Eight years ago, Mike Vallely was living every teenage skateboarder's wildest dream. At the age of 16, the New Jersey native signed on as a professional skater, earning as much as $10,000 a month: he quit school, left home, and moved to California. He's seen it all - the rush of fame, the excitement of world tours, the fast and loose lifestyle that comes with sudden wealth. These days it depresses him.
Vallely is 23 now, married, with a child. He's old for a skater, and his skateboarding career is winding down - and he still doesn't have a high school diploma. The one-time superstar regrets how he spent his teen years: He blew too much of his money and saved too little. He signed contracts without the advise of a lawyer or agent.
Vallely's professional life has already lasted twice as long as that of the average skateboarding pro. When it ends, he isn't sure what he's going to do. Yet he considers himself relatively lucky: He's not in jail, or suicidal, or addicted to drugs. And he's convinced that his sport has to change.
"The shit that happened to me doesn't need to happen to these kids," Vallely told the Bay Guardian. "They get tunnel vision and there's no more school. There's no more family."
It's a timely complaint: Professional skateboarding is growing fast. A decade ago, industry insiders estimate, there were only about 50 pro skaters in this country. Now there are almost 300. Many if not most of them are teenage kids. They make as much as $50,000 a year and travel the world on promotional tours, most often without their parents. Unsupervised, newly rich, and suddenly famous, some behave as one would expect rebellious teenagers to behave: They go wild.
Southern California star Kareem Campbell, 20, described the lifestyle in an article in the March 6 Los Angeles Times: "You can party," he said, "like, 24 hours a day."
Recent headlines present a disturbing picture: Josh Swindell, 21, is awaiting trial for murder in Los Angeles, the L.A. Times reports. Last Christmas day, 1980s Texas icon Jeff Phillips, 30, killed himself. Mark Anthony "Gator" Rogowski, a 25-year-old legend, was convicted of raping and killing a 21-year-old friend of his ex-girlfriend in a Carlsbad condominium - a tragedy documented by Cory Johnson in the "Best Sports Stories of 1992" anthology.
But the real story about professional skateboarding still has not been told. Based on more than 30 interviews with current and former skaters, industry executives, and government officials, and an extensive review of public records, the Bay Guardian has complied a profile of an industry that has received strikingly little publicity.
It's the story of a lucrative business controlled by a handful of men, whose vertically integrated companies thrive in large part on the image of the wild young skaters who represent them. Based primarily in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, it's a publicity-wary industry worth an estimated $150 million a year that hires kids as young as 13 to promote its products - with remarkably little regulation or oversight, according to some industry leaders.
If the kids who skate for a living were Hollywood actors, for example, their incomes and working environments would be strictly monitored, Bill Buell, a regional administrator for the federal Department of Labor, told the Bay Guardian. Their earnings would go into a trust fund; their working hours would be restricted to times when school was not in session (or they would be required to study with private tutors). If their parents couldn't accompany them on "location" work, designated guardians would.
If skateboarders were considered amateur athletes, like football or basketball players, coaches would probably restrict their contact with professional scouts. Even college recruiting would be regulated: the NCAA strictly limits the contact university scouts can have with teenage athletes.
In fact, if the younger kids were working for McDonald's, they'd have to get permission from their school counselors, and their working hours would be tightly monitored.
But skateboarders are considered to be neither athletes nor actors, and their contracts are more like commercial sponsorship deals than like movie or sports deals. A pro who "rides for" a company is less a salaried member of a team than a product endorser. The skater models equipment in advertising, uses it in tournaments, and promotes it on tours. Those who are big enough stars can earn royalty checks from equipment that's marketed in their image, sort of like a Nike Air Jordan on wheels. Those contracts, Buell says, aren't covered by child-labor laws.
Stacey Peralta, the legendary former pro and onetime co-owner of the Powell-Peralta skateboard company, said the combination of big money and lax regulation is dangerous. "The sport attracts a lot of dysfunctional kids," he told the Bay Guardian. "They come in with something missing and are easier to exploit."
"What's direly missing in the industry," Peralta said, "is guidance from the manufactures."
Professional skateboarding is a relatively new phenomenon, linked closely to the technological, cultural, and marketing changes that over the past 20 years have turned skateboarding equipment into a big international business.
The old-fashioned skateboards of the '50s and '60s were made essentially of cheap plywood attached to metal wheels, which offered rough rides at slow speeds. Their popularity was fairly limited until the mid-1970s, when the advent of the polyurethane wheel gave skateboarding a whole new element. The new equipment was smooth and durable - and skaters figured out that they could kick the back of the board, jump at the same time, and become airborne.
Aerial acrobatics became increasingly flashy and complex. Skaters, mostly suburbanites, rode in empty pools, where smooth, sloping surfaces offered concrete launching pads; eventually, parks that catered to the skating craze began to appear.
But the stunts were often dangerous, and by the mid-1980s, suburban communities around the country had decided that skateboarding parks were a liability. Parks closed down, the craze began to fade, and the skateboarding industry, which was beginning to make big money off equipment sales, was suddenly in mortal danger.
Enter Fausto Vitello. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Vitello, now 48, had been a minor player in the skateboarding business as the owner of Independent Trucks, which manufactured the flexible mechanisms that connect skateboard wheels to the boards. Vitello, who in 1981 founded a magazine called Thasher, which catered to the skaters, spotted the excitement in the minor trend called "street skating."
Street skating needed no parks or pools; instead, the skaters used the basic urban infrastructure - sidewalks, curbs, concrete steps, etc. - as the backdrop for some increasingly dramatic new moves. Thrasher began to run colorful photo spreads based on urban locations with professional skaters as models, and street skating took off.
Street skating not only energized a new generation of skaters, it also heralded a new generation of equipment. Boards and wheels had to become smaller to handle increasingly complicated tricks such as "curb flips" (and aerial move in which a street curb is used as a fulcrum), "rail slides" (in which the board itself slides down a staircase rail, the board's wheels on either side), and similar acrobatics.
The new gear had a decided industry benefit: It wore out and broke faster. Wheels became flat-spotted, boards ground down, and skaters - from pros to weekend amateurs - would have to replace their gear more often. For young skaters who were increasingly snapped up by equipment manufactures as models, that wasn't much of an issue. They got the equipment free of charge. But for the kids who emulated their teenage idols (and their parents, who paid for the boards), it was a significant change.
"We love it because kids go through the shit even faster," one skateboarding company owner, who asked not to be named, told the Bay Guardian. As Steve Kenon, the owner of Consolidated Skateboards in Santa Cruz, points out, with skateboards costing as much as $100, "It's more expensive to be a skateboarder than to be a golfer."
"Whatever the pros want, the kids want," he told the Bay Guardian. "And the kids don't understand that what the pro skateboarders get, they get for free."
Perhaps it was an accident of history; perhaps it was a stroke of brilliant marketing. Either way, most industry insiders agree that Fausto Vitello - who was soon involved in companies that made wheels, boards, trucks, and clothing, as well as a magazine that promoted them all - saved the skateboarding business at a crucial point in time.
Unlike most professional sports, the magazines that cover the skateboarding world are often owned and operated by the same people who make and sell the products and hire the athletes as corporate sponsors. It would be like Sports Illustrated owning both the Chicago Bulls and Nike and paying Michael Jordan to play basketball, pose for magazine photo spreads, and promote Nike shoes - all in the same contract.
Three men control the majority of the industry, and each one publishes a magazine, manufactures equipment, and hires professional skaters, who appear as stars and models in the magazines' pages. All three also seem distinctly adverse to publicity.
Vitello's S.F.-based Thrasher is the largest publication, with a circulation of about 160,000, according to the magazine's publisher's statement from December 1993. Steve Rocco of Los Angeles owns Big Brother magazine; Lawrence Balma of Torrance, Calif., owns TransWorld Skateboarding. The three publications have distinctly different personalities, but they're similar in one crucial aspect: Each acts as the flagship for a varied hierarchy of skateboard companies.
The companies founded, financed, or controlled by Vitello, Rocco, and Balma manufacture boards, wheels, trucks, and increasingly, as the style of skaters, becomes chic, clothing. Although convoluted ownership deals and subsidiary businesses make pinpointing difficult, industry sources estimate that skateboarding materials manufactured or distributed by Vitello, Rocco, and Balma - all of whom have international distribution - make up 70 percent of the industry sales.
And with the exception of advertising from record companies, skatewear manufactures, and a few independent manufactures, the three magazines generally fill their space with ads from their own companies and feature stories on skaters representing products in which they have a financial stake. The Bay Guardian found, for example, that 35 percent of the display advertising in the May issue of Thrasher was for Vitello-associated companies - and that didn't include the numerous manufactures for whom Vitello's companies make wheels and trucks for.
A former pro who gained fame in his own right, Rocco, 26, established a position in the market in the late 1980s by playing the role of the renegade. As a veteran of the legendary Dogtown skaters from Santa Monica, he positioned himself as a figure sympathetic to skaters who would take on the then-dominant companies. Rocco, unlike the older men who dominated company ownership when he was gaining a foothold, said he would let his pro skaters be themselves and keep the rules to a minimum.
"That was the way he made all the skaters see him as their champion," said Powell, whose Powell-Peralta company was a leader in the 1980s, skateboarding's halcyon days. "Steve's big ploy was to take apart the opposition by tearing apart the promotional teams."
Rocco did not return numerous phone calls to Big Brother offices for this article.
The man industry insiders regarded as the most mainstream and socially responsible of these major magazines figures is Balma, who spoke to the Bay Guardian in a telephone interview. None of his companies have the visibility in skateboarding that Vitello's and Rocco's have. That, industry observers say, is in part, because Balma has taken the focus of his editorial space away from pushing his product and used it to document the beauty of and events in skateboarding and snowboarding.
No ads from Vitello's competitive High Speed Productions have appeared in Balma's TransWorld Skateboarding, but the magazine, which has a circulation of around 150,000, has run features on stars who skate for the competition.
"If they're skaters and are worthy of having an article about them, they'll have one," Balma said.
When asked to list the companies he owns, Balma paused for several seconds and then asked why this story was being done. After some prodding, he provided a list. The entrepreneur refused to give his age. (He did say that he has worked in the skateboard industry since the early 1970s). Balma said that all of the companies he's involved with retain the personalities of the skaters that share interest in them. He also said that it is important that he remain low-key about his involvement so as not to destroy in the eyes of young customers the image of where the boards and clothing come from.
"There's a consumer out there who in his early teens really wants to identify with [a product]," he said. "If it's part of one corporation, then maybe it's not so neat."
Fausto Vitello met with a Bay Guardian reporter recently at one of his Hunters Point warehouses. Trim and distinguished, with a thick mustache, he sat on the floor of a small office. On chairs to his left were Don Fisher, 31, and Keith Cochrane, 28, two shareholders in Think skateboards. They spoke in earnest tones about their belief in the company, their empathy for skaters, and all that being pros did for them.
Cochrane and Fisher, both of whom turned pro after finishing high school, tell stories about how they urge young skaters to stay in school, how they sent money directly to one skater's mother to pay her telephone bill, and how when they have sons - female pros are a rarity - they'd like them to be pro skaters.
"It made me an individualist," Cochrane said. "He [my son] would have that time when he had his own spotlight."
Vitello pointed to Fisher and Cochrane as an example of how, because the companies he's involved with are run by other people, his influence in the industry is limited.
"I've been accused of this [playing a dominant role in the industry] for years and years, and I stand on my record," he said. "I'm not in control of all this stuff like people think I am."
Cochrane added: "I don't really appreciate being called a flunky. I run this company [Think]. I sign the checks."
Nevertheless, Vitello admits that he has a financial stake in Think and in numerous other companies, and that he provided the capital to help set Cochrane and Fisher up in business.
He insisted that many kids have done well as professional skaters - Cochrane and Fisher are two good examples - and said there was no need for industry self-regulation.
"It's just like surfing," he said. "There have been attempts to sign contrandustry is a machine and it cannot succeed without having a good team.
"Since they can't survive without each other, they owe something to the kids."