SI Vault: What is this grown man doing on a skateboard? Making millions
This story originally ran in the June 10, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine click here.
The line begins forming shortly before noon, as children and their parents assemble on the sidewalk of an upscale outdoor shopping center in West Hollywood. This is long before the velvet rope is put in place to organize the queue, before the three beefy security officers arrive and before the guest of honor, a gawky 34-year-old "retired" professional skateboarder, takes his place at a table inside the front door of a pristine new skate and apparel shop that bears his name: HawkSkate. The line grows in the cool spring sunlight. Adolescent boys and girls wearing long, baggy surf shorts and clunky skate shoes carry battle-tested skateboard decks plastered with Hawk logos. Older shoppers shuffle past, befuddled. "Tony Hawk?" says a bald man in plaid Bermuda shorts. "Never heard of him."
You and three other people on the planet, Grandpa. For nearly two decades, Hawk has been a legend in the world of skateboarding, a waif genius who began competing at age 11 and was soon reinventing the underground sport, creating close to 100 tricks, dominating competitive vert (halfpipe) skateboarding and, by age 27, ushering in the X Games era. "He's the Michael Jordan of skateboarding," says Tommy Guerrero, a former pro skateboarder who competed through the 1980s. "He's the guy with all the talent, creativity and competitive drive."
Logically that should have been the end of the story: "The doctor, the best contest skater there ever was," says Jake Phelps, longtime editor of Thrasher magazine, one of the edgy publications that speaks to skateboard culture. But it has not ended there. Long past the age generally associated with skateboarding yet still at the top of his game, Hawk has crossed over, dragging his rebel sport (and several others in the X Games bracket) into the mainstream. If you are between ages six and 18, or are the parent of a child in that demographic, Hawk probably resides somewhere in your house. In the Xbox, perhaps. Or the PS2 console. Maybe in the CD player. On the bookshelf. On the television set. In the garage. In the dresser drawer. In the freezer. "He's the man who skates with a wallet in his back pocket and a Lexus in the parking lot," says Phelps. "Tony Hawk means ka-ching."
"Tony is the first skateboarder who has given the world a face to put on the sport," says Stacy Peralta, who directed the critically acclaimed skateboard-roots movie Dogtown and Z-Boys and has known Hawk for 20 years. "He has become a part of American pop culture."
In an online poll conducted by teen marketer Alloy last week, Hawk was voted the "coolest big-time athlete," ahead of Tiger Woods, Jordan and Derek Jeter. "If you're a manufacturer and you've got a product that you think will appeal to an audience that's under 21 years old, you've got to look real hard at Tony, maybe even more than some of the big names in mainstream sports," says Keith Bruce, senior vice president and director of sports marketing for Foote, Cone & Belding, an international ad agency that does not have a relationship with Hawk.
In the past four years Hawk has become a one-man marketing phenomenon. Sales of Hawk-branded items generate more than $250 million annually, and Hawk himself has earned an estimated $10 million in each of the last two years. He is represented by the William Morris Agency and has a personal publicist. His sister Pat, a onetime backup singer for John Denver and Michael Bolton, runs Tony Hawk Inc., which employs 75 people. The Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game series has amassed about $450 million in sales since its introduction in the fall of 1999.
In '92 Hawk took out a $40,000 second mortgage on his small home to start Birdhouse Skateboards, a board and accessories manufacturing company, and Blitz Distribution, a company that distributes six other brands of skateboards and accessories. The combined sales for Birdhouse and Blitz—which Hawk owns with former pro skateboarder Per Welinder—approach $25 million a year. Hawk started his own clothing line in 1998 and sold it within two years to board-sports clothing giant Quiksilver. The line did $13 million in sales last year.
Hawk also has licensing agreements with Adio Shoes to market Hawk Shoes; with Mattel Toys, which uses his name and image on Hot Wheels miniature cars and a remote-controlled skateboard; and with Heinz, which pays him to serve as the spokesperson for Bagel Bites and Hot Bites frozen snacks, a product line that has enjoyed a 20% jump in sales since signing Hawk. "Face it, the guy is totally golden right now," says pro skateboarder Bucky Lasek, who performs on tour withHawk. "He could put his name on toilet paper and sell it to the world."
In February, Hawk made his first appearance on Jay Leno, and in May he did David Letterman. He does a cameo, as himself, in the high school movie The New Guy and is one of the principal stars of Disney's Ultimate X, an X Games IMAX film in which one fan says, wide-eyed, "Tony Hawk is god." In late April, Hawkshot a sitcom pilot called What I Like about You, starring Jennie Garth (formerly of Beverly Hills 90210) and Amanda Bynes (of Nickelodeon's The Amanda Show), again playing Tony Hawk, celebrity skateboarder. The show has been picked for the WB's fall season. Hawk will provide the voice for his own character in a fall 2002 episode of The Simpsons in which Bart joins Hawk's traveling skateboard show—and Hawk duels Homer in a vert-ramp showdown. Each summer Hawkdoes a multi-city skateboarding tour with Birdhouse team members; last year it was condensed into a series of one-hour shows, Tony Hawk's Gigantic Skatepark Tour, for ESPN. (Hawk-owned 900 Films produces the video.) A Saturday-morning cartoon show featuring Hawk is in development, and Disney has bought film rights to his autobiography, Hawk: Occupation: Skateboarder.
On May 5 Tony and his wife, Erin, were driven in a limo from their home in Carlsbad, Calif., to Hollywood for Movieline magazine's Young Hollywood Awards, where Hawk—seated at a table with L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson and American Beauty's Thora Birch—was presented with an award as Cultural Icon.
All of this—the celebrity, the money—is in many ways a mystery to Hawk. Ten years ago he was nearly broke; five years ago he was hoping to keep Birdhouse solvent and get work on the side as a film editor. Sitting on the floor of the sprawling 5,000-square-foot, $1.6 million ranch house where the Hawks are raising their two sons—Spencer, 3, and Keegan, 10 months—and helping to bring up Tony's son Riley, 9, from his first marriage, Erin says, "There's a Talking Heads songTony likes to sing: 'And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself—Well...how did I get here?'"
Hawk began skateboarding at nine and was instantly hooked, a kid with long, unruly blond hair who had found no joy under the restrictions of team sports. His father, Frank, would drive him to Oasis, a skatepark beneath a ramp to the 805 Freeway not far from their house in San Diego, and later to the Del Mar Skate Ranch, next to the famous thoroughbred racetrack. "He was a skinny little kid, all padded up," says Grant Brittain, who managed the Del Mar park and later became an accomplished skateboarding photographer. "There were a lot of kids back then who got dropped off as a babysitting service, or who got into lots of drugs. Tony just kept busy, skating."
Hawk's support at home was extraordinary; his father not only drove him to skateparks, but also organized the California Amateur Skateboard League and later the National Skateboard Association, so that his son--and others--would have contests and awards to validate their sport.
Tony had come into the late-'70s world that Peralta captured in Dogtown and Z-Boys, in which gnarly surfers worked moves on the curved walls of empty swimming pools. They were the precursors to the vert skaters most often seen today by mainstream audiences. Tony entered his first competition at age 11 and turned pro for Powell Peralta Skateboards' team, the Bones Brigade, at 14. By 16 he was changing the sport. "People were blown away by the things he was doing back then," says Peralta. "His style was so different, so creative...so dangerous." Hawk didn't have the upper-body strength to snatch his board into midair moves, so he became the first skater to Ollie--or spring into the air with the board on his feet, as if it were stuck there--into vert moves. His style was initially derided by veteran skaters, but it later became the foundation for almost every move in vert-ramp skateboarding.
As a teenager Hawk was an integral part of Peralta's Bones Brigade videos, which underscored the freedom and joy of skateboarding and are revered by skateboarders to this day. Hawk's contracts became more lucrative, and he dominated vert contests. By 1987, when he was 19, Hawk was earning more than $200,000 a year from video royalties and sponsorship deals. Skateboarding is relentlessly cyclical, however: up in the '70s, down in the early '80s, up in the mid- and late '80s, back down in the early '90s. By '93 the sport had been devastated by an internecine battle between vert and street (rails, stairs and other urban features) skaters and by liability issues that forced many swimming-pool-style skateparks to close. Hawk was married, with an infant son, and struggling to pay his big mortgage bills. "I did demos [skatepark demonstration performances] where I could count the spectators on two hands," he says. According to a survey done by American Sports Data, Inc., there were 5.4 million skateboarders in the U.S. in 1993, only half of what there had been six years earlier.
Yet Hawk kept skating and trying to build a business. Birdhouse survived, although it did not prosper. In 1995 ESPN debuted what was then called the Extreme Games. Curious, Hawk went to Rhode Island, where all the events were staged, won the vert competition and finished second in street. People began to recognize him in public. Birdhouse sales spiked.
"Never underestimate the power of television," says Hawk. "I never liked the way they manufactured rivalries between skaters, but TV made a difference." In 1999, competing in the Best Trick event at the sixth X Games in San Francisco, Hawk became the first skateboarder in history to complete a 900, a dangerous 2 1/2-revolution spin off a vert ramp. He had tried the trick several times before, never landing it; in the process he had suffered a cracked rib and a spinal injury that required several adjustments. Yet on this night he succeeded. He promptly retired from competition, and since that night his life has been a blur.
Hawk's friends know him as a techno-geek at heart. "If there's a new gadget, he's got it in his bag," says Guerrero. He travels with a Titanium PowerBook, an iPod and a Palm Pilot, and on a recent afternoon he was busy assembling the latest Apple desktop computer in his home office. It's no surprise, then, that he loves video gaming and that in the mid-1990s he approached the lords of that industry to develop a skateboarding game.
Early returns were not good. "Nintendo had this one guy who was a little bit into skating, so they brought me in for a meeting," says Hawk, "but as soon as I got there, the guys in the suits were like, 'Why do we want to do a skateboarding game?' They didn't get it. I remember standing up across a conference table from a guy from Midway and yelling at him to at least try developing the game. No luck."
In September 1998 Activision, which is based in Santa Monica, Calif., called Hawk and expressed interest in doing a skating game. It was a natural partnership. Activision is to gaming what skateboarding is to sports: iconoclastic, contrary, rebellious. "We wanted to get into sports gaming," says Kathy Vrabeck, Activision's executive vice president for global publishing and brand management. "Other companies were already there. The one area where we thought there would be room for growth was extreme sports." Programmers from Neversoft (then an independent company, now owned by Activision) developed a demo and showed it toHawk, who tinkered with it and gave other feedback for almost a year. In May '99 Tony Hawk's Pro Skater was unveiled at a trade show in Los Angeles, and it created enormous buzz. It debuted in the fall, and by Christmas it had shot to the top of the sales charts. Pro Skater 3 was ranked No. 7 among all video titles and second among sports games in 2001 (after Madden NFL 2002). The game has earned Hawk royalties of more than $6 million per year.
Through those three incarnations the game has created a large portion of Hawk's wealth, and Activision is now the No. 3-ranked software publisher, behind Electronic Arts and Nintendo (and ahead of such mainstays as Sony, Sega, Midway, Acclaim and Microsoft). The company's stock price has more than tripled since '99 and was largely unaffected by the post-Sept. 11 market swoon (as was the entire gaming industry, which, according to a March article in FORTUNE, outsold the movie industry in 2001).
Activision has followed Tony Hawk's Pro Skater with extreme-sports titles attached to five other Hawk-like superstars, including BMX rider Mat Hoffman. "Tony's game turned him into a mainstream celebrity," says Hoffman. "He was the pioneer on this. I was more than happy to follow him."
Meanwhile sales of Hawk clothing have flourished on the strength of his name and the growth of skateboarding, and sales of Hawk-endorsed snack foods and kids' toys have been pumped by his personal appearances. John Carroll, managing director for Heinz frozen potatoes and snacks, says that when he hired Hawkto man a Bagel Bites booth at the 2000 Winter X Games, "we needed to get extra security because our line was so long that it was spilling over into other booths. The way he made a connection with each person in line was amazing. We also have relationships with Kristi Yamaguchi and Larry Bird, and Tony is as good as, or better than, anybody I deal with in this business."
In an era in which sports idols are too often self-absorbed and aloof, Hawk is unaffected and generous. When a geeky 12-year-old was slow to approach Hawk for a signature at his West Hollywood store, Hawk pulled him close, signed his skateboard deck and asked, "How old are you?"
"Twelve," said the boy, hair hanging over his face, lip quivering.
"Twelve!" shouted Hawk. "Cool!" The boy smiled broadly, clearly feeling he'd shared a personal moment with his idol.
Hawk's public rap sheet consists of one amicable divorce (in 1995) and a slew of skateboard-related citations. At home he gets up in the morning and makes breakfast for the boys while Erin sleeps in. He picks Riley up at school in an SUV, like all the moms do. "He's a guy who, for corporate America, can reach parents," says John Griffin, senior vice president with Clarion Marketing and Communications in Greenwich, Conn. "You get a family guy, a squeaky-clean guy. That's important."
Hawk also knows how to test the boundaries of squeaky clean. He appeared on the love-it-or-hate-it MTV series Jackass wearing a chicken suit and skateboarded off a loop into a lake. He also wore a ridiculous bubble-wrap fat suit. "His concern about [potential] damage to his image doesn't override his sense of humor," says the executive producer of Jackass, Jeff Tremaine.
Of course, the key to Hawk's success might just be his name. Tony Hawk: "What an iconic American name," says Peralta. "It's like Johnny Lightning or something." Hawk gets a great kick out of this. His name—absolutely legit, Anthony Frank Hawk—wasn't so cool or serendipitous when he was a picked-on adolescent. "They yelled, 'Tony Hawk, bony c---,'" says Hawk. "It didn't seem like a great marketing tool back then."
As Hawk has prospered in the last half decade, skateboarding has grown robustly. According to American Sports Data, Inc., more children under the age of 18 skateboarded (10.6 million) than played baseball (8.2 million) in 2001. "The tide is rising because of Tony," says Peralta. "Parents look at him and say, 'I don't mind my kid doing that. He's Mr. Straight Guy.'"
Yet inside the skating world, neither the sport's growth nor Hawk's emergence as a mainstream celebrity have been met with universal approval. Many skaters remain tied to the sport's rebel roots and embrace underground rituals. "Underground skating is where it's at, and it's all street, all search and destroy" says Mickey Reyes, team manager for Real Skateboards, which sponsors street-style amateur skaters as young as nine and pros as young as 16. "These kids, their attitude about Tony Hawk is, 'Who gives a f---? I don't care about doing a 900.'"
For skateboarding fans outside Hawk's core audience, the stars are teenage (and younger) street skaters who make their reputations performing dangerous tricks without pads, in forbidden places, captured on film or videotape. They get contracts with skateboard and apparel companies and earn anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 a month. According to industry insiders, there are 350 to 400 such street pros, but no more than 30 vert pros like Hawk. (Hawk, it should be noted, has done lots of street skating, and at a high level, but it is not his specialty.)
"I think there's a pretty significant portion of people inside the sport who think Tony has sold out," says Guerrero. "I can't say they're wrong. Tony has won more contests than anybody in history, but he's also opened a door for corporate America to see what we're doing, and that changes the whole nature of things. A lot of people didn't want that door opened. For the diehards, it dilutes the whole experience."
Darrell Stanton, 16, a 6-foot, 150-pound high school sophomore from Houston, is a professional street skater who caught the attention of manufacturers by making what his peers call a "sponsor-me tape" of his best tricks. He occasionally spends evenings at skateparks but often just sets out with his friends in search of railings and stairs to attack. Not long ago Stanton landed on the cover of Thrasher for executing a Backside Nose Blunt Slide—skating on the front edge of his board—down a cement ledge along 13 steps. Like most good street tricks, it's dangerous. "I hope the whole skateboarding popularity thing stops before it gets too mainstream," says Stanton. "I'd like for it to stay a raw sport."
Hawk is hardly out of touch with the cutting edge. Birdhouse sponsors a traveling team that includes nine street skaters. (Hawk joined the team, unannounced, for the May Birdhouse Tour, skating demos in such unglamorous locales as Fargo, N.Dak., Rapid City, S.Dak., and Wichita, Kans.) Nor is he out of touch with mass skating. He donates all his demo fees to the Tony Hawk Foundation, which, among other things, has provided start-up money to build 65 public skateparks around the country.
"I've heard all the criticism," says Hawk. "Kids all think I'm old and I'm a dinosaur and I suck. Street kids don't care what I'm doing on a vert ramp. But there are so many kids who started playing my video game who had never skated in their lives and then they thought it looked cool, so they went out and bought a board and tried it. And they liked it. Look at our skatepark tour. That's not about highlighting what I do, it's about the whole sport. I think street skating is awesome. The whole world is your playground. Vert skating is more of a spectator sport."
Hawk stops pleading his case. "Here's what skateboarding is to me," he says. "It's my form of exercise, my sport, my means of expression since I was nine years old. It's what I love. I never expected it to give me anything more than that."
On the last Saturday in April, the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas quivers with sound. At the center of the arena floor is a huge portable vert ramp, 15 feet high on each side, with an eight-foot opening in the middle. It is surrounded by steeply angled metal ramps. Behind the ramp is a concert stage where a band called the Offspring is ripping through an earsplitting cover of the Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop while a hall of fame lineup of skateboarders and freestyle BMX riders fills the vert pipe in a choreographed routine, and freestyle motocross riders soar 30 feet into the air on 250-pound dirt bikes. The effect is complete sensual overload, much to the delight of a crowd of more than 7,000 spectators.
This is Tony Hawk's Boom Boom HuckJam, the erstwhile Birdman's grandest experiment of all. It is the X Games version of the Ice Capades, a 90-minute show at which fans can watch performers usually seen only on television (rarely) and as animated figures in video games. Hawk conceived the HuckJam more than a year ago and believed in it so deeply that when he couldn't secure sponsorship, he put up more than $1 million of his own money to build the ramp, buy the lighting and hire the talent. "We're approaching a transitional time for skateboarding," says pro skateboarder Bob Burnquist. "Somebody needed to think of the next feasible step. That's what Tony has done. With his business sense it's no surprise that he was the one."
The HuckJam plan would unfold in two parts: this onetime show in Las Vegas and then a multiple-city tour in the fall. For the Vegas show Hawk invited the most experienced marquee performers in skateboarding (Burnquist, Lasek, Andy Macdonald, Lincoln Ueda and 15-year-old Shaun White, who barely missed making the U.S. Olympic team in snowboarding), freestyle BMX (Hoffman, Dave Mirra, Dennis McCoy, Kevin Robinson and John Parker) and freestyle motocross (Carey Hart, Mike Cinqmars, Clifford Adopante and Ronnie Faist), along with the Offspring and another band, Social Distortion. (The fall tour will have two rosters which together will include all of these A-list performers.)
The skateboarders and bikers signed on as soon as Hawk called them. "When I heard Tony's name, I said I'm in," says Mirra, who, like Hoffman, is nearly as big in the BMX world as Hawk is in skateboarding. The HuckJam helps these athletes prolong careers that have been interrupted frequently by injury. Hoffman, 30, has suffered more than 50 bone breaks and undergone a staggering 14 operations; motocross rider Hart, 26, the only man to have landed a dirt-bike back flip, fell to the ground from 40 feet in the air, breaking his right foot in 10 places and cracking three ribs and his tailbone, when he tried the stunt at the 2001 X Games. Tightly choreographed routines are a perfect way to ease into retirement while giving fans a solid show.
"The goal is to build something that will live beyond my involvement in it," Hawk said before the Vegas debut. "This first show is either going to be a huge success or the most expensive party I've ever thrown for a bunch of my friends."
During two weeks of April rehearsals at a mammoth airplane hangar in San Bernardino, Calif., it was clear that the 6'3", 175-pound Hawk has lost nothing athletically and, in fact, might be improving in his third decade as a skateboarder. He has emerged relatively unscathed from a long career in a punishing sport, having had just one knee surgery, although he has been knocked unconscious 10 times. His ankles crack like castanets, and his right shin is perpetually scabbed from sliding vert falls, but he is otherwise whole. Hawk still attacks vert tricks with his distinctive pterodactyl swoop, and he remains the only skater to have landed a 900. He has now done it nine times. "Tony could enter a vert contest tomorrow and win it," says Lasek. It would be inspiring to attribute Hawk's fitness and sustained skill to rigorous conditioning, but in fact all he does is skate. In the summer he surfs.
The Las Vegas show comes off spectacularly, save for the walkout by a handful of parents who cart off their children when the Offspring begin dropping f bombs. "The demographic was a little younger than we expected," says Hawk. "We'll respond to that." More than 3,000 seats are sold on the day of the event, a huge number in a busy town, and one that doesn't generally cater to the skateboarding-age crowd. The choreography and the athletes are sharp. Hawk lands on his head attempting a 900 to close the show, but he walks off, lucid if wobbly. Accountants and planners with arena rock-show experience will soon tell Hawk that the fall tour is feasible. Planning has begun.
Two weeks pass. The occasion is a late-afternoon photo shoot at Hawk's private vert ramp, a $100,000 structure on a barren lot next to a friend's house in Oceanside, just north of Carlsbad. Low gray clouds and a steady breeze from the northwest have turned early May into January as Hawk strips down to skate shorts and a red Quiksilver T-shirt and pads up to ride. After a brief warmup, he tries to drop in off the 19-foot-high ramp at the center of the halfpipe, ascend the 23-foot center ramp on the opposite side, suspend himself briefly in the air, turn 180 degrees, stick the nose of his board on the rim of the pipe, pop back in and then ride down. In skating parlance it's called a Frontside Ollie Nose Blunt. "It's a super old trick," says Brittain, the photographer, "but Tony's never done it this big [high]." Thirty-four years old, wealthy, yet still trying something new.
For half an hour Hawk repeatedly attempts the move, sweating through the T-shirt, his face turning crimson. Numerous times he bails out early in the Ollie, laughing at himself as he scampers up the ramp on his feet while his board rattles to the well of the pipe. When he finally nails the move twice in succession, he whistles shrilly and holds his hands out to the side, as if accepting praise from an unseen audience. But there is no crowd, just one skater and three witnesses on a desolate piece of real estate dotted with twisted cottonwood trees and dead sagebrush.
Even with his work finished, Hawk continues to ride the slick brown walls of the pipe in the gathering twilight. "Stupid fun, just like always," he says, pumping into a succession of air moves off the top of the pipe. The sound of ball bearings and wheels on wood pierces the suburban silence. Tony has told Erin and the boys that he will be home for dinner by 6:30, and it is nearly that now. He rolls to the bottom of the ramp, jumps off his board, kicks it from horizontal to vertical and grabs it before walking toward the waiting Lexus, a kid and his toy finished for the day. A grown man leaving his job, heading home.