Mega-Corporations in the Skateboarding Industry
by mnsr on April 21, 2017 - 11:54pm
During the two past decades, Nike was able to secure its position in theskateboarding industry. It used extensive and effective advertising, sponsored some of the most recognized professionals and contests, collaborated with major brands, and went as far as knocking some of the most established ones out of business. Nike’s business strategy was clearly successful, but the reactions that it caused within the skateboarding community worldwide are also noticeable. More and more skaters are trying to support skater-owned brands, by solidarity. The growing disapproval surrounding Nike makes their approach to skateboarding and its industry questionable, from an ethical perspective. The purpose of this article is to argue that the current actions of major corporations and organizations in skateboarding are unethical, and to propose some solutions to the proper development of skateboarding.
One of the main forms of advertising that Nike uses takes advantage of their position as the main sponsor of Street League Skateboarding. It is an international professional competitive series, and the most watched skateboarding event worldwide. Even before Nike’s sponsorship, this contest was somewhat different from others. Before the Street League, “there were no exclusive promotions, no championships, no elite standards, no end goal to achieve, and nothing to win” (Beal 257). With actions such as introducing a precise point system and constructing skateparks in more spacious areas, or sometimes stadiums, the Street League introduced a more rigid vision of skateboarding. It made skateboarding more understandable and accessible to non-skaters, while still respecting its nature and core values. Nike’s entry in the industry extended the development of skateboarding as a mainstream culture, but presented it in a quite different way.
Nike marked its entry in the skateboarding industry by showcasing its team, composed of some of the most popular professionals, in the SB Chronicles video series. This has not been seen negatively, since the majority of full-length skateboarding videos are seen as advertisement, in some way. They are “made to sell” (Pappalardo). Nike then moved on to the Street League, as they are the event’s main sponsor. From countless banners at the event to endless ads interrupting the live stream, Nike is omnipresent. Ironically enough, many skaters that compete are sponsored by Nike, and help with product placement. On Street League days, they almost only wear Nike products and their other sponsors are hardly visible. Since Nike sponsored the Street League, the event suddenly started depicting skateboarding as a sport. It is broadcasted on Fox Sports 1, the commentary became very sport-like, and skateboarders are sometimes referred to as athletes, a trend started in part by Nike. The depiction of skateboarding as a sport caused its mainstream spread; it is now approved by the Olympics, and non-skaters are becoming more involved in skate culture. This is positive in a way, as skateboarding is developing and negative images and stereotypes of skaters are progressively fading. From a teleological point of view, Nike and other similar corporations are somewhat beneficial to skateboarding, in some ways. Some of their consequences are ethically justifiable, unlike many of the means they use to have them.
While the representation of skateboarding as a sport has some positive effects, the ethical validity of its side effects is questionable. First of all, treating skateboarding as a sport with such assurance is quite inaccurate. As Thomas Barker, the executive director of the International Association of Skateboarding Companies affirmed, it is “not a sport, not an art, and not a culture”. “At times of high popularity”, such as now, “various commercial interests have tried co capitalize on the activity by promoting it […] as a legitimate sport”, but they are promoting skateboarding as something it is not, which is contrary to the virtue of honesty. Also, big corporations had an impact on the skateboarding industry as a whole. As Jenkem Magazine argues, “the entrance of Nike, Adidas, and other mega-corporations, has created a situation similar to what many popular but small coffee shops faced when dealing with Starbucks.” This caused some of the main skate shoe brands, such as éS, to go out of business for a couple of years, and some others, such as DC, to significantly decrease in popularity. Understandably, Nike is a corporation and wants to make profit, even if other companies may suffer from it. But profit is not a valid teleological summum bonum, especially if it involves breaking a well-established industry and community apart for one’s own interest, which displays the vice of selfishness.
The adverse consequences that Nike had on skateboarding sparked skepticism within the skateboarding community, particularly towards its status as a major corporation. Mark Parker, Nike CEO, affirms that “[Nike] didn't want to let [its] size to get in the way”. While Nike seemed to decrease in popularity, “following the release of Cherry, William Strobeck’s skate video for Supreme, something unexpected happened to skateboarding’s economy: skate shops started selling a [lot] of Chuck Taylors. […] This was playfully dubbed by someone in a skate shop as the ‘Cherrington Effect’ : A riff on Strobeck’s video and the visibility of Aaron Herrington, who—like the brand—is highly involved with kids. […] Cherry was meant to be a marketing tool for Supreme’s already omnipresent brand, but it might have done more for Converse’s skate program – something no one could have predicted” (Pappalardo). One asset that helped the Chuck Taylor capitalize on Nike’s loss of popularity among skaters is its status as an old school skate shoe, repopularized by Supreme, a skater-owned omnipresent symbol founded in the nineties. The old school factor made part of the skateboarding community reminiscent of what many referred to as the “golden age of skateboarding”, when corporations were hardly present in the industry. Converse also seemed a lot different from Nike. Indeed, “Both Supreme and Converse are massive global brands that managed to draw attention to themselves in 2014 without being obnoxious or coming off as huge as they actually are” (Pappalardo). But considering that Converse was purchased by Nike eleven years earlier, Converse’s sudden increase in popularity can be seen as a disguised strategy for Nike’s skateboarding program, which led to significant profit. Nike achieved its goal, but in a way, it is deceiving its audience. That can be condemned from a deontological perspective.
Skateboarding needs to be developed, but without undermining its nature and fundamental values. "The popular practice of skateboarding does not use rules, referees, coaches, or organized contests" (Beal 263). Corporations and big organizations are therefore helping skateboarding develop in the eyes of the general public, but hardly does anything within the skateboarding community. Neftalie Williams, professor at the University of Southern California, argues that “skateboarding needs more allies and advocates”. He believes that “non-endemic companies breaking into the skate market could represent a gentrification of the skate community. They have the capacity to swallow up privately-owned companies and cultural spaces on a global scale, and replace them with heavily commodified versions” (Williams). Global, powerful corporations and organizations can therefore play a key role in the development of skateboarding, but the way they intervene is also very important. Many of the aforementioned problems can be linked to a desire for benefit and the view of skateboarding as a business or a sport, whereas it is “It's a bond of [sport, art, and culture], and being able to express them in an academic point of view is very important for the future of skateboarding. […] Perhaps the smartest thing brands that are enormous outside of skateboarding can do to maintain a presence in our subculture is nothing. Take a more hands off approach: let the director film, the skaters skate, and have it unfold organically, without being intrusive or leveraging some forced marketing initiative” (Barker). Logically, this idea of a more hands of approach would naturally result from a change of corporations’ vision of skateboarding, and scholars such as Williams can help diffuse the understanding of skateboarding's needs.
To conclude, the question of the proper development of skateboarding is significant because what “is going on in the skateboarding culture can be extrapolated to solve other problems that are going on in the world”. It can be seen as a “tool for cultural diplomacy” (Williams). In other words, “humans can create social change through cultural practices.” (Beal 265) For instance, the Skirtboarders, a Montreal-based female skateboarding crew, purposely challenge discourses of femininity through an Internet skateboarding blog. This is an example of “how sportswomen-driven forms of social media can become a means of individualized and collective ethical transformation” (MacKay 173). For the goal outlined by Williams to be achieved, the vision and understanding of skateboarding by its major impactors has to be adjusted, and scholars such as Williams can be advocates for the community.
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