19.Feb.2014 Gave Blood — Drew Smith

Rajidae_swmimmingSkateboarding is as a tight a culture as exists.  The obligatory nod when skaters pass one another on the street, the instant recognition of a tail tapping the concrete, or the clack of the wheels rolling over the serrations of sidewalk is in every major metropolitan area worldwide.  The world itself is transformed into a playground as seemingly mundane stairs, rails, ledges, and embankments hold potential energy and become the canvases of kinetic street art.  It’s a culture oft overlooked by the average observer mistakenly viewed as a world of slackers and deviants. But, skateboarding is the art of the city; a modern interpretation of urbanity in its purist form.  It shuns those who don’t belong and elevates those that do.

As a skater in the late 90s I gravitated to the companies that represented both me and the culture at large.  From shoes to board makers, these companies were owned by skaters and acted as a beacon of counterculture.  If one crossed over into the mainstream and forgot its roots, it was cast out (Airwalk, Element, Simple, etc).  There was little acceptance of anything perceived to be outside the circle.  Enter Nike (the most mainstream shoe brand of all).  After a 7 year hiatus from skateboarding it was surprising to find Nike had not only penetrated but now dominates the skate shoe industry.  The company had been trying, and failing, for years to break in, but virtually no self-respecting skater would have been caught dead skating a pair of Nikes.  What had changed?  How had a company not connected to skateboarding broken into the inner sanctum and started giving sermons?  After talking with shop owners, professional skaters, clothing brand owners and friends it was clear Nike’s strategy was calculated and genius.

Back in the early 2000s Nike had already failed to get a foothold in skateboarding with the both the Nike moniker and through a company called Savier.  It decided to employ a different strategy (the same one it had used to get into the soccer industry a few years before).  Nike targeted young riders, looking to sign new blood with big contracts (it’s not short on cash) and was successful.  That seems boilerplate; the stroke of genius came from a keen understanding of its own consumers.  Rather than blanket the market it chose to go after core skate shops, knowing they are the lifeblood of the skate community.  Nike approached owners of the most prominent shops in select markets around the country and offered limited edition Nike SB (skateboarding) shoes with the guarantee that each would have a line of people around the corner.  With solid margins offered and guaranteed business, it was every business owner’s dream.  The shops took the shoes and as promised there were lines at all the stores.  Nike understood that there was a crossover population of sneaker heads (a subculture of people that collect rare shoes à more specificallyNikes à more specifically Jordans) and skateboarders and they used this to drive people to buy the shoes.

A few years after the lines a shop owner I know was invited by Nike to Torrey Pines in San Diego for a weekend with other shop owners, golf, and entertainment.  When he arrived he was shocked by what he saw.  The event was filled with celebrities, board company owners and Pros that other Pros looked up to.  This event cemented a changing of the guard within skating.  Nike, a cultural outsider, had moved in and made itself a dominant player.  Its dominance has come at the cost of other skate shoe companies.  But no matter your feelings on Nike or skateboarding, the company proved that it could do what had not been thought possible.  It broke in and become a tour de force proving even the tightest knit community can be cracked.  This lesson is worthy of note.

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