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Source: Philadelphia Daily News
Date: June 8, 2004
Byline: Dana DiFilippo


Skateboarding hits a few bumps

Once the rage, sport is losing parks — and thrill-seekers

IT'S AN HOUR before closing at Boomer's Family Entertainment Center in Avondale, Chester County. It's a school night. And the weather outside is blissfully balmy.

But the ramps and bowls at this tiny, rural, indoor skatepark are roaring with the thunder of teenage boys flying fast atop soaring skateboards.

"I want to be a pro skater. I know all the local pros. I really want to get sponsored," says Austen Gravett, 13, of Chadds Ford, explaining his dedication to weekly workouts involving ollies, 50-50s and other aerial acrobatics at the skatepark.

Such fervor lured edgy entrepreneurs by the hundreds into the world of extreme sports during the past decade, prompting them to create parks, retail outlets and apparel appealing to shaggy-haired, baggy-panted skaters.

But several years after skateboarding skyrocketed out of back alleys and underground magazines and into slick mall skateparks and prime-time ESPN, some who hoped to hit extreme jackpots are instead wallowing in extreme retail regret. What was once said to be America's fastest-growing sport no longer appears fast-growing.

Two skateparks — 360 SkateSpot in Willow Grove and Title 10 on Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia — have closed in the Philadelphia region in the past two months, and a third — the Vans Skatepark in the Moorestown Mall — is expected to close within the year. Others, including Cheapskates in Line Lexington (south of Souderton), Bucks County, and Boards and Blades in Boothwyn, Delaware County, were casualties in recent years.

A slowdown

Skateboarding has suffered a serious drop in participation, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. The Florida-based group, which tracks national participation in more than 100 sports, found that skateboarding participation dropped from 13 million in 2002 to 11.1 million last year.

The slowdown comes at a time when, ironically, Philadelphia government appears headed for a showdown with skateboarders over LOVE Park.

DC Shoes, the nation's biggest skateboarding shoe manufacturer, announced last week it will give the city $1 million over 10 years to pay for future skateboard damage to the fabled boarding venue if the city reopens it to skateboarding, which was banned there two years ago.

The mayor and managing director rebuffed the money, saying they'll never let skateboarders return to LOVE Park.

Is the sport that a decade ago helped launch ESPN's popular X-Games — held in Philadelphia for two straight years — dying? Are skaters bypassing their boards and opting instead for basketball or bowling?

Some experts suspect the participation dip is a blip.

They say the shuttered skateparks are the result of too many opening too fast, especially considering that their clientele often sneer at paying to skate when public skateparks are popping up faster than a flip-kicking pro.

Skaters can still find a handful of successful commercial skateparks in the Philadelphia region, including Borderline Skatepark in West Chester and the ESPN X Games Skatepark at Franklin Mills mall, as well as dozens of smaller community or municipal skateparks — usually free or with minimal charges.

Luring young skaters

At the ESPN X Games Skatepark in Franklin Mills mall, spokesman Matt Harris credits an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at young skaters for its success.

"A lot of the other parks try to get those die-hard, aggressive skaters and athletes. We want those kids, too, but we've worked very hard and diligently to get the younger [less experienced] skaters in," Harris said, adding that the park offers lessons for beginning skaters and plans a girls-only skate clinic in late summer.

The park's big-name reputation doesn't hurt either, he added.

"ESPN X Games is a household name in the business," Harris said. "We have resources other skateparks may just not have."

Besides Philadelphia, ESPN has X Games Skateparks in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver and St. Louis. Each typically draws 1,000 to 2,000 skaters a week during the summer, skateboarding's busiest season, Harris added.

Too many skateparks?

TransWorld Business Magazine, a trade publication supporting the board sports industry, tallied 110 skateparks nationwide in 1996. Industry insiders now say there are more than 1,500.

"It's not just a fad like it was in the '70s and the one burp [of popularity] in the '80s. The growth of skateboarding in the '90s really established it as a sport," said Joseph Smith of Richboro, who opened 360 SkateSpot in May 2002 and closed it two months ago. "But you had so many skateparks opening, and some weren't built right or weren't managed right or were in the wrong location. All those problems don't help the sport."

Mike May would like to remind doomsayers about 1998.

Just over 7.2 million people said they skateboarded that year, said May, SGMA spokesman. Since then, the sport has swelled 54 percent, he added.

"It's still a big [long-term] growth" despite last year's drop, he said, adding that industry insiders prefer to examine longer ranges — rather than a one-year "blip" — to determine trends.

May has several theories about skateboarding's recent slide.

The sport drew some participants more interested in image than athletics — resulting in an inevitable drop in participation when some amateurs decided the sport wasn't for them, May said.

"The 'cool factor' really attracted some people who weren't qualified and really didn't have it," May said. "Skateboarding takes a certain amount of skill and athleticism. Anyone can try anything, but it takes some talent, some athleticism to stick with it."

And some thrill-seekers saw skateboarding's sudden popularity as a turn-off and so turned to other extreme sports, he added.

"There is a thought out there in extreme sports that when something becomes more mainstream, it loses its cool factor," May said.

Profit squeeze

Extreme sports like wakeboarding, windsurfing, snowboarding and paintball posted slight gains from 2002 to 2003, according to SGMA data. Still, several others, like roller hockey, BMX biking and in-line skating, sank in participation.

Taking a break from skating at Boomer's, Andrew Lavenburg, 11, said some of his friends found fun in other sports.

"Everyone has beach houses now, so surfing's the big thing," said Lavenburg, of Kennett Square, who said he also has taken up surfing at his family's beach house.

Smith blames his park's closure on a lack of commitment by parents to tote their tots there.

"Prime real estate costs a lot to keep heated and air-conditioned — you need a good turnout from the admissions side," said Smith of his park, which sat within minutes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

"When it was new and exciting, everyone was coming, and we had to turn people away."

But by late spring, 360 SkateSpot was averaging just 1,300 admissions a week — less than half the 3,000 a week it drew the year before, Smith said.

Closing down

Vans Inc., which ran 12 skateparks nationally, closed five in the past 18 months after admissions plummeted, spokesman Chris Overholser said.

"If kids have a choice of skating in a free municipal park or paying $7 or so a session to skate in ours, they're going to go to the free park," Overholser said. "The proliferation of public parks is good for skateboarding overall, but not for a for-profit park."

The company plans to close all but one or two of its parks in the coming year, Overholser added. He refused to confirm that the Vans Skatepark in Moorestown, N.J., would shut down, but industry insiders say it's been earmarked for closure.

"For us, it's also a factor on focusing on our core factor, which is our sneakers and apparel," Overholser added.

Comfort, not economics, drove the decision to close Title 10 Skatepark on Delaware Avenue, a spokeswoman said.

The skatepark, named for the city ordinance that outlawed extreme sports in most public locations, will close so workers can install an adequate air-conditioning system. It was open only eight months, but its owners said they intend to reopen in September once the ventilation issues are resolved.

And Smith plans to reopen his skatepark in Delaware County or Montgomery County in the next six months in a cheaper building and location. He also plans to offer other activities, such as paintball, laser tag and roller hockey, to take up skateboarding's slack.

Back at Boomer's, Gravatt said he doesn't mind the dip in his favorite sport's popularity.

"When this park first opened [in November 2001], there were like 50 people [in the skatepark]. You'd have to wait in line and watch where you skated [to avoid collisions]," Gravett said. "But now I love it because there's only ever like 15 people here."

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