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Fri 19 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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Ramps to riches

Skateboarder Tony Hawk is still at the top of his game after more than three decades. Arabian Business meets the man behind one of the biggest brands in action sports.

Ramps to riches
Hawk turned pro at fourteen, made $100,000 a year in high school and was the best skateboarder in the world at 16. “It’s pretty unbelievable,” he says.
Ramps to riches
Ramps to riches
Tony Hawk Inc boasts a brand portfolio better than many corporates. More unusually, the business also houses a $2m vertical skate ramp in its headquarters.

Skateboarder Tony Hawk is still at the top of his game after more than three decades. Arabian Business meets the man behind one of the biggest brands in action sports.

He’s a video-game star, a TV pundit, and head of a multibillion-dollar empire. His name is on t-shirts, vitamins and bed linen, and his yellow-tinged image has starred in The Simpsons. He’s the world’s highest-paid action sports athlete with brand deals that earn him an estimated $12m a year, putting him in the same league as Tiger Woods and David Beckham. He’s clocked up commercials for McDonald’s, Gatorade and — like every other major US celeb — he’s ‘Got Milk.’

He’s Tony Hawk, a man who has turned small-wheeled exploits into a $180m career and is, as Newsweek once dryly noted; “the most famous skateboarder, like, ever.”

No one seems more surprised by this turn of events than Hawk himself. Wearing sneakers and jeans, the 6-ft-3 skater could pass for a tourist, were it not for the board in his hand and the dozen TV cameras trained on him.

“Take out lottery winners and I’m the most unlikely multimillionaire there is,” Hawk chuckles, seated in a marbled pressroom at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace, where he is attending the Laureus World Sport Awards. “It’s pretty unbelievable.”

From getting his first board at the age of nine, Hawk’s career has been as meteoric as his skate tricks. He turned pro at 14-years, was raking in $100,000 a year by high school, and was the best skateboarder in the world at 16. He bought his first house just before graduating – a jab to the teachers who told him skating was a waste of time.

“All of my classmates were trying to figure out what colleges they were going to go to, what careers they were going to have and I was already making a decent living and travelling the world,” he says. “I just went with it and hoped it’d keep picking up.”

Millions of dollars later, it looks like a good bet. For seventeen years Hawk dominated skating, winning 71 percent of the events he entered. From netting nine X Games gold medals to landing the world’s first ‘900’ — for the uninitiated, a 2 ½-spin aerial revolution that is as hard as it sounds — his exploits are legendary. More than a decade after his retirement from competitive skating, he is still the highest-paid player in the game.

Hawk didn’t build this empire by accident. He was quick to cash in on his skating success and to jump his board skills into the boardroom. In 1992 he launched Birdhouse Skateboards — a joint venture with fellow ex-skater Per Welinder — to deal out boards, wheels and clothing to sport fans. In 1998 he started Hawk Clothing, a branded retail line that later sold out to Quiksilver.The same year saw the start of Tony Hawk Inc, a firm that now spans everything from merchandising to film and digital media.

Appropriately, the firm’s outwardly bland California offices hide a $2m vertical skate ramp in their basement. (“For product testing,” its founder says gleefully.)

Alongside branded clothing lines, footwear and a bestselling autobiography, Hawk also fronts the multi-city Boom Boom HuckJam tour, a showcase of rock bands and extreme sports stars. But what really morphed him into a cult hero was the launch of the video game series, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, with software firm Activision. The series is one of the biggest selling of all time, netting more than $1.6bn worldwide and outstripping franchises such as Mario. And this is not just aimed at kids – about two thirds of the game’s players don’t even own a skateboard. An iPhone version is set to launch this year.

According to Forbes magazine, Hawk’s branded merchandise rang up $200m in sales in 2008. In a sport notorious for ditching its heroes at the first sniff of commercialisation, how has Hawk managed to hang on to his cultish following — yet still cash in?

He pauses. “I think it’s because I have full control over anything that I participate in, in terms of endorsements or using my name or likeness,” he says, twisting his wedding ring. “And I had to fight for that, for those approvals, for a long time. People had a certain take on skating and they wanted to present it in different ways and throughout the years I’ve said I want to be in control of that. I’ve had to turn things down. But it’s definitely challenging. You walk that line everyday.”

It’s for this reason you won’t see Hawk dressed head-to-toe in Nike, Tiger Woods-style. Skaters “don’t wear that,” he says. “It wouldn’t be me.”

He also reportedly turned down an opportunity to make Tony Hawk-shaped pasta pieces. He looks faintly embarrassed when I mention it.

Both on the ramp and off, Hawk’s talent is in his timing. He made his name in the first skate wave of the 80s and early 90s, but hit a lean patch when the industry plunged in popularity. “It just died off,” he says, and took the sponsors with it. From being the face of a string of mega brands, Hawk found himself on a $5 a day Taco Bell allowance.

The trigger behind the industry’s revival was MTV which — flexing its reach beyond just playing music videos and into popular culture — catapulted skating back into the spotlight. This spike in popularity coincided with the first X Games, a pseudo Olympics for extreme sports. Hawk was one of the first to sign up. His victory, aired by sports channel ESPN, made him a household name in the US and a major draw for ad dollars.

“From the get-go, Tony realized the value of the exposure,” Christopher Stiepock, general manager of the X Games, has said.The 14th Winter X Games, held last month in Aspen, drew in more than 84,000 spectators, a new record.

“When it [skating] picked up again there was this sort of perfect storm of positive media coverage, video games, even just in terms of television,” Hawk recalls. “The cool factor was there. When you’d see kids on TV, the cool ones were riding skateboards. Suddenly the perception shifted and it [the industry] just skyrocketed.”

Skating is still in demand, and no one has done more to bring it off the street and into the mainstream than Hawk. More than 9.8 million US kids now skate, according to data from the US National Sporting Goods Association, eight times the number that play ice hockey. Another 9.3 million in-line skate, while 5.9 million snowboard. Non-traditional sports, it seems, are on the rise — so much so that by the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Hawk expects skateboarding to have a place in the line-up.

“At this point, the summer Olympics needs skateboarding a lot more than skateboarding needs the summer Olympics,” he drawls. “The Winter Olympics has snowboarding, but there’s no cool factor in the summer Games. Rio’s six years from now, so it could happen.”

Hawk’s neatest trick is that, despite being the wrong side of 40, he still has a feverish youth following. At an age when most athletes are touting their wares on the speaking circuit, Hawk is still a big hitter with the prized 12 to 34 age demographic coveted by advertisers. How has he clung to his marketing clout?

“Well, I would like to think it’s because of my skills,” he says, and laughs. “I mean, I really have never stopped skating through into my adult life, and I feel like I’m still pushing those boundaries. But I think it’s ‘cause I never presented something else to people, or tried to make people think I was current when I wasn’t. It’s all about walking the walk and keeping doing it.”

For a kid who started out tricking his way round empty pools — the angles and concrete lips, apparently, are perfect for landing kick-flips — Hawk’s star has risen a long way. Last year he was a guest of honour at the White House, part of a Father’s Day celebration hosted by US president Barack Obama. True to form, Hawk snuck out to skate in the grand foyer. For a man who calls himself America’s most unlikely multimillionaire, it’s been a crazy ride.

“I never thought this’d be me,” he grins, flipping his board between his hands. “Everything these days is a great surprise and I embrace it. I mean, being here — how’d I ever imagine I’d be here in Abu Dhabi, you know, doing press at the Emirates Palace? I mean, it’s unbelievable.”

And with that, he’s off to skate down the palace’s stairs.

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