Zitzer: Why Contests Matter…Again

By Paul Zitzer

Last year when the Maloof brothers announced they’d give Chris Cole a million dollars if he won their next skateboard contest, more than anything it focused attention on a trend that’s been picking up steam for a while now: contests matter again.

Cole at Maloof in Orange County

The heyday of the skateboard contest was probably about 1988, give or take. At the time, if you wanted to have a future in skateboarding you would have been well advised to make your run for the judges. Although it’s true that there were other popular dudes besides Hawk and Hosoi, those two, who were ranked number one and two in contests, were most people’s favorites.

Hawk today, in Beijing

Skate videos were just starting to catch on but they pretty much showed the top pros doing what you already knew they could do, and skaters in general were still mainly interested in learning tricks that they could, um, learn. Doing a trick one out of 700 tries, never to be done again, would have been considered ridiculous. But an upstart brand with a novel idea was about to change everything.

That company was H-Street, and under Mike Ternasky’s (RIP) direction, the team was the first to put into practice the idea that it didn’t matter if a trick took all day, all week, or all year to land as long as when you made it, it was on video. From then on, much of skateboarding’s energy went into testing the limits of what tricks were humanly possible. A few years later, the first incarnation of Plan B (also a Mike Ternasky creation) refined the 700-try concept to a science in “Questionable”, and just about every skate company since has done their best to offer a passable imitation.

Shane O’Neill, Street League AZ

Then along came the Internet. The final push of the video revolution arrived in the form of the online clip, where it’s something akin to H-Street on steroids times infinity. A never ending supply of landed tricks, available for viewing by everyone all the time, has contributed to this sinking feeling that we’ve reached a saturation point. When there are a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand kids who all look like they should probably be pro based on a 60 second clip, the question becomes how do you really know which of them are actually good?

The answer, or at least one answer, is provided by our good friend the contest. Seeing Chaz Ortiz go from flow trash to paid pro in the blink of an eye after his 2007 Free Flow victory and subsequent Dew Cup win the following year was just one sign of the newly rediscovered appreciation of a skater who could actually show up somewhere and do his tricks.

Chaz at the Dew Tour

When Shane O’Neill put it down for Street League last year, not only was it painfully obvious that very few people in the world could ever hope to skate at that kind of level, but we all agreed that in many ways it was more entertaining than watching even the best video part.

Another factor in the renewed importance of the contest has been the willingness of organizers to experiment with formats, course designs, etc. Starting with unconventional events like Koston’s Game of Skate, The Reese Forbes High Ollie Challenge, and The OP King of Skate, contests became interesting again. These days there’s the Vans Downtown Showdown, Thrasher’s King of the Road, Manny Mania, the Battle of the Berrics, and on and on and on. Each of which can keep you entertained for hours.

Chaz collecting his second Dew Cup

The final piece of the puzzle has been the growing number of televised skateboarding events, which have been upping the ante in an effort to compete with one another: X Games, the Dew Tour, the Maloof Money Cup, and now Street League. One of the biggest headline grabbers of course is that prize money payout, which has been headed ever upward as of late.

When $150,000 is riding on your favorite skater’s last attempt at a kickflip, you’ll notice that even people that “hate” contests sure seem to talk about them a lot. But, as the credits roll on this write-up, maybe the raddest thing about contests is that you get to see what used to take two years and a kajillian tries happen live on TV right before your eyes in an afternoon. That’s nothing to complain about…so long as no one decides to add a halftime show.

Cole at Maloof in NYC