The Last Word

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:57 AM ET

They are the counter-culture of the pro sports world -- rebels in sneakers and, someday soon, they are in danger of becoming as commercially viable as a Big Mac and fries.

As skateboarders go, that's great for the bank account but hell on wheels to your street cred.

"These guys make great money. It has become a business for a lot of these pros," Mark Taylor, vice-president of Event Properties for IMG, and one of the organizers of this weekend's Canadian Open Skateboarding Championships at Hamilton's Copps Coliseum, says. "Many make six figures and for a lot of the pros, seven figures is fairly common."

This weekend's event, which concludes this afternoon, is all about big jumps, big tricks, big music and, even if some of the participants are loath to admit it, big money.

It has brought together some of the biggest names on four wheels this side of NASCAR, including Tony Trujillo and Greg Lutzka of the U.S. and Canada's Pierre Luc Gagnon.

Oh, and, Shaun White, a two-sport star better known in main stream sports as the Olympic snowboard gold medallist.

"It's funny, you'll see some kid walk in with a scruffy pair of jeans, someone you wouldn't think has more than a couple hundred bucks to his name. And they're driving Beemers, Audis and living in million dollar homes in southern California," Taylor said.

Skateboarding, Gagnon argues, is much like hockey in the 1950s and '60s: Young, searching for a direction and identity.

In that sense, it is much like its adherents, most of whom are in the 16-25 age bracket.

"We're not yet like hockey players who all make millions. It's like the days of Maurice Richard. Some guys make big money but a lot still have other jobs, too. I know some good pros who are living cheque to cheque on a couple thousand a month," Gagnon says.

He doesn't deny the sport has been good to him.

Since turning pro 10 years ago he has won eight medals at the X-Games, been featured in videos and travelled the world. He just bought a new home in Carlsbad, Calif., sold a condo in his hometown of Montreal and he drives a Mercedes.

Tony Hawk, the sport's Michael Jordan, is worth millions.

White is going to be a conglomerate.

But it wasn't always this way.

Gagnon, 25, remembers when skateboarders were outcasts.

"When I started parents weren't very supportive. Most thought we were bums and out to get into trouble."

In Canada, there now are more teens skateboarding than playing youth hockey. Industry Canada estimates the industry is a $63-million US market consisting of 900,000 skateboarders. The sport has become so mainstream that White has graced the covers of Rolling Stone and ESPNThe Magazine. Last year, he won an ESPY for Best Olympian.

"Now, almost every city of any size has a skatepark. It has changed a lot," Gagnon said. "I'd never have thought growing up I could actually make a living off this."

But he, and many others, do.

When sponsors such as West 49, XBox, IMG, Sympatico and Samsung are involved, so too, is money. There even is a pro skateboarding tour, and the U.S. Sporting Goods Association says participation in skateboarding increased by 55.3% between 1998 and 2003 to more than nine million participants.

"I go from one day dealing with Jack Nicklaus to Shaun White the next," Taylor said. "It's interesting to see the landscapes levelling between fringe and mainstream sports."

A generation ago, the kids knocking the tops off the tulips were playing street hockey. Which really isn't so much different than the kid flying skateboard-first through your hedge today, other than these days his pants are hanging around his knees. Annoying, perhaps, but hardly criminal.

Taylor expects upward of 20,000 fans in Hamilton. But just as the sports we watch have changed, so has the way we're watching them. The Canadian Open will be webcast, the wave of the future in communication.

"These kids love technology, so the venue for action sports doesn't matter so much," Taylor said. "Surfing had some of the best athletes and took them to the Pacific ... the best waves ... they had maybe a couple hundred (people) on site but the event was webcast to probably four million people."

This weekend's event is on Sympatico MSN.

"There's millions of people who do the sport and they follow their heroes worldwide. The same way we might follow the PGA on TV, they watch on the web," Taylor said.

There are discussions about skateboarding being the next nouveau sport to follow snowboarding into the Olympics.

"The IOC is looking to find ways to stay fresh and young and attractive to the kids," Taylor said. "It's a hot-button issue within the skating community. Many see it as a threat to the sports' individualism and non-conformist identity."

"If the Olympics wants skateboarding, then it should take it the way it is. We shouldn't compromise the sport just to get in," Gagnon said. "You can't have us wear uniforms and numbers like they do with most sports. It's skateboarding. We can't do that. It wouldn't look right. It wouldn't feel right.

"We have to keep skateboarding real."


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