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Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Updated: May 19, 11:27 PM ET
Street League evolves for 2012

By Joel Rice
ESPN.com

The 24 skateboarders of the Street League Skateboarding 2012 series.

Preview Practice Qualifying Finals

On May 18, 2012, Street League -- the glitzy televised professional skateboarding competition series conceived and curated by professional skateboarder, entrepreneur, and reality television personality Rob Dyrdek -- will begin its third season at the Sprint Center Arena in Kansas City, Mo.

Though Street League features Jumbotrons, an intricate scoring system (ISX), and a prodigious prize purse, Dyrdek has long touted the League's essential simplicity. In sum: he views the League as a forum in which 24 of the world's best street skaters can compete on a credibly designed street course in a style that mimics the way skaters actually skate the streets. (Ah... So that is why it is called "Street League." I get it now.)

Historically, of course, there has been a wide separation between innovative professional street skating and at times largely irrelevant professional skate contests. In days of yore, the skaters who often prevailed in contests were not necessarily the same skaters who were advancing the sport, starring in the most influential videos, capturing the skateboarding public's imagination, or occupying prime real estate in Thrasher, The Skateboard Mag or Transworld Skateboarding. ("Contest skater" has long been something of a pejorative term in the professional skateboarding world.)

It is precisely this gap, between "contest skater" and authentic street skater, that Dyrdek hopes to finally clear. To that end, Dyrdek has cast himself, with some justification, as a kind of pioneer in the world of competitive skateboarding. He hopes to be one of the first people to successfully synthesize elements of truly "core" skateboarding and mainstream sporting events while also creating content with strong narrative thrust and broad appeal.

It is a balancing act Dyrdek knows well. (When all is said and done, Dyrdek once opined to the legendary skateboard magazine Big Brother, "everything has to be cool at the skate shop".)

Dyrdek Builds Bridge Between Core and Mainstream

For the most part, Dyrdek -- a man known for sometimes overstated "man jewelry" -- has been able to keep everything cool at the skate shop. Despite his reality television show antics, he is still beloved within skateboarding circles. Dyrdek is himself a gifted skater, and his taste in skating is generally impeccable. (He cites Guy Mariano's performance in the 1996 Girl Skateboards video "Mouse" as the genre's apotheosis.) Likewise, Dyrdek's recent acquisition of Alien Workshop from snowboard giant Burton generally met with skateboarding industry approval.

Rob Dyrdek ups the hype meter at last year's Street League Seattle stop.

Dyrdek's decision to include skaters like Eric Koston, Tommy Sandoval, and Dylan Rieder in Street League should certainly pass muster with all but the most embittered observers. Arena-based, point-driven contests may not be everyone's cup of tea, but who among us is prepared to say that Koston or Rieder is irrelevant to skateboarding?

Additionally, although Dyrdek has robustly and without apology courted mainstream attention and indeed hopes to recast skateboarding as a proudly mainstream sport, even the most censorious critics tend to find his charm difficult to resist. His well-honed humor is only one of his winsome qualities. Whether it's accompanying a small pony to Hollywood parties or appearing in "Righteous Kill" (a critically panned Robert De Niro/Al Pacino/Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson crime drama) as a skateboarding procurer of prostitutes, Dyrdek gets the joke. Dyrdek's charisma is such that he can make even the most arid corporate-speak sound oddly amusing.

This comedic air is one of the reasons Dyrdek has been able to violate, and indeed rewrite, many of the unspoken rules that govern hardcore skating. Yes, Dyrdek may have developed an animated television series ("Wild Grinders") for Nicktoons, a Nickelodeon sister channel, and even provided the voice for a character loosely based on himself ("Lil' Rob"), something less incandescent, less likable, professional skateboarders would be unable to live down. But no one can deny that Dyrdek knows what he's talking about when it comes to scouting truly exceptional skating talent.

Also, because Street League is largely the invention of one man, the contest series does not suffer the bureaucratic entropy that often dogs all things created by committee. Dyrdek has been quite open about some of the weaknesses of the first season, citing, in particular its slow pace. He has not been slow to make changes or tinker with formulas.

Changes for Street League Course, Roster

The 2012 season of Street League offers a renovated course, designed by California Skateparks, to be far more amenable to flowing lines and creative runs. The contest's new "run section" will offer pros 45 seconds in order to highlight this essential skill.

Additionally, the six new Street League skaters who have signed with the contest series this year are generally the very same skaters who appeal to younger, truly committed skateboarding fans. For example, it was freshman pro Ishod Wair who earned the top spot in the recent "Selection" video qualifier, in which skaters submitted impressive street footage to be voted upon by online fans, a committee of Street League skaters, and Street League judges. (It was this process that determined which five skaters would join the 19 skaters already participating in the 2012 League.)

Few would dispute the claim that Wair, far from being merely a "contest skater," is among the best of today's precocious pros. (His part in 2011's Real Skateboards "Since Day One" was widely considered one of the year's strongest.

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Likewise, Habitat pro Austyn Gillette's second-place finish in the Selection also suggests that crowd intelligence is more than a myth. Gillette and Wair are both skaters who command the respect of the core audience and yet are readying themselves for the mainstream platform that Street League represents.

And of course, no contest would be complete without a comeback story. Bastien Salabanzi, the French-born pro, certainly fits the bill. Salabanzi's star burned brightly in the early 2000s, before he decamped for Europe. His ahead-of-their-time Caballerial kickflips and sometimes volatile showmanship were missed by many. Having won the European Selection video qualifier, he will now have a chance to prove he is still a world-class skater to be reckoned with. As Chris Nieratko has compellingly reported, Salabanzi -- though older and wiser -- may offer Street League its most engaging drama.

"I guess I am interested to see what it turns into. I kind of just want to skate. The course looks fun," Austyn Gillette recently told ESPN.com, not sounding particularly anxious about the first Street League event of the season. "I'm not really going to get caught up in anything. I'll be practicing rails. I don't really skate that kind of stuff," he added.

Ishod Wair, currently on a road trip whose ultimate destination is the first Street League stop in Kansas City, sounded positively excited about the upcoming competition.

"Yeah, I'm super-hyped," Wair told ESPN.com. "I'm not doing anything differently. I'm just chilling. I'm in Albuquerque right now. I'm on a trip out to there. It looks pretty nice."