Dan Gesmer: Report on the Skateboard Industry

Dan Gesmer State of SkateboardingDan Gesmer State of Skateboarding

Dan Gesmer: I count myself very fortunate because I had an opportunity to read this report almost 20 years ago. They say hindsight is 20/20, but in the case of this report, it really was a blueprint for the future. The report spanned over 10,000 words and was filled with facts, along with opportunities for those who had the guts to take action.

At the time, Gesmer was talking with several large ski and snowboard manufacturers. “We were looking at the possibility of collaborating on the development of advanced longboard decks, using materials and processes already familiar to the snow-sports industry, Gesmer says. Among those companies was Salomon, which at the time had a design center in Boulder, Colorado, where Seismic was (and still is) based.

During Gesmer’s talks with Salomon, the head of the company asked him to do a big write-up on the skateboard industry, focused on the potential for the longboard category to emerge as a significant factor in the global skateboard market.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of this document, we wanted to present it to our readership as a way to spark conversations and ideas.

Before Gesmer discussed the future, he gave a detailed perspective as to what happened to skateboarding and why it fell on hard times. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the California-based skateboard industry shifted virtually all its attention to aggressive, high-impact styles practiced primarily by teenage males.

These styles were becoming extremely popular and were arguably the most photogenic. However, the dominant manufacturers may also have coolly calculated that a narrower market – one more concerned with the equipment’s graphic adornments, image, and durability than with finer performance characteristics – would be easier to control compared to a market diversified along demographic status and equipment performance requirements. In particular, continued support of slalom & downhill racing, which in the mid-1970s [were] the subject of lucrative competitions televised on the major networks, threatened to draw high-tech manufacturers from other sports industries.

Dan Gesmer State of SkateboardingAs equipment suited for more earthbound skating styles became less available and less visible, skaters who were less aggressive, older, and/or female lost their niche. What had been a primary market segment became the sole market segment. The skateboard industry, for better or worse, cast its lot entirely with the changing currents of teenage male counterculture.

Between the late 1970s and mid-1980s,  vertical skating, focused on high-flying aerial acrobatics, was king. Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, skateboarding turned its attention almost entirely towards streetstyle. Its rapid evolution brought about a striking transformation in skateboard design, but at the cost of further alienating less aggressive audiences.

As Gesmer points out, an industry that focused myopically on flipping and flying for much of the ’80s and ’90s has now sprouted a branch that found its way back to the fundamentals of rolling and turning. “Now we have to do it again,” he says. “Longboarding has grown myopically focused on sliding and speeding, and in the process has alienated those who’re most comfortable with gentle carving and cruising. That population is very broad and has always been the industry’s bread and butter.”

Back in the mid-’90s, a number of the leading skate brands opposed the types of diversification that might have threatened their market share. “In an important sense, I was merely predicting that skateboarding could, should and naturally would circle back to the diversification seen in the 1960s and 1970s.”

As Gesmer points out, in recent years the longboard industry has made many of the same mistakes that the shortboard industry did in previous decades. “There has been an overemphasizing [of] the most spectacular disciplines for the sake of media impact,” he says, “thereby alienating folks who lack the athletic talent or disposition for advanced daredevilry but who might otherwise be good customers. … ‘Joe Campus’ and ‘Sidewalk Sally’ do not need competition downhill or freeride setups to do their thing. They need functional cruiser shapes with good, modern trucks and wheels, and more brands need to market to their lifestyles and needs.

“Is it too late for the longboard industry to regroup and recapture the large potential audience for garden-variety, low-speed carving and cruising? Time will tell.”

When Gesmer wrote his original report in 1996, the internet was still very much in its infancy. He admits he was skeptical about e-commerce in the years when it was more of an idea than a fact. “I recall a certain rat race to register web domains with very basic skateboard-related names, and feeling cynical about the apparent greed of those racing to own those domains,” he says. Gesmer also says he never imagined that web video would play such a central role in skateboard marketing until that reality began to emerge. “But the impact of the internet on the world, including our tiny corner of it, is probably too vast and complex for me to attempt a summation here and now,” he says. “Obviously some is good and some is not.”

Online video has vastly accelerated the dissemination of information (visual examples) on riding technique, Gesmer says, and has thus contributed to the sport/art becoming much more global and less centralized to the American West Coast.

“That much I believe is good,” he says. “On the other side of things, the rise of e-commerce has made it easier for those in remote areas to buy gear, but it has also contributed to the consolidation of sales channels and put a big hurt on mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar shops. That’s a more mixed result.”
When it came to understanding skate media landscape, Gesmer pulled no punches.

At present the mainstream skateboard industry is effectively monopolized by three large California-based conglomerates, which combine print, manufacturing, clothing, and promotional operations. In each case, it’s as if a single company owned Sports Illustrated, the Chicago Bulls, and Nike, and also paid Michael Jordan to appear in the magazine, play for the Bulls, and endorse the shoes.

The mainstream skateboard industry, led by the three conglomerates, has artificially suppressed the diversification of skateboard consumer tastes and has, ironically, worked to block market expansion. In the sport’s mid-1970s Golden Era, multiple skating forms evolved which appealed to a wide spectrum of people, and manufacturers created specialized equipment for each approach. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, the leading manufacturers and their publications have largely ignored the existence of many of these skating styles and equipment types, choosing instead to concentrate exclusively on one or two aggressive skating forms.

In so doing they have artificially narrowed the choices of skateboarders and the potential scope of their own customer base. Since foreign markets depend on American-made products and take their cues from U.S. magazines, the situation abroad echoes that in America. Twenty years on, much has changed within skate media. But back in 1993, when Gesmer introduced his spring-based Seismic trucks, he faced silence and hostility from the industry. “At that time technical street skating ruled the sport; the longboard renaissance had not yet fully taken root,” he says.

“Being a pioneer of the longboard renaissance meant being an outcast and a heretic – someone for the shortboard world to ridicule and ostracize. That’s usually the way it is for innovators and pathfinders. Those who’re afraid of change do their best to sideline the change-agents.”

That dynamic played out with the leading skateboard trade journal of the era, whose staff argued that the original Seismic carving truck was “not a real skateboard product” and had “no place in the market.” Ultimately Gesmer was able to persuade the editor to run a fair article. “There is no question, however, that sometimes the shortboard world still bends over backwards to pretend that longboarding doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter,” he says.

As we all know, in recent years the cruiser market has become extraordinarily popular. The question is why. As Gesmer recalls, back in the middle 1990s most longboards were very long – sometimes even up to 60 inches. “Based on my own experience building and riding boards of various lengths, it simply seemed logical to me that boards with more of an ‘in-between’ wheelbase would provide a better balance for the bulk of recreational riders,” he says, “some of the maneuverability of a shortboard with some of the stability of a longboard.”

One of the key subjects Gesmer’s report covers is growth from other demographics. Gesmer believed this was a crucial opportunity that was being overlooked.

Untold millions of less aggressive, older, and/or female outdoor sports participants might purchase skateboards if their potential for safe, low-impact, carving-oriented enjoyment were demonstrably comparable to that of skis, snowboards, inline skates, etc.

Dan Gesmer State of Skateboarding“Like the Western world in general,” Gesmer says, “the skateboard community is now clearly more accepting than it once was of women and minorities, including non-Caucasians and those who are gay or transgendered. (Though there’s still plenty of work to do!)”

Gesmer admits he’s not sure if there was ever a real prejudice toward older riders. “We see more of them now and they’re regarded less as freakish anomalies,” he says. “At the same time, the longboard industry is still aiming a majority of its products and marketing at young males who specialize in downhill and freeride.”

In the 20 years since Gesmer’s original report, we’ve seen several – pardon the pun – seismic shifts in the skateboard world: the rise of new categories; the steady decline of independent skate shops and growth of chain stores; and an entirely new media landscape, among others. And we’re about to hit another milestone with the inclusion of skateboarding in the Olympics. Not surprisingly, Gesmer has given that issue a lot of thought.

“To me, the inclusion of skateboarding in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is a very mixed bag,” he says. “In my opinion, skateboarding should have been in the Olympics decades ago, so this is a long-overdue correction. However, I’m not comfortable with the apparent collusion of big-money corporate media and politics in shaping the way that skateboarding will end up being presented in Tokyo. For starters, at least one form of racing really ought to be included, but that appears to be a long shot at this stage. Those who want to lobby for this cause need to organize ASAP and apply extreme pressure to the folks who’re positioned, for better and worse, to make the decisions.”

If the next 20 years are anything like the past 20, the landscape of skateboarding will continue to change. So I asked Gesmer where he sees things in 2036. Envisioning that future is a tall order, he said, but he offered several predictions.

The pace of change in our world keeps accelerating Possibly we’ll see electric or solar-powered boards, in vastly improved forms, used more widely for short-distance transportation. However, I don’t foresee them ever becoming as popular as, say, bicycles.

Decks will get lighter and tougher, with smarter flex characteristics. Deck shapes and contours will also evolve or at least change, as  disciplines evolve and hybridize, tastes in riding styles shift and fashions lurch around.

Trucks will get lighter and tougher, with straighter and more precise axles, and their turning characteristics will get smarter and smarter. Until radically new materials are developed, evolution in urethane formulations will be about nuance, not breakthrough. But we’ll at least see advances in wheel hub constructions and edge profiles, as long as the industry invests in solid research and rigorous testing. Eventually bearing standards may even change.

We may also see advances in the materials used to surface our roads, sidewalks and skateparks. And that may have consequences for the types of wheels that are engineered.

We’ll see continued innovations in mixed riding styles and event formats. Skatercross and LDP are recent examples

Hopefully the leading magazines and websites will commit to more in-depth coverage of meaty issues, including objective, in-depth analysis of product performance based on materials, design and construction. This would form a positive feedback loop with the efforts of leading innovators in the industry.

We’ll also see ever more efficient means of shopping digitally. Holography may play a role by 2036, such that we can view rotating three-dimensional projections of products that catch our interest, at home or wherever, without necessarily going to a store. (By then most of us probably won’t be driving cars that we personally own anyway.) Shipping may be mediated more and more by drones, though swarms of delivery drones will present significant air traffic control issues. However, I believe there will always be a place for brick-and-mortar shops where we can touch, feel and test the real goods before buying.

Interview with Daniel Gesmer, where he talks about the reaction to his Public Domain part, how he interprets skateboarding, the importance of freestyle in the progression of skateboarding, and Seismic Trucks.

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