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Leisure Management
2013 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Tony Hawk


Tony Hawk

From a hyperactive kid messing around on a board to the world’s most famous skateboarder, Tony Hawk has come a long way. He tells Magali Robathan why he’s using his success to build skateparks in deprived communities

Magali Robathan, CLAD mag
Today, Hawk helps to build skateparks in underprivileged areas PHOTO: Dale May
Hawk retired from professional skateboarding in 1999, but continues to skate in demos around the world
As a child, skateboarding gave Hawk an outlet for his excessive energy and helped him to feel accepted
As a child, skateboarding gave Hawk an outlet for his excessive energy and helped him to feel accepted
Hawk with some of the young people who lobbied for the creation of the Compton Skatepark
Hawk gives a speech at the opening of the Compton Skatepark in LA in 2009. THF raised more than $70,000 for the park

He may be the world’s most recognisable skateboarder – indeed one of the world’s most recognisable sportspeople – and he may have made a fortune from skating, but for Tony Hawk it has never been about the money or the fame.

“I never expected any of this when I started,” he says. “There was no dream of becoming rich and successful, because no-one had ever done it, and it didn’t seem possible. I just loved skating. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and a sense of self confidence that I couldn’t find anywhere else – as well as a creative outlet.”

At 45, with four children, a hugely successful skateboard business, a wildly popular video game franchise and a charitable foundation to take care of, ‘the Birdman’ still makes sure he skates for at least two hours a day, and regularly performs in skate demos around the world. Indeed, when I talk to him, he has just come back from a tour of Canada, which saw him perform alongside other world class skateboarders in cities including Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary.

“I’m still actively skating,” he says. “I don’t have every hour of the day to devote to skating anymore, because I have so many other responsibilities, but going out and trying new moves is what I strive to do. Plus I’d never want to make a living from skateboarding if I weren’t actually skateboarding myself.”

To say that he makes a living from skateboarding is something of an understatement. His runs the hugely successful Birdhouse Skateboards skate company, while his Tony Hawk Pro Skater series is one of the most successful video game franchises in history. He makes skateboard videos, organises extreme sports events, regularly appears on tv and in films, has made millions from a wide range of endorsements, has launched a premium channel on YouTube dedicated to skating and has published a hugely popular autobiography.

In 2002, he established the Tony Hawk Foundation, a charitable organisation that helps build skateparks in low income communities across the US. His Twitter biography (he has more than 3.4 million followers) reads: ‘professional skateboarder, dad, videogame character, CEO, kid chauffeur, global hopscotcher, food glutton and public skatepark defender.’

When Hawk was nine years old, his brother gave him one of his old skateboards. A self-confessed “hyperactive demon child,” Hawk found that skateboarding gave him an outlet for his excessive energy, and he found a home from home at the Oasis Skatepark near San Diego in southern California.

By 12, he was winning amateur competitions throughout California, and by 14 he had turned pro. By 25 he had competed in 103 professional competitions, winning 73 of them and coming second in 19, and was widely regarded as the world’s best vertical skater.

In the early 1990s, though, the global recession hit, and skateboarding died a sudden death. Skateparks were torn down or bulldozed, competitions were cancelled and skate companies closed down. Hawk stuck with the sport though, and launched his skateboard company, Birdhouse Projects (now renamed Birdhouse Skateboards), with fellow professional skater Per Welinder in 1991.

Hawk had a few tough years, but his confidence was eventually rewarded, as skateboarding began to grow in popularity again, and Birdhouse grew into a hugely popular and successful skateboard company. In 1999, he had his most successful business idea, when he teamed up with Activision to create the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game. The same year, he became the first person to successfully land a 900 (two and a half rotations) at the X Games in San Francisco, a feat which was broadcast by television sports network ESPN and catapulted him – and skateboarding – into the mainstream.

“Landing that 900 was one of the highlights of my career,” says Hawk. “It was something I’d been trying off and on for five years prior to that, so to finally make it in such a huge venue was a big deal. It really changed my life in terms of the recognition factor and opportunities.”

Hawk retired from professional skate competitions shortly afterwards, but has continued to perform in skate demos and events, as well as organising his own events. He launched the Boom Boom Huck Jam show in 2002 – an extreme sports tour featuring freestyle skateboarding, BMXing and motorcross that toured arenas and Six Flags amusement parks across the US (Six Flags also launched a rollercoaster with Hawk’s name: Tony Hawk’s Big Spin). The last Boom Boom Huck Jam was in 2008, but Hawk says he’d be keen to relaunch it. “We still have all the ramps, so if we found a good sponsor we’d happily go on the road again,” he says.

Hawk’s huge personal success made it important for him to put something back into the sport that had given him so much. In 2002, he set up the Tony Hawk Foundation, with the aim of providing skateparks in low income communities, and “empowering youth to want to make a positive difference to their communities.”

The idea for the Foundation was born when Hawk realised the poor quality of many of the skateparks being built in the US.

“About 10 years ago I saw that there was a lot of interest in skating, and communities were starting to build skateparks, but mostly in affluent areas in big cities,” he says. “I got invited to some of the openings of these parks, and when I went to skate them I realised that they were really built poorly. They clearly weren’t designed by skateboarders; they were designed by people who thought they knew what skateboarders needed, and were built by contractors that had no experience of building skateparks.

“I wanted to change that cycle and try to encourage the cities to get skateboarders involved in the design, but also to direct fundings towards the cities that need those facilities – the low income areas with at risk youth.”

Hawk was convinced of the power of skating to help give disadvantaged young people a positive focus.

“A lot of kids in those areas choose to skate, and they don’t have any support in that, so they get discouraged from doing something they have a passion for and they end up probably doing something more subversive,” he says. “Not all kids fall into mainstream sports – in the US, as many kids are into skateboarding as are into baseball, and if the cities aren’t recognising that desire they’re fooling themselves.

“Skating teaches them a lot about self confidence. It’s healthy, it’s creative, it’s active and also it allows them to be part of a community and share ideas and develop new techniques.”

The Foundation is not about just handing over money – the idea is to empower young people who have already taken it on themselves to try to create skateparks in their communities.

As an example, Hawk cites Los Angeles’ infamous Compton district. Young people in the area spent three years lobbying for a skatepark, working with the city and key members of the community, washing cars and putting on events to raise money and awareness for their project.

The Tony Hawk Foundation was approached, and got involved with fundraising and designing the park, raising more than $70,000 towards the $500,000 needed. In June 2009, the Compton Skatepark opened, with Hawk there to cut the ribbon and try out the park himself.

As well as giving the young people a safe place to skate, the opening of the park made them feel listened to, and a part of their community, says Hawk. “It gave the kids there a sense of validation and support that they are doing something different, and they are supported in it by the community.”

On a personal level, Hawk says he derives huge satisfaction from being part of new skateparks opening in areas that really need them. “It’s very validating for me too, but it’s also exciting,” he says. “It’s exciting to think that skateboarding has come that far, to affect kids from all walks of life. It makes me very proud that I had a hand in getting that park open.”

The Compton Skatepark is just one of 505 free, public skateparks in the US that have been awarded grants by the Tony Hawk Foundation, with 420 of those currently open and being used by 4.5 million people a year.

The Foundation was set up with a gift from Hawk, and money for the grants is raised by corporate donations and fundraising events, including the annual Stand Up For Skateparks action sports event. This showcases top skaters and BMXers riding on Hawk’s vertical ramp, and also features music performances, food and silent and live auctions.

As well as providing grants, the Foundation also gives advice on building safe, properly-designed parks. “We do advocacy as much as funding,” says Hawk, who pores over every design himself, and marks it up to ensure it’s as well-designed as possible. “We’re not set up to give funding internationally, but we can give advice and direction on how to get parks built.”

I ask whether Hawk would like to take the work of the Foundation global. “That’s the ultimate dream, for sure,” he says. “We need more funding and staff, but if anyone asks which direction the Foundation is headed, that’s the direction we’re going in.”

Where would they go? “We’d go where skateboarding is recognised and growing, like the UK, France, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.”

For now, the priority is to secure more funding, with Hawk and his team working hard on trying to get grants from bigger organisations. “We’re well on our way,” he says. “We just got a couple of awards this year from bigger philanthropic organisations that have put us on the map.”

Despite Hawk’s huge successes, it hasn’t been all highs, and not all of his business ideas have succeeded. I ask about his worst business idea, and he laughs and says “my high end denim line was the least successful. We launched it in 2004, and it started off pretty well, but the jeans were just too expensive.” What did it teach him? “Not to get involved in areas that I know nothing about!”

Another low came in 2003, when he broke his pelvis while performing at Quicksilver’s Action Sports Weekend at Downtown Disney in Anaheim. “That was the lowest point in my career,” he says. “I was doing a 540 and over-rotated and came down on my hip. That kept me out of skating for a couple of months.” As well as fracturing his pelvis, the accident left him with concussion and 15 stitches above his eye.

For Hawk though, the pleasure he’s got from skateboarding more than makes up for the many injuries he’s sustained. He is driven by new challenges, he says, and by “finding new ways to promote skating, spread awareness and get more skateparks built.”

And of course, he’s driven by the sheer pleasure of getting on a board, messing around for a couple of hours and trying new moves. At 45, he shows no signs of slowing down, and when I ask him how long he plans to carry on skating for, he sounds surprised.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t give myself ultimatums that way. As long as I’m good at it, I’ll keep on skating.”

Originally published in Leisure Management 2013 issue 4

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