Skateboarding culture has never been immune to the whims of marketing, so I can't help but be skeptical about legendary boarder Tony Hawk's Boom Boom HuckJam, which rolled into the Air Canada Centre late last month on its first Canadian tour. Isn't this just another example of a much-loved counterculture pursuit being turned into a sport on corporate steroids? My wariness increases when I see the price of admission: $37.25 for a single ticket. Talk about a rip-off! This is a sport show of rock and roll proportions. It'd better be good.
I enter the arena. Bright lights bathe the impressive multi-million-dollar ramp system while a punk cover band cranks out Dead Kennedy, Motörhead and White Stripes tunes. Suddenly, I'm bowled over. The energy is positively electric. Kids, their parents and aging Gen-Xers, here to see their extreme heroes, are screaming at the top of their lungs.
The main draws are Hawk, Bob Burnquist and Bucky Lasek, along with BMXers Mat Hoffman, Dennis McCoy and freestyle motocrosser Carey Hart. These are the best athletes in the world in their respective sports.
As Hawk explains in a press release, the show "is an idea that is long overdue. We as professional riders couldn't wait any longer to make it a reality." On one level, I couldn't agree more. As a BMXer for the last 20 years, I've been in my share of demos (on a much smaller scale), and I know what a cheering crowd can do for you. It helps justify all that time you've spent, usually alone, trying to learn a new trick.
Still, every HuckJam logo I see is tightly coupled with that of video game giant Activision. The HuckJam Web site also boast links to huge corporate sponsors like Hot Wheels and McDonald's, all anxious to get a piece of the oft-misunderstood youth market. It doesn't take a genius to realize that tons of money is involved.
Throughout the show, MC Rick Thorne constantly takes time out to thank the sponsors, listing names like Best Buy, Hershey's Milk Shake, Go Snacks and Transworld Media. The brand-name banners plastered all over the arena make these plugs seem that much more shameless. In the lobby, vending booths sell everything from HuckJam T-shirts and paraphernalia to a glossy full-colour program.
But skateboarding, it seems, has now entered the mainstream. Stores like West 49 have penetrated malls across the country, selling not just skateboards but also clothing, videos and the skater lifestyle. The sport has achieved a size few thought possible. According to Toronto's SBC Media (publishers of SBC Skateboard), there are an estimated 1.3 million skateboarders in Canada, 175,000 of whom live in Toronto. An all-ages poll in Sports Illustrated asking readers to name their favourite athlete ranked Hawk second only to hoops star Michael Jordan. Olympics organizers are also considering including skateboarding in the 2012 Summer Games.
Since the beginning of the action sports culture, there have always been demos to give some of the better athletes a chance to earn a living by taking their skills on the road and showing kids what's possible. These microshows, usually relegated to small skate parks or parking lots, are attended by a few in-the-know fans. The goal is always to increase interest in the sport, and, consequently, the size of the industry.
But as early as 1978, Craig Stecyk was writing in his legendary Dogtown articles that money was taking the fun out of skating. "Skateboarding," he wrote then, "is a no-soul, lacklustre, over-commercialized crock of cat crap (in which) magazines and films shamelessly exploit individuals in the name of corporate greed and individual ego-trips."
When I ask a few in the audience at the Air Canada Centre if they think Hawk is doing this for the money, they look at me as though the thought had never crossed their minds. "They're just doing their own thing," says Justin Lukach from Toronto. "I think a lot of people are so confined to the sports they play in high school, and this tour is showing the kids they can do other things. It just opens their eyes."
Graeme Baird drove from Ottawa for the event. He says, "They do it so everybody gets a chance to see what it's like, to show how fun it is and get kids interested in it. It's just fun, man."
Returning to the show after intermission, MC Thorne puts down his microphone and picks up his BMX bike, and a free jam ensues. With no announcer, the skaters and BMXers ride the ramp to the punk rock soundtrack. Riders take turns trying to outdo their own previous run. As each rider attacks the half-pipe, some flying 10 feet into the air, the other athletes stand yelling encouragement.
They're having a blast. And for a moment, it seems as if they aren't in a huge arena with thousands of paying customers, but riding Bob Burnquist's backyard ramp.
As the house lights come up to signal the end of the show, a couple of kids yell their thanks. Bucky Lasek points right back at them from the arena floor, shouting, "Thanks for coming!" And it looks like he genuinely means it.
A smile crosses my face. The show was worth every penny. A quote from the autobiography of bicycle freestyler Mat Hoffman (who by the way also stars in milk advertising) comes to mind: "It's not about us selling out. It's about them buying in."