You won't believe this, but Bill Riordan, the preeminent sports hustler...front man?...can you live with entrepreneur, Bill?...is into skateboarding, with a bunch of angel-faced children. How can this be? "Anything that generates $300 million in annual sales can't be all bad," Riordan says.
Once Riordan was into Jimmy Connors. Now he is suing Connors, but that's another story. In the olden days, with Connors, Riordan lifted tennis out of the society pages and put it into the gossip columns. Bill Riordan also took a lot of long green out of Vegas, with something called the Heavyweight Championship of Tennis. The Vegas caper got its inspiration in 1974, when Connors came off the court after clobbering Ken Rosewall in the finals at Forest Hills. "What did Connors say to you?" the press asked Riordan breathlessly, and, very serious, even grim, Riordan replied, "You won't believe this, but Jimbo said, 'Get me Laver!' "
Well, believe it or not, they did believe him. Maybe what Connors really said was, "Get me a drink of water," or "Get me a towel." This is probably as close as he came to "Get me Laver," but everybody wrote it down. And now it has a shot at Bartlett's. Riordan shakes his head and waxes nostalgic, which is another thing he does well. "With Jimmy, sometimes it was like leading a symphony," he says. "And I don't believe anybody in sports could have done it but Connors. He never deviated from the script I wrote him. Even today, at his press conferences, some of my best lines surface."
Riordan is reminiscing as he drives to the taping of his first skateboard TV show, which he is coproducing with Jack Dolph, who, in another incarnation, was commissioner of something quaint known as the American Basketball Association. Riordan enjoys working the TV side of the street. In TV, everybody calls him Billy. Also, in TV he is classified as "not a bad guy." In TV, there are only two types of people. One is a bad guy. The other is not a bad guy. TV people will say of someone, "He's a bad guy." "Yeah, a bad guy." Another name will come up—Riordan's, say. "Not a bad guy, Billy." "No, not a bad guy."
February 7, 1977
Riordan talked Dolph into the TV skateboarding venture the morning after the Calcutta at the Masters. It was over breakfast. They both remember this well, inasmuch as a guy they were with was putting vodka on his eggs. Dolph was not much interested until Riordan brought up the business about the $300 million. "You're not going to believe this, Jack," Riordan said, "but there is now $300 million in annual sales in skateboarding." The former commissioner of the American Basketball Association did believe this, which is why he is now, several months later, in some kind of turnstile jungle park in Tampa, shooting skateboard heroics for TV.
Skateboarding is taking off again—only this time it is not supposed to be just a fad, the way it was a decade or so ago. There are municipal skateboard parks being constructed. Skateboard championships. Skateboarder magazine, a bimonthly, sells 210,000 copies and has two million readers. Denis Shufeldt, known as Shu-Fly, who has been clocked at 58 mph on a skateboard and is, at 26, the grand old man of the sport, says, "It won't peak for another 10 years." Shu-Fly is the expert commentator for the Riordan-Dolph show, and he actually makes a good living out of being a skateboarding authority. Can you believe that?
Skateboarding, Riordan told Dolph at the Masters, was a natural for KidVid. What the Heavyweight Championship of Tennis was to Vegas, skateboarding could be to KidVid. If you don't know what KidVid is, it is what Variety calls children's television. Jerry Golod, the sachem of KidVid at CBS, bought the idea quick. Right away he could see the place for skateboarding on KidVid. While nobody gives a rat's nose about television for grown-ups, everybody monitors KidVid to make sure it is tasteful and socially redeeming. You can't get Pepsi-Cola as a KidVid sponsor, for example, because Pepsi-Cola contains caffeine. All sorts of mothers are against violence on children's television—thereby forcing the youngsters to stay up late into prime time to get their quota of ax murders—and now people are even complaining that there is too much sex on KidVid. With the possible exception of Phyllis George and Charlie's Angels, all the good-looking TV broads work KidVid. For example, have you seen Isis?
So the pressure is on Jerry Golod, who is not a bad guy. No, not a bad guy. KidVid can use children's sports for wholesome purposes. Golod fairly leaped on skateboarding. It is healthy, nonviolent and even nonsexy. Of course, to keep the do-gooders content, they will have to go heavy on the safety equipment.
And the kids are all sweetie pies. Riordan explains why this is so. "Times have changed," he says. "If I had Connors now, I couldn't sell him the way I did. This is the Goldwater era of teen-agers. We're selling the apple pie and motherhood look. I don't want the beach bums in the cut-off jeans." For KidVid, he put his applehood skateboarders into snappy samples from the Jimmy Connors-Robert Bruce sportswear line, one of the last contracts he signed with Connors before he started suing him instead.
Riordan arrives at the TV site in Tampa, where he becomes Billy again. It is Busch Gardens, where they made a good deal for the exposure. Former ABA Commissioner Dolph has brought in ex-NFL star Tom Brookshier to be the show's host. Brookshier is known as Brookie, and he also has on the Jimmy Connors-Robert Bruce duds. Not a bad guy. No, not a bad guy. Dolph has set up the slalom course over by Dwarf Village, and the kids are all there, just in from Southern California, the land of the endless asphalt, where skateboarding is biggest.
Riordan himself hails from Salisbury, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Salisbury is quite a place, per capitawise, in promoters; also calling Salisbury home is Frank Perdue, the guy who figured out how to put a brand name on a chicken. There must be something in the water in Salisbury. In any event, Riordan, jilted, on the rebound from Connors, was in California playing the horses and whatnot when he looked out the window and saw a kid skateboarding down the street. "You won't believe this, but something clicked in my mind," Riordan says, reminding one of Samuel Morse or Alexander Graham Bell at equivalent moments of inspiration.
Mind still clicking, Riordan went down and congratulated the kid on his ability. Modestly, the boy replied, "You ought to see Ty Page."
"Get him," declared the ghost writer of "Get me Laver."
Presently, another young skateboarder appeared, this one described by Riordan as "a Huckleberry Finn in a blond Afro," and did his suburb-renowned stuff for the visiting promoter. Riordan inquired if the young man had ever been remunerated for his magical abilities. Ty Page said that, well, he'd made $50 once. Said Riordan, "Your price is now $2,500, kid!" Thus did Jimmy Connors' erstwhile Svengali become a skateboard mogul on the road to KidVid immortality.
Promoting, Riordan feels, is a whole new ball game. "The three greatest sports promoters, in my judgment," he says, "have been Muhammad Ali, Bill Veeck and Tex Rickard. In that order. But all the rules they succeeded by are out now. TV is almost the whole thing. That is where you have to develop superstars. And the superstars must make big money—that is the rest of the equation. Americans are completely money conscious. A guy can be fabulous, but he can't be a superstar unless he makes the big money. And the money today in sports is TV. He must be on TV, or nobody will acknowledge he exists. Representing athletes today is a nickel-dime business, except in extraordinary circumstances, like Jerry Kapstein and the baseball players last fall. After the athletes take it all out for themselves, there's nothing left."
Besides the wonderfulness of working in TV, the wonderfulness about promoting innocent young neo-Goldwater teen-agers who skate only for the pure joy of it was that Riordan knew he would not have to suffer the greed and avariciousness that have sullied adult sports. Or so he thought, until—you will not believe this—one of the kids in his skateboarding stable had a lawyer call a few days before the taping in Florida to inform the promoter that the kid's contract had to be renegotiated.
"Oh, my god," Riordan says, "I've created more monsters. And here I was, just looking for something to help me toward my Golden Years, keep me off the streets and away from the track. Another kid I signed up, he says, 'Gee, Mr. Riordan, the most in my life I ever saw before was a $20 bill.' And a couple weeks later, same kid calls up, saying, 'Hey, Bill, sure you talk big money, but I never see it.' "
So much for the applehood generation.
Laura Thornhill, age 15, women's world champeen, the top distaff gun in Riordan's skateboard arsenal, explains why, after a fractured wrist and assorted lacerations and dislocations, she keeps at it. "Too much money," she says. She knows she has to get it while the gettin's good. Although the speed and slalom aces may range well up into their 20s, the best freestylers are supple teeners.
Chris (Wonder Boy) Chaput, the men's freestyle king and another Riordan product, is, like Laura, 15, and Bobby (Casper) Boyden has his best years ahead of him. He is only 13 and he has superstar written all over him. In fact, if you wrote "superstar" on him, there wouldn't be room to write anything else. Bobby (Casper) Boyden is 4'11", 85 pounds, and did he take former ABA Commissioner Jack Dolph to the cleaners in the pinball room of the Tampa hotel where they all happened to be staying. What do you like best about skateboarding, Bobby?
"The money, the money!" the cheerful little tyke replies.
Riordan, standing next to him, interprets this response for the gentleman of the fourth estate. "What Mr. Boyden means to say," Riordan announces, "is that he seeks to do something for the youth of America, whom he so nobly represents in America's fastest-growing youth entertainment."
Bobby (Casper) Boyden looks deadpan at Riordan. Connors, at least, laughed at Riordan's jokes, but, stony-faced, this kid orders a Shirley Temple on Riordan's tab. "What the hell's that?" Riordan asks, but gives up. "Never mind. They have their own language." One bit of new argot the kids picked up was "per diem," which they were quick to insert into their vocabulary after they got a fresh $20 for the day the first morning.
But for their part, here are some of the expressions that Riordan and his middle-aged colleagues had to get a handle on: bongo, road rash, street pizza, massive header, doing a Mr. Wilson, machete, space walk, walk the dog, a 360, power stand, endo. And, as they say, it takes a while to get a good board wired. After a recent accident, Bobby (Casper) Boyden had to wear a neck brace. Plus a lot of stitches. "The asphalt never forgets," Shu-Fly intones.
"I think we're on the tip of an iceberg," Riordan says. "This thing is going worldwide. They sold 10 million skateboards in '75. And the big companies, like Mattel, are just getting into it, and so far it's had no PR, no direction. Imagine, $300 million a year and nobody promoting it!
"I brought Ty Page and another kid named Bryan Beardsley into New York. We got Dolph's sports car out in front of the Burlington building on Sixth Avenue at lunch hour. You won't believe this, but it was the biggest turnout I ever had. Police lines. Bryan was gonna jump the car. The skateboard goes under, he goes over and lands on it, see. They say New York's sophisticated. Well, these blasé New Yorkers say, 'Bill, you mean he's gonna jump the car?' I say, 'He's gonna try.' He can do it in his sleep, but I had him miss the first two times. Then he did it perfect, and it made all the TV news, it goes coast to coast."
By the Dwarf Village, everything is set up for the taping. There is even a hokey name, the kind the networks usually only give to second-rate golf tournaments: First CBS Youth Invitational. "Skateboarding's got all the elements," Riordan goes on. "It's clandestine—the kids have all these secret riding spots. It's got speed and danger. It's got its own language. It's got a mystique. You won't believe this, but these kids just know me as the guy who represents skateboarders. They don't know about me and Jimmy Connors at all.
"And wait'll the TV hits. That's Saturday, Feb. 12, 1 p.m. I've already had Chris Chaput on Challenge of the Sexes, and Jerry Golod says people in seven million homes will watch our special. That was the last figure. The estimates are going up. All we need is the TV superstar now. Chris or Bobby. Girls—I got Laura Thornhill or Ellen Oneal. I got Pat (Kid) Flanagan, best young slalom champion. And wait'll you see Tony Jetton. A bowl rider. And all terrific kids. These are apple-pie guys."
The show goes so well Jerry Golod starts talking about a Frisbee special next. More kids' sports on KidVid. Of course, sports will never replace Isis, but let us be fair to our children. If grown-up television gives us a choice between bowling, barrel jumping and celebrity senior mixed doubles, shouldn't children's programming provide at least one athletic alternative to Flintstones reruns?
Wait'll you see it. Pat (Kid) Flanagan—the chalk in Riordan's slalom line—won that competition. Chris (Wonder Boy) Chaput was out front on the engine in his first heat, but he came up endo when he crashed right after the jump. Unfortunately, he stumbled and fell just out of camera range and Dolph had to "re-create the crash." Chris went along with it willingly, a real pro. These are now TV kids. They understand where show biz and sports mix. They're never going to ink any one-year pacts with the fuddy-duddy old Cincinnati Reds.
So the crew took a lot of shots of Chris re-creating the crash to the best of his ability. "You'll never believe what Chris just said," Riordan revealed. "The kid said to me, 'Don't let anybody tell you acting's easy.' Whatta kid!"
Chris came right back in his specialty, the freestyle, and, starting with his Wonder Boy power stand, he won in hand. But he got a good run for his money from Tony Jetton and Bobby (Casper) Boyden. The contestants were allowed to perform three times, and could select the try to be judged. Bobby (Casper) Boyden was first to go, and, as he says, "choked" the first two times. He fell often and even goofed up the famous triple-kick flip that has made him a household name in a number of skateboard households. Shu-Fly, Brookie, Billy, former ABA Commissioner Jack Dolph and KidVid potentate Jerry Golod fretted. This was just not going to fly before KidVid viewers in those estimated seven million homes. On Feb. 12, sets were going to be turning from CBS to American Bandstand and horror cartoons all over the U.S.
But, with the heat on for the third and last run, Bobby (Casper) Boyden put it all together. He hardly stumbled. He brought the house down at Busch Gardens. The crowd stood and cheered, notwithstanding it was already standing. Someday many in attendance would be able to boast they were there when a superstar was born. Riordan went over and shook Bobby (Casper) Boyden's hand. The boy seemed very solemn. Riordan came back with the report: "You know what Bobby just said to me? What a wonderful kid. Like I told you, all apple pie and motherhood. You won't believe this, but he looked up to me and he said..."
And here Riordan paused and looked reverently into the sky. "He said, 'I did that for you, Bill.' "
I believe it. I do. I believe it. Bill, I believe it.