This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (July 15, 2014)
One month ago, the only professional skateboarders that I could name were men. My view of the skateboarding industry was through the lens of the Tony Hawk’s, Ryan Scheckler’s, and Rob Dyrdek’s of the world. Admittedly, I never followed women’s skateboarding or even had a clue about what female riders experienced.
My outlook changed when I watched the inspiring TEDx talk – Girl Is Not A Four Letter Word.
Meet Cindy Whitehead, a former professional skateboarder and OG in the industry. In the 70s, she began skating professionally at 16-years-old. Her tenacity stood out on a male-dominated skate team, which resulted in an endorsement deal with Puma Tennis Shoes. But when skate parks started closing, so did the opportunities for women.
“The last time I skated professionally, I was 21-years-old,” Whitehead said to FORBES.com. “Skateparks started dying off and once that happened we did not have sanctioned contests. We had backyard ramps and pools, which we originally started in, so [skateboarding] went back underground. The industry went dormant for many years.”
Whitehead eventually found her way and transitioned into sports styling. She worked with celebrated athletes such as Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, and Mia Hamm, but her passion for skateboarding never wavered.
A chance meeting with a skateboard creative director led to her recent collaboration with skateboard manufacturer Dwindle Inc. and its Dusters California division. Today, Whitehead is the designer of a board appropriately named – GIRL is NOT a 4 Letter Word (GN4LW).
GN4LW acknowledges and encourages all female skaters because for Whitehead the word “girl” should never be used as a slur.
The board supports Longboarding for Peace and portion of the proceeds goes to Girls Riders Organization, a non-profit that helps to inspire, educate and support girls in action sports. Whitehead excitedly shared that moving forward Dwindle Inc. and Dusters will produce, create, and manufacture GN4LW in its line twice a year.
“There is no other female specific board on the market that is giving back to women in skateboarding,” said Whitehead. “This partnership is not just a single board, but a long-term commitment.”
High Tide Floats All Boats
Undoubtedly, women’s skateboarding is grasping for a long-term commitment from sponsors, media, and fans. While male athletes get more face time in magazines and television coverage, female athletes are not waiting for industry executives to decide their future – they are creating it on their own.
Meet Mimi Knoop, a five-time X Games medalist who began skating professionally in 2003. Early on, she recognized that seeing other women compete made the sport attainable for her, but the disparity between male and female riders was a fact she could not ignore.
Determined to make a difference, Knoop co-founded hoopla skateboards and the Alliance. Hoopla is a skate team that partners with the other female-driven brands such as Girls Skate Network and MAHFIA to encourage girls’ participation in skateboarding while providing a support system that does not exist. Meanwhile, the Alliance is a non-profit organization that provides a much needed voice for women in action sports. In women’s skateboarding, working towards a collective goal means everyone progresses. As Knoop describes it, “High tide floats all boats. If we raise it up, everyone will benefit.”
In 2008, the Alliance successfully championed for women’s action sports athletes by persuading ESPN to offer an equal X Games prize purse and them to organize their own events.
Now, Knoop is the director of the women’s skating events. Although, her decisions reflect the recommendations of the Alliance; the group prides itself on making sure that their selections are fair, discussed, and thoroughly researched.
“I did not set out to organize the event, but that’s how it happened,” said Knoop. “For several years, I’ve been organizing events and competing at the same time. Last year in Spain, I was the sport organizer and an X Games competitor. Our goal is to keep it legitimate, fair, and the standard high.”
Leticia Bufoni is an example of an X Games competitor who splashed onto the world stage because of the Alliance’s suggestion. Knoop explained that a Brazilian member of the Alliance forwarded video of Bufoni, who at the time could not speak English. Today, she resides in Southern California, has made the podium in every X Games Women’s Skateboard Street competition since 2010, and recently signed an endorsement deal with Nike SB.
“I never thought Nike would have girls on their team,” said Bufoni, who is the first-female skater to join Nike SB. “I am lucky to be in the position to be a role model. I hope other girls start skating more.”
Reportedly, action sports accounts for 2% of the $20.8 billion Nike Brand revenue. Nike is an example of a mainstream company realizing the potential in the female skater. Bufoni’s unprecedented contract adds an additional platform and exposure to women’s skateboarding. Plus, the world’s leading innovator in athletic footwear, apparel, and equipment will be able to reach an audience that might not necessarily know about women’s skateboarding.
“It has put a crack in the door, and it is going to swing open after this,” Knoop said regarding Nike SB’s announcement. “It is very rare for women to make a living by skateboarding. When I was first coming up it was different, we had paying sponsors. We were living off of skateboarding for several years. The economy was different. Now, it is tough.”
If you ask industry insiders about the future of women’s skateboarding, they will tell you that interest levels have shot up. It is the fastest growing demographic in action sports, and younger girls are starting to skate.
Meet Alana Smith, a 14-year-old phenom whose interest in skateboarding began when she was 6-years-old while watching the X Games on television. By the tender age of 7 ½-years-old, she finally convinced her parents to buy her a skateboard. By 12-years-old, Smith was the first female to land a McTwist in competition and the youngest medalist in X Games history.
As a member of team hoopla, she is not only talented, but wise beyond her years. Smith skates with confidence and grace, but is not naïve to the reality that a division exists between male and female riders.
“We are working our way up with the guys, to have the same respect that they do,” Smith said. “When people see girls skating, they don’t see us as skaters. They don’t think we take it seriously and are willing to go all out. But we are right underneath them working super hard to be where they are at.”
What’s next for women’s skateboarding?
There is a call for the return of the Women’s Vert competition to the X Games lineup, it last appeared in 2010. However, Knoop believes that the focus should be on Park.
“There are skateparks everywhere now; all over the country, and all over the world,” Knoop said. “It is accessible and we are seeing a lot more participation. That is where it is going from Vert. It is aesthetically pleasing; the girls look great in it, and there are more of them.”
In the end, as with any sport, ratings and fan interest will ultimately factor into the decision making process.
As for Whitehead, Knoop, Bufoni, and Smith, collectively they are three generations of women’s skateboarding who are pushing for the day when women are showcased in the same light as men and receive the same recognition.