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Friday, April 24, 2009
Updated: May 20, 6:11 PM ET
Get the Blank Out of Here

By Chris Nieratko
ESPN

Glen Coe tosses a nosebonk on to the trashcan where Nieratko would like all the world's blank decks to go.

Branded decks and skateboard companies have been integral to skating since just after the first skateboards were thrown together using broken roller skates, screws and two-by-fours. From that point forward, graphics, pro models and brand names have been staples of the skate world. Conventional wisdom says that when you support branded goods, you're supporting the pros and companies that help skateboarding thrive and progress. So what happens in an economic recession when kids buy blank decks manufactured by companies outside the skate industry because they can't afford the branded ones? And where does this leave skate shops that barely make a profit off skateboards in the first place? With years in the game as a skater, writer, critic and skate shop owner, Chris Nieratko is in the unique position to really drop some knowledge on this issue. The blank debate continues. —Adam Salo

A few years ago certain segments of the skateboard industry went on the attack against blank boards, shop decks and ultimately, mom and pop skate shops that carried either. I thought the way it was handled was total crap. I hate blank decks too; they're inferior wood and devoid of that graphic element that defines skateboard art. People who make blank boards generally do not skate and simply see the manufacturing of those boards as nothing more than a money-making business. Blank manufacturers do not have to support pros, do demos, place ads in magazines or do anything to keep skateboarding going. So I have always been in full agreement that blank decks and their manufacturers suck.

Jamie Thomas, president of Zero and Mystery, puts it best, "As the sales of blank boards have continued to thrive, it has become increasingly difficult to continue to support magazines and go on tours as often as we used to. I'm afraid the future of skateboarding will continue to look grim until we can prove the importance of supporting pros."

Would you rather be staring at a wall of blanks made by furniture manufacturers?
Tod Swank, president of Tum Yeto, makers of Foundation and Toy Machine, goes on to say, "Blanks decks? Obviously I can complain about them because I have branded companies that have teams and we spend around 20 percent of sales on those team riders, marketing and supporting events all over the world. It promotes skateboarding culture and participation, which is probably bigger than ever in its history—more public parks, more mainstream media—yet we have been getting smaller over the years. Why? Because the biggest market shareholder is blank decks. We can't compete on the price point that blanks go for. I understand the attraction for kids and retailers. It means cheaper decks for kids and bigger margins for shops. It's a double-edged sword."

So who am I to tell a kid what he should ride if that's all he can afford? And who am I to tell a skate shop owner how to make his profit when our own industry is underselling to big business mall chains and online stores? And for that I didn't understand the way the anti-blank threat was presented. It wasn't a war on the big business B.S. manufacturers of the product. It was an attack on the skaters who rode them and the shops that sell them, and I'm not big on skater-on-skater attacks. When it's silly-business in an interview, I get a kick out of it. But when it was as mean-spirited as that War On Blanks was, it pissed me off.

The basis of the argument was/is that pro skaters make skateboarding. It's not completely true. I wasn't turned on to skateboarding by pro skaters and I don't think most people in the skateboard industry were either. The knowledge of pro skaters came later. The seed is generally always planted by a regional scene or from random stumbling upon skateboarding. It's seeing a random kid skate down the street or a friend getting a board that sparks an interest in others. My first experience with skating was when my friend Dave Hatalla, who I rode BMX bikes with, suddenly had a miniramp in his back yard. I saw someone grind the coping and have been in love ever since. No pro got me to that point. It is the small core shops that create this localism and yet they were the ones under attack.

Would Ian Twa's 50-50 be nearly as cool if it wasn't graphically enhanced?
Obviously, since I started skating, I have cultivated a few hundred-page laundry list of skaters who are my favorites. But back when I started, I had no clue. It was my local friends and the nearby skate shop that produced the scene that made skateboarding accessible. And I think a lot of people have forgotten that.

Jim Thiebaud, president of Deluxe, makers of Real, Krooked and Antihero, sees both sides of my argument. "Pro skaters are hugely important but I just think the act of rolling or whatever turns you on about it, is what fuels the whole thing. On my end I just want to get information out about Deluxe and let people know what we're doing. In no way, shape or form have I tried to tell someone what he or she should or shouldn't ride. And I think the thing that came out a few years ago came out that way and I felt really embarrassed to be associated with it. When you have some companies taking out ads making fun of people for what they ride, that's in no way what I want to be a part of. That said, I don't back people coming into skating, or anything people love and devote their entire life to, and come into it just for the money."

And I agree; it is my opinion that blanks still suck. You'll never find one in any of our NJ Skateshops and you'd be hard pressed to find blanks in any of the many reputable skater-owned skate shops across the country. Sure the crap mall chains will gladly sell you a blank deck in a heartbeat because they don't care about skateboarding other than to profit off it (they'll also put your trucks on backward). But for many of the people that brought up the debate years ago, it seems that in this tough economy the conversation has fallen by the wayside. But it should not be forgotten. Blank board manufacturers are as lecherous as the mall chain stores: THEY DO NOT GIVE BACK TO SKATEBOARDING.

The three gentlemen I spoke to about this topic have foregone profits to do everything they can to try to help both the retailer survive and allow kids to get the best deal possible on a deck. Jamie Thomas offers the hard facts, "Like most brands we've had to analyze every aspect of our company during these tough times. We used to be able to offer aggressive discounts to shops that primarily supported branded products, but due to the massive declination of skateboard sales in recent times, we've had to scale back on how much of a discount we can offer. We obviously still intend to continue with giving whatever discounts we can, but we just can't go as deep as we could a few years ago. We also intend to start working more closely with shops, so we've created an extensive collaborative board program that will co-brand our brands with the shops. We intend to roll this out in the next month. We're in hopes that this program will show the alliance between the our brands and the best shops."

Jamie Thomas
Jamie Thomas signs some gear for the kids who keep skateboarding alive.
To combat the price difference on blanks, Tod Swank introduced an incentive program for shops that did not carry blanks. "We introduced our 'We Believe' discount program that offers discounts to all shops in all categories. Obviously the best deals are to shops that don't sell blanks. Just for decks we offer 25 different prices on decks. We have another discount program called 'The Dirty Dozen' that applies to our accessories and tees. Why do we do this? To help retailers increase their margins. We're taking a hit in hopes that retailers will commit to our brands and keep our volumes up there and our presence strong so we can all keep on participating and doing the things we all love to do. It's good for us all. Shops would not be that inspiring if they just sold blank decks. BORING! Core shops and core companies are the Foundation [Pun intended!] of the skateboarding culture and community. We need to all be working together closely so we can all keep doing what we do. We believe in the skateboarding culture and lifestyles. We are it. Skateboarding Foundation for sure."

Pros, Brian Brown, Ryan Bobier and Joey Brezinski sign gear for the kids after a demo.
Thiebaud has created a price point deck for each of his brands that should not be priced over $40. It is an alternative to a pro model deck that can compete with the low costs of blanks. He explains, "A lot of our stuff isn't thought all the way through. We often shoot at the hip reactionary. I don't know if everything is sustainable but my thought was I don't necessarily think having a lower-priced deck cheapens the brand. I think it offers a good, solid product for kids to ride and I know that shops need a deck at a certain price point right now so a kid can afford it and I wanted to do something to hit that. Using a different board from our woodshop that they can make cheaper for us and still have it be a really great board I'm able to pass that pricing on to shops."

And the initial reaction from shops? "Phenomenal. Incredible," Thiebaud says, "It's not a piece of crap board. It's something any one of our guys here would skate. It's a great, great board at a really solid price. I think it's allowed the shops to make their money on it as well, instead of making a lower margin; it works for everybody. Works for us, the skater and the shop. It has been really positive. I never wanted to tell anyone, 'Don't do this, don't do that and I'll do something for you.' It's always been, 'Here's what we do and hopefully it works for you.' I prefer to let our actions speak for us."

I think in this day and age with our failing economy that's all anyone can really do. Hopefully, in doing so skaters will learn that buying branded goods is what allows their favorite pros to come do a demo for them or travel the world to film that next great video part. I am sick of kids coming in the shop with brand-new, WARPED, blank boards that they got off eBay. They come to me and show me their pretzeled board and say, "This board doesn't ride right. What's wrong with it?" All I can do is shake my head and wonder where to begin in answering that.

For archived Nieratko ESPN Skateboarding columns GO HERE.

For more from Chris Nieratko check out: NJ Skateshop.