Several years ago, Shane O'Neill was just a young skate rat on the streets of Melbourne, Australia, hopping fences and jumping down staircases in shopping centers and office buildings. Now, at 26, he travels the globe as the leader of the Street League Skateboarding Nike SB World Tour, the world's first professional skating league.
O'Neill's winning run at the SLS Barcelona Open in May was a masterclass in grinds, aerial maneuvers, and creativity. He nailed one trick after another, clinching victory with a switch big flip frontside boardslide, performed down a handrail, which earned him a score of 9.2 and a $20,000 paycheck. He then won the best trick contest for another $5,000.
For O'Neill, the SLS has been an important factor in his rise within the sport, as both a stage for his talent and a source of income. Today, he drives a Jaguar and owns a cushy home in Los Angeles, replete with a personal skatepark. The SLS wants to see more like him—more success stories, more young skaters landing big tricks.
The tour was founded by professional skateboarder turned media mogul and television personality Rob Dyrdek in 2010. Since partnering with the X Games in 2013, it's become the biggest skateboarding tour in the world, handing out more than $1 million in competitions throughout the U.S. and Europe. Some people think that given the SLS's expanding reach and its corporate ties—in addition to Nike, its partners include Monster Energy and GoPro—it could conceivably put someone like O'Neill on the side of a Wheaties box one day. And that's why not everyone is sure that the SLS is good for skateboarding.
Amid its surging momentum, SLS is at the center of one of modern skateboarding's defining conundrums: Can the subculture of street skating maintain its rebellious roots even if it's broadcast on TV like a NASCAR event? Should street skating remain the subculture sport it's been since the 1970s, or expand its reach through competitive events geared toward a mainstream audience?
SLS COO Brian Atlas wants to change public opinion about street skating contests and make the SLS "the first professional street skateboarding tour that mattered." From the outset, he says, he and Dyrdek have striven to bring "the world's best pros to international markets to showcase street skateboarding in its most exciting form," which he believes is live competition.
Street League is following in the footsteps of X Games by bringing competitive skateboarding to cable television and attempting to translate its quirks and subtleties to a mainstream audience. Since 2014, the SLS has partnered with Fox Sports, with competitions broadcast live on Fox Sports 1, nestled between other primetime sporting programs like Major League Baseball, UEFA's Europa League soccer championship, and the UFC.
Critics of the SLS say that the league is an attempt at corporatizing a niche activity that really has no place on a billboard. Jeff Grosso, a Southern California-based professional skater with more than 30 years of experience riding for companies like Anti-Hero, Vans, Santa Cruz, and Powell-Peralta, says that the SLS is little more than an asset used to churn out profits.
"The whole thing is just a money-making venture from the ground up. They're in the business of promoting what they promote," Grosso said. "Because they've got big money backing, they're going to redefine skateboarding as whatever they say it is."
Grosso's issues with the SLS are those of a purist. As a veteran of the industry and a self-described "washed-up, 48-year-old vert trog," Grosso believes that the league "ends up canceling out a huge portion of skateboarding and skateboarders."
The SLS, he says, prizes a certain of street skating—the kind of big, audacious maneuvers that make audiences howl and that make for exciting TV. Many skaters, particularly of Grosso's ilk, would probably be lost among the tight array of obstacles in a SLS skate plaza. Dyrdek told ESPN as much in 2013: "This league is not for everybody. It's for those that are consistent and do hard enough tricks and have the wherewithal to do it when it matters."
The uniformity in SLS style—that the contests showcase only one form of street skating—rubs Grosso the wrong way. He thinks the contests are judged like gymnastics, and that they fail to capture the grittiness and raw spontaneity of street skating.
There are others, however, who see the SLS as the right medium and format to grow skating.
"Some people might say that [the SLS] might not be the best for skateboarding, but in my personal opinion, I think that skateboarding is going to blow up with or without dudes like myself," said Cody McEntire, a 29-year-old Texas native who currently sits in sixth place in SLS standings. "As long as you have the right people in it representing it the way you want it to be done, I think that's what's important."
McEntire was initially skeptical of the SLS. In 2013, the league represented "the elitist one percent of skateboarders," he said. "There's those 20 guys making all the money and getting all the crazy sponsors, and then there's the other 99 percent of us who are scraping by trying to find an apartment that's under $300 per person."
He's since changed his attitude about SLS and after two years on the tour, now supports what the league is doing for the sport. Rob Meronek, another skateboarding veteran, went through a similar transformation. He runs the website TheBoardr.com, which tracks skaters' earnings and provides unofficial rankings according to contest placement. Meronek has witnessed the debate over whether skating should be pushed into the mainstream for the better part of three decades. He recalls watching the first X Games on TV in 1995 as a bitter experience.
"I didn't want to see that shit," he said. "Skateboarding is what made me different from everybody at my high school, and all the generic jocks that were doing all the same dumb crap…I definitely wasn't warm to it."
But with time, Meronek changed his stance. The shift in mentality came with age, he says.
"For all of us who've been skating for 20 or 30 years, [skateboarding] is still the same to us. I think as we've gotten older and wiser and more mature about skating, that we're down to do whatever makes sense for the big picture of skateboarding and whatever gets more boards under kids' feet."
Traditionalists like Grosso don't think that skating should be altered to appease an armchair audience. For him—and for many skaters—skateboarding is the anti-sport. Skaters transform the urban environment into their own playing field; they don't score goals, or run strategies in a playbook.
"This is how it's been since the '70s. How do we present this to the public?" Grosso said. "It's a sport but it's not a sport. It's an art form. It's a way of life. It's all these things. Now all of a sudden you're going to present this activity in a competition format, and it becomes really, really hard to judge because everybody's different, and everyone skates in a completely different manner."
A SLS competition is judged through an instant scoring system that provides real-time results for tricks seconds after they're performed; that, Atlas says, is what makes the competition attractive to its participants. SLS uses ISX scoring technology, a custom software system that sends judges' scores directly to an arena's jumbotron. With ISX, Atlas said, "skaters know what's happening for every trick and so do the fans. That creates these exciting moments."
That same system pisses off some skaters, though. Tommy Guerrero, a progenitor of modern street skating and longtime veteran of Powell's infamous Bones Brigade, told the New York Times in 2013, "For me, there's a sterility to the way it's presented…I come from a different approach to skating that's more about being in the moment, not trying to accumulate points."
Grosso concurs. "With Street League, really it's about learning the three or four tricks that earn the most points. Those three or four tricks beat out the rest. It's very formulaic, it's gymnastics," he said.
SLS might be the only skateboarding competition using high-end technology to score its events, but it isn't the only one handing out large checks. The Dew Tour, which is run by Mountain Dew, reportedly doles out $2.5 million throughout its action sports series, although an official number has never been made public. The Kimberley Diamond Cup, which orchestrates its own Skateboarding World Championship in South Africa, awards $100,000 every year to the winner of that standalone contest.
Through payouts, contests like these, including the SLS, allow many skaters to skate professionally—something that Atlas adamantly points out. SLS pros are some of the only skaters who "can really provide for themselves and get significant money out of being a professional skateboarder," he said. And though the SLS may be paying higher purses than anyone else in skating, prize money and competition, he says, are as old as the sport.
"Competition has been around in skateboarding since the beginning of skateboarding," Atlas said. "It's been part of the culture since day one. The people who don't believe that contests are their cup of tea or aren't true to skateboarding—well, they're taking issue with something that's been around in skateboarding forever."
On July 2nd, the SLS Nike SB World Tour stopped in Munich, Germany. As a throng of noisy fans at the Olympic Park arena cheered on the sport's elite, the event had the atmosphere of a Super Bowl or monster truck rally. Tour veteran Paul Rodriguez claimed victory at the contest with a switch backside nosegrind for a score of 8.7 and went home $80,000 richer.
Like Shane O'Neill, Rodriguez's superstar status is strongly linked to the SLS. His sponsors range from iconic skateboard brands like Plan B to super-retailer Target. In 2013, he placed third on the tour, netting $137,000. A recent Mountain Dew documentary showcased him as the sport's quintessential icon, signing autographs while getting mobbed by hordes of adoring fans. That was the vibe when he held up his trophy and extended his arms outward to a roaring crowd in Munich.
Rodriguez's win guaranteed him a ticket to the SLS Super Crown World Championships this October in Los Angeles for a shot at the $300,000 purse. That's the richest stage in street skating, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon.