Tony Hawk: From misfit to legend
From misfit to legend
Published Wednesday, XX May 2019 12:00 AM ET
t’s two decades since Tony Hawk became the first skateboarder ever to land a “900,” a highly technical two-and-a-half revolution aerial spin performed at the top of a vertical side of a half-pipe, and a move that tipped him and skateboarding into the mainstream.
It was June 27, 1999 and Hawk had been competing in the Summer X-Games in San Francisco, an extreme sport event broadcast by ESPN, where he and four other skateboarders had been showing off their tricks during a freestyle section. Hawk had been practicing the 900 for about a decade but had never landed one without falling off his board.
“Some years were more concentrated where I was like, this is the time I'm going do it. I would call a photographer. I would get a video guy there. And I would start trying it and end up hurt usually, and disappointed,” he told CNBC’s “The Brave Ones.”
In 1998, Hawk decided to give up on the 900, and in 1999, he thought it would be his last year of professional competition. He was 31 with a young family and was constantly on the road. “I had competed for 20 years. It was like, I don't want this to define my life. So, because of that, I knew that I wanted to have a good run of contests that year.”
He had thought the tricks section of the X-Games would be put into a package to air after the event. But then things went up a gear. “The announcer says something like, ‘Hey, what about a 900?’ And I remember thinking, like, no, I don't want to flail on that here in front of all these people,” he said. He tried a few, failing each time, and realized that he was leaning a bit too far forward on the board.
“I did one, put it on the wall, landed forward, didn't get hurt extensively, and thought, well, what if I shift my weight to my back foot mid-spin, maybe that'll counteract what this problem is.” But then he fell backwards. “I basically split the difference of shifting my weight. And it worked. And that was it. It was a huge surprise.”
Even though the broadcast competition had technically ended at that point, ESPN had continued showing it live, Hawk’s brother Steve recalled. “It was a really rare moment where the world got to see what actually happens on a day-to-day basis with skateboarders. Because the clock had run out. That contest was over and no one else was skating ... ESPN, to their undying credit, decided to keep the cameras rolling,” Steve Hawk told “The Brave Ones.”
The 900, plus the release of Hawk’s first video game later that year, finally propelled him into the mainstream. “Suddenly I was getting stopped everywhere I went. In airports, in restaurants. It was like, ‘Hey Tony Hawk. Oh, 900, yeah.’ And then our video game got released and then that was all people talked about. And then (it) took off into a stratosphere of its own … And I think that was the tipping point, in terms of fame, where it was like, this is way beyond anything I'd ever wanted or expected,” he said.
awk was nine-years-old when his big brother got him into skateboarding. “I had this old Bahne fiberglass skateboard called a banana board, with polyurethane Cadillac wheels, and I gave it to Tony,” Steve told “The Brave Ones.”
“It wasn't like he stepped on it, and suddenly angels were singing. He just kind of slowly got good at it. But he loved it right away.”
That board — since donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. — started Hawk’s career.
“I fell in love with (skateboarding) … when I started going to the skate park … And I literally saw people flying. Like, I saw these guys flying out of empty swimming pools. And that was my wow moment,” Hawk said.
Skateboarding was the ideal outlet for the energetic young Hawk, sister Pat told “The Brave Ones.” “When he was really young, he was … very bright ... He would get really frustrated with things fast. And then we could tell that he just needed something to stimulate him. And in fact, my parents believe that skateboarding sort of saved that hyperactivity that was going on,” she said.
Hawk knew the sport was for him when he had his first major injury. “When I was 10 years old, I got a concussion, knocked out, knocked my teeth out. And I remember vividly waking up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and thinking, ‘Oh, what trick was I doing? Oh man, I’ve got to learn how to do that better. Like, it was not, ‘I’m never skating again.’”
Around that time, he was playing Little League Baseball and his dad Frank was the president of the league in his community. But Hawk had to decide which sport to choose. “I chose skating. And to my dad’s credit, he finished out the year as Little League president without me in the league.”
Frank had realized that his son and his friends felt like outsiders and he wanted to support them, founding a body that became the National Skateboarding Association, which is now part of governing body World Skate. “We didn't fit with mainstream sports, with mainstream culture. And we all loved skating. And he saw this band of misfits that were very creative, proactive people and thought, they need their own place, too,” Hawk said.
Being a career skater wasn’t an option, and Hawk wasn’t well-known outside skateboarding circles. “On one end, you have the sense of celebrity. I would go to events and people would ask for my autograph and take pictures. And then I would go to school and I was a ghost in the school hallways,” he said. He was also an outcast in the skating world because of his style.
“They literally called me, my tricks, circus tricks. Because I was like, spinning my board and, (they would say), ‘He's like, twirling a baton. And oh, he’s into his aerials. So, it doesn't matter which way he grabs it, because he's cheating anyway.’”
“It was hard because I found this activity that I loved, that defined me, and then I was shunned in that little community as this weirdo,” Hawk told “The Brave Ones.”
By the time he was 12, Hawk was winning amateur California state contests, and he turned pro at 14. At 16, he was regarded by many as the best skateboarder in the world.
Hawk was earning money as part of the Bones Brigade, the skateboard team founded by 1970s skateboard star Stacy Peralta, which featured in movies such as “Gleaming the Cube” and “Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol” in the late 1980s.
awk spent many of his teen years pulling in about $100,000 a year and at 17, he bought his first home. “It seemed insane. Because we were making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as teenagers and traveling the world. And we had adoration and we had success. And that can be very toxic for someone our age, for sure,” he said.
“And we saw plenty of our friends and our peers fall off because of it. Where they kind of got caught up in the party. For us, I think our only mistake was that we thought it was endless. And so, we approached our spending and our life as if it was never going to end. And it ended very quickly.”
But the early 1990s, skateboarding’s image went downhill, developing a reputation for being popular among “a nuisance generation of slacker kids,” and skate parks started to close because they could no longer afford the insurance. “I was left with two mortgages, a son on the way, and everything felt very scary. And my income was literally dropping in half every month. And people just weren't buying skate stuff, nor Tony Hawk stuff,” Hawk said.
He sold his home, cut back on expenses and took $100-a-day skate demo jobs so he could carry on. At 24, Hawk had started skating team Birdhouse, having thought he was near the end of his career as a pro skater. “We would all share one hotel room. Six of us to a van. Show up at a parking lot of a skate shop, skate for an hour on whatever they provided for us to skate. And get just enough money to get another hotel room and eat and get gas and go to the next city.”
By 1995 ESPN had started extreme sports event the X-Games. Skateboarders were seen as being more approachable than the stars of traditional sports and Hawk instinctively felt that being part of X-Games would be good for skating. Some of the more hard-core skateboarders disagreed, but Hawk was used to criticism.
“I had already been through so many waves of skating and through being labeled as a sell-out or a circus skater, that none of that was going to affect me. I knew that we had this opportunity to represent skateboarding in the best way we could.”
Hawk had started getting calls from non-skateboarding brands, the likes of Bagel Bites snacks and vacation company Club Med. “I (could) tell that there was a definite shift in terms of how skateboarding was perceived and how much people wanted to promote skateboarding or use skateboarding in their marketing,” he said.
awk soon realized he needed someone to manage the business of being him. His sister Pat, who worked in music management and as a backup singer for the likes of the Pet Shop Boys and Michael Bolton, had decided to stop touring when she got pregnant with twins. “She stayed home and then she offered to start helping me with my business. Because suddenly, I had become a business. And I was getting offers and deals that I really didn't understand,” Hawk said.
Pat, now Chief Operating Officer at Tony Hawk Inc, would negotiate with people who wanted Hawk’s team to do skate shows. “It started with demos, booking them. That was something I knew a lot about, was booking bands and booking demos for guys. Five skaters is a lot like booking a band with five people. So, I just said, ‘You got to add more zeros into that contract because people know who you are.’" They also set up a production company, creating a library of skating footage that they could licence.
She knew the publicist Sarah Hall and introduced her brother. When they met, Hawk simply asked if Hall could get him into a newspaper. “I thought that was really funny because I said: ‘You've won everything since you were 14. If you played piano, you'd be a prodigy by now.’ So, to me it was very clear. The only thing missing from this equation was the exposure,” Hall told “The Brave Ones.”
“When I had gone to the X-Games and I saw Tony and the other skaters skate, they reminded me of Nureyev. I mean, they looked like ballet dancers. And it was incredible what they were achieving. But I don't think that most mainstream media really knew that or understood it,” Hall added.
Pat also helped her brother decide which advertising or sponsorship deals to take. “Tony is the one that's very discerning about what he will and won't do … He did an endorsement deal with McDonald's. He did an endorsement deal with Powerade, Jeep. And if he didn't feel like he used it, he wouldn't do it. So, he got a lot of flak for his McDonald's (Happy Meal) deal. And he wrote in an article long ago, "’I take my kids to McDonald's once a week.’”
Hawk got an agent to negotiate his endorsements. “That’s when things really took off in terms … of establishing that we have that sort of value, that we have that sort of reach as skateboarders and as action sport stars … And that this is serious business … And we're not going to be your trick pony for doing every single promotion,” Hawk said.
He had been in talks with video game distributor Activision about a deal to make him the star of a game, and was offered a $500,000 buyout. But his instinct told him not to take the pay out and go for ongoing royalties instead. “It seemed unreal that anyone would offer that for the future of something that they don’t even know how it’s going to turn out,” he said.
ince their release in 1999, Hawk’s series of video games are reported to have made more than $1.4 billion in sales and Hawk has seen his “fair share” of that, with a net worth estimated at $140 million.
Along with featuring in skate movies and establishing a skateboard and BMX live arena show, Hawk also appeared in a 2003 episode of The Simpsons, when Bart joins Hawk’s skateboarding tour. But it took years from Hall’s initial call to the show’s casting agent for the Hawk storyline to be written, because to start with “most of (the) writers (were) sort of East Coast, Ivy League grads, and they weren’t familiar with the world of skate,” Hall said. Hawk has since said being on the show was a career highlight.
He also ran a line of kids’ skate clothing that was sold to Quiksilver in 2000 for an undisclosed amount, and started the Tony Hawk Foundation, a not-for-profit that builds skate parks in deprived parts of the U.S. Hawk founded it in 2002 with $125,000 he won from an appearance on a celebrity edition of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” and since then it has helped fund more than 550 skate parks.
Was Tony Hawk the first athlete to realize the power of a “personal brand”? He’s likely the first skateboarder to establish the sport as a serious player in business. Fans are known to joke that Michael Jordan is the Tony Hawk of basketball, such has been his impact. He’s currently making fun of the idea that he’s a sell-out in an ad campaign for Bagel Bites, discussing his previous endorsements of the snack. In a nice twist, the commercial was made by D/CAL, the ad agency Hawk founded last year.
And as well as investments in Blue Bottle Coffee stores (a majority stake was sold to Nestle for a reported $500 million), restaurant GuacAmigos in Los Angeles and tech company Nest, he has bought the rights to skateboarding novel Slam by Nick Hornby with composer Mark Mothersbaugh, which is being developed into a Broadway show.
“I started investing in recent years, mostly because I do want to have some sort of exit strategy from all this. I love what I do, but I'm (over) 50. You know, I know my mortality here and I want to provide for my family, and also want to be available to them, and not traveling, and chasing the carrot all the time,” he told “The Brave Ones.”
He still loves skateboarding and three years ago videoed another successful 900, at the age of 48, on his YouTube channel the Ride Channel. Son Spencer — a babe in arms for his first 900 — was on the sidelines, and in February, Hawk posted a video on Twitter of him teaching 11 year-old daughter Kadence Clover a trick, a clip that has been watched more than 15 million times. Eldest son Riley, 26, is a pro skateboarder, while Keegan, 17, is also a fan of the sport.
Skateboarding will make its debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, in part because of Hawk’s persuasion. “I was championing skating and telling (the International Olympic Committee) that, look, this could do for your Summer Games what snowboarding has done for your Winter Games. And at this point, like, you need our cool factor more than we need your validation,” Hawk said.
He's brave in business as well as sport, sister Pat told “The Brave Ones.” “If I was to pick the bravest thing that I've seen Tony do, it would have to be one of his famous tricks that look easy when the public sees it but could probably kill you if you hit it wrong … And there is this look on his face,” she said.
“He had it when he did the 900 at the X-Games where he's just looking down. ‘I'm either going to make this, or I'm going to get taken away on a stretcher.’ That's the look. That's the bravery. And I think that he does have that in business as well.”
Writer: Lucy Handley
Design and code: Bryn Bache
Editors: Matt Clinch
Executive producer, The Brave Ones: Betsy Alexander
Producer, The Brave Ones: Kevin Kane
Images: CNBC, J. Grant Brittain and Getty Images