Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Big tricks a tough trade

For most, action sports high-risk, low-return

By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ian Abineri
Ian Abineri, 17 does a melon grab off one of the ramps at the Miami Meadows Park.
(Tony Jones/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)

Seventeen-year-old skateboarder Ian Abineri saunters to the Miami Meadows skatepark, a backpack slung over his shoulder, a video camera stashed inside. Before mounting his board, he stows the bag nearby, just in case he executes a trick sharp enough to film.

He sends out footage in the hopes of obtaining sponsorship, but he has no illusions about making a living off skateboarding.

"It's pretty hard," said Abineri, a Seven Hills junior. "To get on with a mainstream company and make money, you have to be really, really good."

And that's just the beginning.

As the Mobile Skatepark Series hits Sawyer Point for the third year, Friday through June 1, more than 60,000 fans and aspiring professionals will watch 100 of the world's best pro skateboarders, inline skaters and BMX riders compete for part of an $80,000 purse. For Abineri and others hoping to break into the action sports industry, its athletes, insiders and event coordinators have two words of advice: Good luck.


When: Friday-June 1.

Where: Sawyer Point.

Admission: Free for spectators; $8 for any skateboarder, biker or skater who wishes to use the skatepark Friday and June 1.

Schedule: Click here.

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"Making it as a pro? Your chances are about one in a million," said Gary Collins, a pro skateboarder living in Mount Auburn.

Action sports, the former underground hobbies of athletes bucking the mainstream, have exploded into a $2 billion industry complete with its own stock of professionals - and their own financial boons.

In the 10 years since ESPN first broadcast the X Games, the Olympics of action sports, pros have raked in unprecedented earnings. While top-level athletes like skateboarder Tony Hawk have become millionaires from endorsements, appearances, business ventures and prize winnings, the reality for most pros is much different. They struggle with inconsistent paychecks, meager earnings, short-term prospects and an endless potential for injury, complicated by a growing pool of competitors vying for the same dollars.

In the same city Major League Baseball players are guaranteed $300,000 and NFL rookies earn at least $230,000, some pro skateboarders, inline skaters and BMX riders are scrounging for health insurance.

"Certainly, if you're in it for the money, start playing tennis or golf," eight-time X Games vert skateboard champion Andy Macdonald said.

Livin' on a prayer

Though there is some governing body for each action sport, there is neither a single umbrella organization monitoring every action sport nor a system that tracks all athletes' salaries. Incomes are products of customized sponsorships, prize winnings, endorsements and sport-related ventures, and are highly individualized.

Chris Coogan
Chris Coogan, 13 does an Indy transfer off one ramp onto another ramp at the Miami Meadows Park..
(Tony Jones/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)

There is no one right route to become a pro, and gaining national exposure without a draft, college championship or high school title is difficult. Virtually no athlete can survive without sponsors, which might pay a portion of an athlete's costs or, in some cases, a salary.

Macdonald, 30, learned what a sponsorship was five years into skateboarding.

"I was skating and some guy came up to me and gave me a T-shirt and said, 'I'll pay your entry fee for your next contest if you wear it.' There wasn't a lot of money involved. Probably $10," Macdonald said. "But when you're a 15-year-old kid, it's a start."

The salaries of action sports athletes normally pale in comparison to annual pay in other pro sports. The median salary for a Cincinnati Red in 1994 was $500,000. Macdonald had to work part time to make ends meet before and after he went pro in 1994. He dressed up as Shamu at SeaWorld for $4.75 an hour, passed out oatmeal samples at 6 a.m. for a temp agency and worked at a surf shop.

Macdonald is among the few to make the transition to the sport's high-end pay scale. He brings home a seven-figure salary, thanks to eight sponsors, prize winnings, a book, a video game and signature lines of skateboards and shoes.

Rick Bratman, president of ASA Events, which brings the Mobile Skatepark Series to town, estimates that 15 percent of action athletes in each discipline earn 90 percent of the sport's money.

"I'd say 5 percent make a great living, and between 6 and 15 percent are doing well. The rest of the guys are trying to survive," Bratman said.

Finding the cash for weekend contests can be a hardship itself. An athlete is responsible for airfare, lodging, entry fees and food - a package that can reach $1,000 a contest. Most often, athletes entering contests have enough sponsors to cover at least equipment costs or entry fees. Some receive bonuses for performing well, and a purse is added incentive. Other athletes don't compete at all, instead earning money at demos or negotiating other appearance fees.

Mark Shays, vice president and founder of ASA Events, said the market also plays into the equation, particularly for BMX riders and inline skaters. For instance, an increase in steel prices affects bike-making companies' profits and trickles down to their sponsorships.

"The market is very tenuous now and has gone through a lot of peaks and valleys," said Shays, one of the first inline skaters to go pro, in 1991. "It's more difficult to make a good living unless you're at the very tops of those sports."

Shays estimates there are about 500 pros in skateboarding, inline skating and BMX freestyle combined.

To put the competition in perspective, Miki Vuckovich, a member of the board of directors for the United Skateboarding Association, said there are 12 million skateboarders in the United States. About 200 are considered legitimate pros.

Fallon Heffernan, a pro inline skater from Neptune, Fla., has one sponsor, Salomon Rollerblades, which pays her equipment fees. A future Jacksonville University track and cross country athlete, she's unable to receive money from sponsors per NCAA rules. But she said she's a testament to the expenses incurred by those who have big dreams and no funding. Heffernan's parents, Misti and Ron, have shelled out at least $6,000 for contests.

When she won a silver medal at the X Games in 2001, she walked away with a career-high $5,250. Heffernan said one of the most frustrating aspects of competing is earning "two and three times" less than her male counterparts. She doesn't see that trend changing, so she's getting a college education.

"Skating is my passion, but I have to keep my priorities together," Heffernan said. "You can't skate forever."

Lifestyles of the rich, famous

Once his income reached a conservative flow, nine-year pro BMX racer and Anderson resident Matt Pohlkamp worried about other aspects of his career. If the sport he loved as an 11-year-old was to support him as a senior citizen, Pohlkamp knew he had to plan for the future.

He handed over his finances to his father, John, and later his cousin, Dan Wolf, who works at an investment firm.

Pohlkamp, a 1994 Oak Hills grad who did not disclose his salary, owns a house and two cars and "lives very comfortably for riding a bike and being 27 years old."

BMX racing, a different sport than BMX freestyle, is not featured at the Mobile Skatepark Series but is considered among the high-profile action sports and will debut in the 2008 Olympic Games. As with skaters, its athletes are considered independent contractors for tax purposes and must fund their own insurance and retirement plans.

Winning contests is only one part of the job. Pohlkamp also spends time maintaining his six sponsors, being visible in the action sports community and being accessible to fans.

"When you're going year to year, you really have to do your job," said Pohlkamp, who's also pursuing a degree in marketing at the University of Cincinnati. "You need to win races and be great with kids."

Lack of health benefits has plagued Collins, the skateboarder from Mount Auburn. He earns most of his money from starring in skating videos. He recently returned from a 13-city East Coast Consolidated Summer Tour on which he and seven other skateboarders were compensated for food and lodging and earned a $100 daily stipend.

The former Holmes High School student received his GED and began working his way up the pro ranks five years ago. He likens his pay to a "part-time job" and has not retained money for retirement or benefits.

Lack of insurance forced the 27-year-old to pay $10,000 out of pocket after having surgery on his right knee two years ago. That, coupled with the 15 police tickets he has gotten for skateboarding - $100 each, he said - have depleted his resources.

"I'm just making it," Collins said.

Those who have "arrived" in action sports have secured signature lines of any product, including shoes, sunglasses, boards, gear or games. Dayton-raised Colin Winkelmann, a BMX freestyle rider, has a $325 signature bike frame through one of his sponsors. The quarterly royalties are minimal, and Winkelmann said he pockets several dollars per bike.

He lives in Greenville, N.C., in a home he recently purchased, and said last year he earned between $40,000 and $50,000. The 28-year-old said he doesn't have retirement plans or any fallback should his knee give out again. So how will he make money if it all ends tomorrow?

"I'll probably start robbing banks," he said, laughing. "It's as good an answer as not having a plan. I didn't go to college, so I'm pretty unprepared for any real career."


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