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The "Blank" War - Blank decks -vs- pro models and the commitment to supporting skateboarding

Under Fire cover

I love skateboarding - top to bottom, inside and out, always & forever.

I maintain this website. I self-publish my Grind•12 skate zine. I buy from indy sk8 shops and support their efforts. I think little kids should skate, girls should skate, Moms should skate (along with Dad), MILFs should skate, the elderly should skate, porn stars should skate rock stars should skate. Get it? I want everyone to skate!

Over all, I think I have a great passion for skateboarding and I support and will help anyone who wants to skate. Most skaters are like this. It's what motivates us to keep on skating - after our friends have stopped, when jobs get in the way, when the weather is bad, when old-age sets in - we keep skateboarding. People naturally gravitate towards the things they love to do.

I hope you feel this way about skateboarding. I do.
But what if someone told you that you weren't supporting skateboarding? What if all your passion, blood, sweat and devotion was tossed aside as meaningless and you were told that none of it mattered because you do not support skateboarding?

You'd be pissed. I'd be pissed. I'd want to know why! The tale unfolds...

The IASC Stance

The IASC (International Association of Skateboard Companies) took a stance in early 2007 with an inserted section in Transworld Business titled, "Under Fire: A Special Report On The Skate Hardgoods Market". In the article they layout the demise of the sk8 industry due to sales of generic and/or blank decks.

Their arguments apply to both box-stores (like Wal-mart and Target) as well as indy skate shops that sell blank and/or un-branded shop decks. They feel that both scenarios are un-supportive of sponsored pros and the pro-model decks that are sold. They say this non-support (which translates into money NOT made by the larger sk8 companies) costs in the form of canceled skate tours, canceled autograph signings and canceled video releases.

Sounds like a lot of blame is being distributed. You might even take some of this as a threat. I want to meet pros at demos, buy new sk8 videos and feel a part of the larger sk8 scene. I wouldn't want to see any of that go away. However, I also don't want to be blamed or threatened into believing the demise of skateboarding rests on the purchasing decisions of skate shops and their customers.

Definition of Blank Decks & Shop Decks.

blank skateboard deck

A blank deck is simply blank. No graphics. No company identity or branding. It's just a piece of wood (that looks like any skateboard). You don't really know it's quality, where it came from or who produced it. It may crack on your first landing. The trucks may tear through the top on your first grind. It might also last several years and be the best board you've ever had. There's just no way to tell.

A shop deck is simply a deck with the shop's logo or branding on it. Just like the owner of a widget factory and puts his logo on all his widgets, the sk8 shop owner does the skateboard version of that. Skate shops are primarily resellers, meaning they resell other's products for a profit. One way for the shop to put their identity into the mix is by placing their logo on decks they sell along with all the various pro models.

Your plumber has his name on the side of his truck. Your Dad has his name on his business cards. You signed your name on the latest artistic piece you completed. People take pride in what they do and how that reflects on who they are. Skate shops are no different.

Much like the blank deck, shop decks typically are less expensive than pro model decks although they are priced above blank decks. The quality of a shop deck can be called into question the same way a blank deck is - there's no way to tell it's history. It could be the best deck you've ever bought or it could snap in half on your first landing. Just to be clear on the matter... how many times have you seen a pro break a deck on camera? A lot. Just remember - all decks will eventually break. Even the pro-models aren't invincible.

An Element deck is made by Element Skateboards and should adhere to the quality standards they've set forth. The shop deck could have been made by anyone, anywhere and with indeterminable workmanship (i.e.- it might suck). Don't forget that it may also have come from the same supply that Element draws upon - you never know.

Issues Surrounding Blank/Shop Decks

It's important to understand the issues regarding blank or un-branded decks. I think there are 2 main issues.

  • Issue 1:
    Think of the last time you bought a new set-up. Did you buy it at Wal-mart, Kmart, Target or a sporting goods store that also sold baseball gloves, jock straps and tennis racquets? Of course not. You bought your new sk8 from a local skate shop.
    But why?

    You avoided box-stores because they don't sell real skateboards. They sell toys. Their skateboards may, at first glance, look like any other skateboard, but the quality is abysmal. Skateboards for sale in box-stores are toys that will quickly break and likely cause injury to those who think they've purchased a real skate. Most of these cheap skateboards cost less than a set of 4 wheels. That should clue you in to their lack of quality. Clueless folks, often lured by low pricing, buy inferior sk8 product from box-stores and toy stores instead of buying safe, reliable products from skate shops.

    Your local skate shop sells the real deal - no toys. Their product along with their expertise will guide you to buying a quality skate that will stand the abuse you dish out session after session.

  • Issue 2:
    While you were at your local skate shop buying that new skate (as you should be) did you notice any blank decks or shop decks? You did? Well, welcome to the second and somewhat confusing issue the IASC is touting.

    Shopping at an indy sk8 shop ensures quality, right? Yes... and no. All of their branded (pro-model products) should follow all the quality guidelines of that particular company. But what about those un-branded blank decks or shop decks that you saw on the same wall as the Element decks? Are they just like the crap at Wal-mart or are they made by reputable companies that have standards as high as any skate company?

    These decks are very often half the price of the branded decks sold by skate companies. Sales of these blanks don't generate revenue for the major skate companies. This pisses them off - everyone wants to make money. Don't forget that blanks and shop decks DO make money for your local shop.

The 2 main issues in a nutshell:

  1. Big Business is making a profit selling inferior skateboards through box-stores. These big businesses have no vested interest in skateboarding and generate revenue that is not put back into improving the sk8 industry.
  2. Skate shops, in addition to pro-model boards, also sell blank and shop decks, which may or may not be high quality, but also don't generate revenue towards the larger skate companies.

If you were donating money to charity, you'd probably do a little research to make sure it wasn't some rip-off front and ensure the money was really going to the cause you are trying to support. You can offer "support" in many other ways than writing a check to a charitable organization. By choosing to spend your money at one store versus another or buying a particular brand over another, you are essentially supporting that product with your purchase. It's something to be aware of when shopping for any type of product.

Who Supports Who?

The allegation is that somebody isn't supporting skateboarding. Perhaps, but who are we talking about and how do we define "skateboarding"?

One kid, a poser, goes to the mall and bulks up on t-shirts and assorted softgoods at Pac Sun. He walks out with an armload of branded skate-wear as he makes his way across the mall to Zumiez. There he buys an Alien Workshop deck, Venture trucks and Spitfire wheels with Lucky bearings (all available at Zumiez in early 2007). For this kid, the basketball season is over and he figures he'll try skateboarding during the Spring and Summer, see if he likes it; then go back to the hoops come Fall.

Our second kid comes from a poor family, but he's been taught that money isn't everything. Once he saw his buddy skating, he knew he had to ride. He wanted a skateboard. He saved money from his after-school job and his parents helped out as much as they could. He went to his local skate shop and discovered he didn't have the $150 for all the choice stuff he had seen in his buddy's skate mags. Undeterred, he settled on a blank deck, no-name trucks and generic wheels. From his first push to the last trick he pulled, he'd fallen in love with skateboarding. He was hooked. His dedication paid off and his local shop semi-sponsored him and started helping out with new equipment when needed.

Which of these 2 kids support skateboarding?

Both - but in different ways. The poser spent money on a bunch of stuff which generated revenue for the mall stores and the large sk8 companies who manufacture the products he bought. His support came from his wallet. The poor kid supports skateboarding with his determination and passion. People who see him ride get stoked on skating and a great vibe is generated.

Is one form of support better than the other?
It depends on who you ask. Companies are necessarily tied to revenue. Skateboarding is fueled by passion. If you ask me the poor kid is the one who is really supporting skateboarding. Which brings us to defining skateboarding...

What is "Skateboarding"?

To some it may be a paycheck or revenue stream. To me, it's everything that a price tag can not be attached to. Skateboarding is a culture, a lifestyle and a form of creative freedom. It's the feeling you get when your wheels rumble over rough crete. It's the feeling of wind in your face as you bomb a hill. It's that incredible feeling when you land a trick you've been trying for weeks or months. It's something you can't put a price on or sell as a commodity. Skateboarding is what you make it.

Skateboarding will always belong to the people. There's nothing corporate about it at it's roots. It's about having fun. There's no reason why money can't be made from skateboarding - plenty of people do it - but that's not the reason skating exists nor why it refuses to disappear.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

As much as I feel for the plight of the Baudelaire kids and the misfortune laid upon them by Lemony Snicket, the fact remains that business is business. Pros are a necessary component to stoking the vibe, getting product perspective from the streets and raw promotion. All this costs money. Skate companies rely on pro-model decks to help with all aspects of the aforementioned. But reality can be an ugly thing.

Sales of blank decks may erode the core of some skate companies, but someone will always come along and build a better mouse trap. No matter how progressive and amazing you product or service is, competition will always surface with a way to replicate your idea bigger, better and cheaper than you can. That's the nature of the game.

Blank deck sales may be a relatively new phenomenon, but it was inevitable and skate companies need to innovate or go under. The choice is theirs. You can only plug the dike for so long before a better solution needs to be implemented. Think about the kids who ransacked their sister's roller skates and nailed the wheels to a 2x4 so they could surf the sidewalks while the waves were low. THAT'S INNOVATION. Of course someone came along and decided they could do it better and a new boardsport industry was born.

Blanks are soulless and ugly. No one will disagree, but cost rules in a world where criminals are elected President and whole classes of people are slowly eroded to the point of poverty. No kid sets his sights on buying a blank deck. They probably do so out of financial necessity. But I'd rather see a kid buy a blank deck than give up and become a team-sport jock.

Real Blame

I believe innovation is being squelched and replaced by blame. Rather than innovating new ways to combat the sale of blank and shop decks, manufacturers want to make customers (folks like you and me as well as shop owners) feel that the sale of blank decks diminishes the growth of the sk8 industry - and hurts it. So, I guess it's our fault. Darn. If only I'd known whose pocket to stuff my hard earned money... I could have saved skateboarding. Bullshit!

Every man for himself - vendors included. Why stop at shop decks and blanks? What about smaller sk8 companies? I'm talking about the ones you never hear about cuz they don't have the funds to advertise in the mainstream sk8 mags. There are a ton of little guys out there making decks - awesome decks by the way. Sales of these decks don't benefit the large sk8 companies. If I spend $45 bucks on a smaller brand, I'm not generating profit for the big boys who put on demos, tours, signings and amazing video releases. Doesn't that hurt skateboarding too? (he asks sarcastically)

Most would say Tony Hawk is the Ambassador of skateboarding. He has crossed many boundaries to bring skateboarding to the masses through his Boom Boom Huck Jam tours and his many branded video games, along with many other things. Video games are expensive to the tune of $50 or more. Hey, that's the same price as a pro-model board. If I spend my money on a TH Pro Skater game rather than a pro-model deck, the large skate companies don't see any of that money. Obviously Tony has and continues to give support and grow skating, but isn't a large part of the IASC argument, financial? Hmmmmm.

Has anyone told Hawk to stop diluting the sk8 industry with his games? Should Grindline tell a town council not to use Dreamland... cuz they're the competition? Should Sears stop selling jeans because they cut into the Signature Jean market of the sk8 industry. Should porn stars boycott the production of "double-penetration" films because the backdoor-girls get paid more (how unfair!)? Should organic farmers tell customers that non-organic foods are laden with pesticides? Oh wait, they already do.

The notion of blame being a solution is insane. It can grow to unfair and potentially illegal proportions and serves no benefit.
Skate - Create - Innovate.

The Conundrum

I've heard a few solutions like selling price point boards to offset blanks or selling older stock at reduced rates (which anyone with a brain does anyway). Tiered approaches seem appealing with a low-end line that has minimal branding to a pro line with full-on graphics. I agree that blanks cause problems for the myriad of sk8 companies out there, but the solution is innovation. Shunning shops and consumers who sell/buy blanks isn't a solution - it's simply passing the blame and VERY un-supportive of skateboarding - not to mention a bad overall business practice.

Education is probably the best bet. Birdo of Consolidated Skateboards launched the Don't Do It campaign. Through education and street teams he's getting the word out about sporting goods stores and box-stores that want to make a buck (or a million bucks) off the hard work of indy shops and the sk8 industry as a whole. What I respect most is he doesn't assign blame, he offers solutions. He's an awesome guide in the business / marketing side of skateboarding. I feel the IASC stance is more about blaming shops and consumers for wanting to make a profit and wanting to sell reasonably priced goods.

Back in the day, skate companies were few. These days everyone wants to cash in on some "Tony Hawk money" without realizing he is the exception to the rule. There is one Tony Hawk, one Bill Gates and one Rupert Murdoch. Not everyone can reign supreme at the top. That's why I'll never e a pro skater and you probably won't either. Just look at the odds.

The sk8 industry as a whole can only sustain a certain amount of continual growth before it becomes too diluted - meaning too many companies are vying for the same customers. When you have 5 skateboard manufacturers to choose a deck from, they all do well. When 300 manufacturers are selling similar products, it spreads out (or dilutes) the wealth. Simple mathematics dictates we need fewer sk8 companies or more skaters to sustain the large number of sk8 companies. Nature has a way of dealing with this issue - it's called natural selection.

How many pro skaters does it take to screw in a light bulb represent a product? Apparently it takes a lot... according to skate companies. Personally, I think there are too many pros. That isn't to say they aren't all talented and worthy of pro-status, but they all have to be paid, transported and hooked up (in one way or another) and this costs sk8 companies a lot of money - money that might be better spent on innovating their business model.

The Solution

The solution is change, innovation and education on the part of consumers, shop owners, and Sk8 companies.

Like the world around us, business changes just as quickly. Every business from farming and food service to nano-technology and computer software, will change eventually... even the skateboard businesses. New products invalidate older ones, new technologies make old ways obsolete and those who survive understand this and forge ahead. You can't cry foul because blank decks are starting to increase in sales. You need a solution. Telling customers not to buy them or telling shop owners not to sell them isn't a solution. It's tantamount to throwing a fit because you didn't get your way. We all remember that kid on the playground who acted like that - we all hated him.

Consumers:
When you shop at a store or online be conscious of what you're really buying and where it comes from. Know that the purchase of a blank deck provides income to the local shop and the manufacturer. Only pro model decks generate income to an affiliated sk8 company. If all you can afford is a blank deck, go for it - there's nothing wrong with that. If you find a graphic that stokes you, buy it.
If you skate, you support skateboarding!
Shop Owners:
It's YOUR shop and YOUR business. You own it, you stock it and you thrive and survive on it's success. If selling blank decks makes up for the crappy margins on hardgoods, do it. No sk8 company will come along and pay your lease, mortgage or grocery bill. You can educate your customers on their purchases whether it pertains to a safety issue or the country-of-origin of the deck they've chosen. The choice is yours and NO ONE has the right to tell you otherwise.
If you own a sk8 shop, you support skateboarding!
Sk8 Companies
Indy skate shops and their customers are the life blood of the sk8 industry and the companies it comprises. Trying to guilt anyone into making a purchasing decision based solely on YOUR product is ridiculous. Threatening the demise of the whole sk8 industry on the purchase of blank or shop decks is short sighted. Alienating your customer base is never smart. Give your customers better choices and they will follow and respect you. Blaming them will make them someone else's customers.
If you blame and threaten customers who don't put money in YOUR pocket, you DO NOT support skateboarding!

When American car companies implemented Planned Obsolescence (designing a car to fall apart within a certain short time frame), they got their asses handed to them by Japanese car makers who prevailed by building better cars. The "Buy American" campaign brought on by clothing makers warned that many garments were being made in foreign countries by child laborers. Soon sweat shops in America was a leading story on the news. The bottom line is the best product for the money will usually prevail.

For me, a car is a car and a shirt is a shirt. The decision of which to buy comes down to quality and price. The same holds true for skateboard decks. If I don't have the required $60 for a pro-model deck, I'm going to have to scale down my costs and settle for something cheaper. Every consumer has to balance quality and cost in a way that makes them feel comfortable shopping. Telling me I'm not supporting skateboarding by buying a blank or shop deck does NOT make me at all comfortable. Like most consumers I want to be "won over" not told what to do.

The real solution is porn.

Yes, porn is the universal solution to all financial difficulties. Ok, maybe that's a bit overstated. Stop blaming people for wanting to pay less and gain more profit. We're all just trying to get by. Of course in terms of just getting by... has anyone given up pornography to save a buck or two? Doubt it. Porn will always prevail regardless of financial status. I can cut down on my food intake, but I'm not giving up porn to reduce my budget!

On those low-end decks for less... use minimal branding combined with porn for the graphics. OK, it may need to be toned down to R-rated graphics or bikini style stuff, but sex sells. If you think it doesn't, explain what these guys are doing.

I'll always shell out a bit more to add a little obscenity to my life... and others will too. Aren't you glad I came along with such a simple solution? Tits rule, eh?

Timeline and Business Sense

So kids invented skateboarding by ruining their sister's roller skates. Companies were formed who could build a better skateboard. Everyone was happy. Skaters could buy a decent skateboard and the manufacturer made money.

People began to look at the early designs of these skateboard manufacturers and decided they could do it better. New ways to make multi-ply decks evolved. Trucks with better reaction and stability were introduced. Urethane wheels came along and completely renovated the ride everyone had come to call standard. Thus more companies were formed who would now compete against one another for a share of the customers.

What's happened lately? What revolutionary innovations have come along?
Nothing huge comes to mind. The industry creeps forward and new ideas are brought to market, but the skateboard of the 1960's is still similar to one you'd buy today? Can the same be said of cars? Just look under the hood. Carburetors gave way to fuel injection. Manual breaks became powered and now ABS is the norm. A Lexus will parallel park without driver-interaction! Lots of things have changed. Much of this change came from the sheer number of cars sold and the need to improve transportation.

Skateboarding is shared by far fewer customers and falls into a smaller category of need than automobiles. Not everyone needs a skateboard in the same way they need a car. Even the auto industry is having a hard time sustaining all the different manufactures despite the huge number of people who own cars. What's in store for skateboarding and their small customer base?

Supply and demand. When supply exceeds demand (too many sk8 manufacturers and too few customers) some suppliers will not survive.

I want all the sk8 companies to thrive and I want everyone to skate (yes, everyone), but that's not realistic. Only skateboarding will thrive because it is fueled by passion of those who skate. Some companies will benefit skateboarding and skateboarding will benefit some companies. However, skateboarding is not owned. As companies come and go, so will products. Some of those products will be sorely missed others will disappear unnoticed. People will always skate even if the industry landscape changes.

Many skateboard companies have come along and grown the industry - no doubt. But they've grown something they really have little control over. As trends change, business models will need to keep up. No one owns skateboarding. No one can tell skateboarding what to do or how to behave. Skateboard companies didn't create skateboarding, they have added to it, built it up and then benefited from doing so. Keep up the good work guys, skateboarding needs you, but it will survive and thrive with or without the sk8 industry.

If skateboarding belongs to anyone, it belongs to me... because it makes me smile. And by that token it belongs to you too and anyone who gets stoked by skating. You can't touch it, but you can feel it and that makes skateboarding accessible to all, impervious to corporate business and everlasting in those who skate.

Unnecessary Disclaimer

Maybe I'm missing the point or just don't get it, but opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one. This one is mine.
I love skateboarding and supporting it is as simple as going out and having a shitload of fun on a sk8. Everyone you stoke adds to skateboarding and fuels it's future. Businesses will adapt or fall, but skateboarding will always exist in some form for those who love it. Ride hard, have fun and innovate the next level of the culture we call sk8.
Thank you for having the patience to read all this.


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