand videos with shoe brand videos. I consider Stay Gold to be high art, as Brandon Westgate and Andrew Reynold's parts (the first and last parts, respectively) deliver a sense of awe that very few other worldly things give me. I would go on to compare the print ads as well, but I fear that this part of the rant is already too long.

So yea. I like to support brands that got their start in skating because they seem to have a track record of having a better understanding and commitment to skateboarding, and I think that's a good thing to have.

A lot of us already felt this way. Marc Johnson said he felt that way at some point. And yet we just clearly aren't supporting these brands. Fallen Footwear is done. Dekline is pretty much done. Lakai's clearly having some problems. It's not just shoe companies either, although I've focused on them because they have experienced the most intervention from companies outside skating with the possible exception of apparel. Board companies are struggling, skate shops are struggling- if you're a skateboarder trying to make a career out of the skateboarding industry, you're struggling.

I don't mean to bum everyone out, because there are some things about skateboarding that are awesome. I know some great people who love skateboarding. We get to be skateboarders in a time when Evan Smith is pro. Have you reflected on how awesome Evan Smith is lately? He's an incredible skateboarder and he's doing it in a way that doesn't even resemble the way anybody else does it.

Skateboarding is so rich with skaters doing awesome stuff for many weeks I had a weekly feature where I dug up unique video parts that not many people have seen. It's called, "Why Haven't I Seen This?" and I still post one occasionally, but I had to stop doing it weekly to maintain my sanity. Skateboarding is both better than it's ever been and worse than it's ever been.

And so to conclude, I'd like to be super lame and just complacently agree with something Ed Templeton said in an episode of Loveletters to Skateboarding. It's not so much that skateboarding has abandoned its roots- it just grew into a whole other thing. Contests and money and kids who are freakishly good at skateboarding calling themselves 'athletes' are the most popular thing in skateboarding right now. There are still a bunch of strange folks out there just hanging out with their friends, having fun, and embracing the freedom that skateboarding has to offer. The question now is whether that mentality will survive in a future when nobody can remember a time before Street League. I don't know, and if you're like me it's a downright uncomfortable thing to contemplate, but we have to think about it. We have to think about if we want to change skateboarding into something more like how it used to be or if we want it to just morph into a traditional Olympic-type sport. We have to think about whether we even have the power to change it any more.

What do you think?

*An earlier draft of this post used the phrase, "Skater-owned" at the asterisk, which isn't accurate in this context. The companies I talk about in the lines that follow are just companies that are focused primarily on skateboarding as opposed to sports brands that make skate shoes.

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