Is there a future for aggressive inline skating?

Year 2018 is already special one for blading. End of Valo, birth of Them Skates, return of Reign, 50/50 and who knows what else. New companies and products pop all over the scene and you’d think this is a renaissance of aggressive inline. On a surface, everything looks great. What a time to be a blader! Look closer, though – there are some ugly fractures on a surface of this pretty picture.

It’s really great to see all these brands coming back, no doubt. Still, reality is that the market is not growing nowhere fast enough to accommodate all these new products.  While community is tight knitted, supportive and healthy, aggressive bladers are a slowly vanishing breed.

To put it simply, it will get cramped in here at this rate. No doubt that new frames, liners, skates and so on will find audience. But how much owners of these companies will manage to sell? Aggressive community worldwide is not that big, after all. And it can turn out that none of new (and old) companies will make any decent money on their product in such situation. Market can get oversaturated. I’m honestly concerned that we will see some people returning to business only to roll it back after a season or two. How many frames, wheels, liners and boots people can buy just to support the industry?

Another problem that’s not talked about enough – there is no vision how to keep the sport alive. It’s like no one is having a long-term plan. You don’t have to dig deep to see the root of the problem. For aggressive blading, kids almost don’t exist. There are very few skates dedicated to children. Last time I’ve checked Powerslide made USD Transformer and Xsjado Junior while Razors had Genesys Jr and that’s it. Even these companies do not have any kind of marketing geared towards juniors. If something is advertised or a promo is filmed, it’s about fitness skates. Community aspect is no better. It’s rare to see an aggressive blader teaching younger generation (or even adults). It’s like no one cares about what comes next.

Sadly, in this aspect, aggressive skating is a black sheep of the skating world. Communities gathered around other types of skating are much more active in teaching new generation of skaters and promoting their types of skating. I’ll give you some examples.

I was always amazed by a level of professionalism exhibited by speedskaters – they are organizing in clubs (many with professional coaches), regularly run open events both bigger and smaller, have national championships and participate in international ones under FIRS, gather funds to buy skates for children training in their clubs (equipment is usually passed down to newcomers/younger children after current use grew out of it – thanks to it, parents don’t have to drop money each year for new boot), they even work with local authorities, push for creation of new skate rinks, tracks, skating lanes or things like renovation of pavements in the city so they will be more skate-friendly. Thanks to their efforts, speedskating is a part of World Games, which is one of the most important international sports events. In turn, speedskating is being broadcasted in TV and general population awareness of the sport is rising.

There is also a certain common mindset among them – speedskaters I’ve met are really eager to part with money to support their club, projects, events and so on as they all love the sport and see it as a form of investment. This is a non-issue for these people usually – they are grown-ups with full time jobs and for them, speedskating is a hobby they want to support financially.

BMW Berlin Marathon is biggest skating event in the world with over 5500 people participating last year, and the fact it still lives is thanks to speedskaters. If there is a nightskating event in your area you can bet there are many speedskaters among people who organize and safeguard it. Of course, they are just humans – and when I was a member of skate club I’ve seen friction and conflicts, but in the end they were always able to put their differences aside and work together for a common goal.

Freestyle slalom community is also very active and organized. The sport has seen some rapid growth during years 2005-2014 (approximately) but then slowed down a bit, however, still attracts many newcomers each year. It’s easy to start, hard to master, and relatively safe – which helps, but once again, the strength lies in the community. Freestyle slalom skaters are well known for organizing workshops, classes, running skate schools, doing demos (even in places like malls) and actually have a worldwide competition structure in place – WSSA, with global rankings, points tracker and things like that. Moreover, in many countries there are leagues or at least frequent competitions for amateurs, serving as entry point for people who are not yet ready for “serious” WSSA events.

This sport has seen many great skaters, some of them even had pro-models of skates released, like their aggressive skating counterparts. But majority of top skaters are always very approachable and work with the community in their local area. One skater I want to mention by name is Ewelina Czapla, a girl from Poland who is doing an amazing job as freestyle slalom ambassador. For years she scored high in both freestyle and speed slalom worldwide ranking. Still, she works with newcomers frequently, both in skate school and as a part of events. Few years back she got an idea to do a tour, visiting skate schools all over the country to teach skating and meet her fans. This year she took a trip to South America to do the same. Imagine this – a person who, by aggressive standards, would have a status of a “Pro”, is flying to a different continent to work on skates for hours daily, giving tips to other skaters, meet new people, promote the sport, spark interest in kids and best of all – do not want any money for this. She is literally doing this in exchange for a place to sleep and food.

While aggressive pros were usually touring to film a material for next team video or product promo, this is totally different. This is a social work to spark interest in what you love in others. And you know what? She does have two sisters who also do huge amount of work for freestyle community. And there are many other people who may not be as widely recognized but they all have their hearts beating for skating and do everything they can to live it and spread this love. Take for example Lorenzo Guslandi – this guy also teaches other skates, is one of top freestyle slalom skaters, and you won’t find a drop of hubris in him. While practicing a sport is way harder for him due to his medical condition (diabetes with need to use insulin pump hooked to his body all the time), he not only pushes himself to be better, but also tries to make other people do the same.

As I have already touched the subject of teaching newcomers, I want to say a thing or two about the skate schools. I don’t know how it is in the US, but I know that in Europe and South America this type of business is getting more popular each year. Biggest project of this kind in Poland (and most likely in Europe, too), called I Love Rolki (rolki means “inline skates” in Polish) gathers skate schools from multiple cities and includes over 60 members (people who teach plus few others that provide a support in other way) who all work together to improve their skills and services. There are other, independent skate schools in our country too – I want to highlight one run by Tomasz Kwiecień, because this guy, as far as I know, was one of the first over here to start teaching kids how to skate aggressive. Nowadays he is running classes for both younger ones and for older in addition to teaching adults. He is not the only one doing such thing, but these people are an exception – majority of instructors teach basics, freestyle slalom, elements of urban skating (slides aka wheel shuffles for example) or speedskating. Aggressive skating instructors are hard to find.

Of course, schools are not limited to Poland – shout out to ROEX pals and also to Rui Vieira for spreading the love for skating in Spain! Sven Boekhorst also has been doing a lot of work on his home turf (on a side note, he is horribly underappreciated skater!). And then there are people in Italy, Germany, Russia… all of them doing great job. Thank you all for this!

Ongoing word says that there is no money in blading. What if I tell you that I know people who turned doing skate classes in to their main source of income? They are not working for any company, they are not a Pro, and they are working on their own account – and still get paid for skating, while helping sport to grow.

Aggressive community is very self-focused by comparison. There are not many initiatives to spark new interest in this skating type. While different skate groups tend to co-organize events (for example freestyle slalom demos during marathons etc.), it seems aggressive bladers are rarely interested in such projects.

Blading competitions are purely fan-service for existing audience and while they are not closed for outsiders, it’s rare to see anyone advertising such events to them. Moreover, there are members of this community who are sitting on a high horse, looking down on people who practice “lesser” types of skating and even ridiculing them. I have never seen such behavior among speed, freestyle slalom, downhill, freeskate or any other skating type practitioners.

This is getting better to be honest, as over the years more people from aggressive skating community opened up to other types of skating. However, I still remember how hostile local aggressive skaters were when few years back freeskaters started to organize themselves online on social media and created a forum. Most of these dudes are chill now, though, with few exceptions where people decided they’d rather continue to be assholes for no reason.

I often see a claim that aggressive needs to be visible in mass media to get successful. Truth is it’s the other way around. It must become popular enough first to break through to mass media. This is a kind of snowball effect – you have to start small and build up until the thing gains enough momentum to go by itself.

In 90’s this sport was present in TV solely because it was popular and generated major revenue stream. You cannot just “bring blading to TV” and expect everything will be just like in old times. For starters, bringing a niche sport in to TV in form other than some early morning program about ongoing curios is extremely hard thing to do. Secondly, this is an age of Internet – TV is not playing as major role as back then and kids and teenagers (aka the groups you want to attract to the sport) are spending more time surfing the web and using social media than watching TV. If they are watching something, it is YouTube or one of paid subscription VOD services with instant access to movies and shows.

There are some exceptions – for example, it’s true that Disney’s show Soy Luna sparked return of interest in quad skates among both kids and adults (who are seeing quads as throwback to 80’s). But unless someone in blading sits on top of a mountain of money which can be spend to produce popular show, I wouldn’t count on this scenario. Don’t wait for a miracle, instead start doing work on small scale.

Another thing is how resources – both money and time – are used within aggressive community. I’m aware that what I will write next will spark a controversy.

In my opinion, things like:

-paid pro skaters
-team videos, VODs and edits

All contribute very little or next to nothing to popularization of the sport.

Problem is, these are ideas taken from better times, when aggressive inline was on top and it made sense to spend time and funds on hype material and have top skaters acquiring a status of rockstars. The hype was spreading by a word of mouth – when every kid around the block had inline skates, it was important to have all of this. But now?

A Pro can be praised for skill, but if all she/he is doing nowadays is using this skill to impress the existing “userbase” of blading it won’t do any good for the growth of the sport.

All media produced are worthless for popularization of aggressive if they are not coming through boundaries of the community. Additionally, with rise of paid VODs, best of latest skating footage is restricted to paid users. I don’t think anyone who is just curious and want to research blading further would be willing to pay for VOD. I understand that people want to make money on things they put time, blood and sweat in to and I don’t blame them. But all of this, it’s to put it simply way too hermetic and too focused on existing audience instead of trying to appeal to newcomers.

To better highlight what I am talking about, let me bring up another action sport which suffered a fate similar to aggressive inline – a BMX. With shrinking community and downfall similar to ne which happened to aggressive, these people are also keeping to themselves, trying to live the dream of days long gone. But how much of the media they produce actually manages to get through to informational feeds consumed by yourself? How many of current BMX Pro riders names do you know? Do you know what tricks pulled off by them were the most impressive and why? If you would by any chance stomp on new BMX edit or full length video, would that convince you to go out, buy a bike and start learning tricks?

But what if local BMX community would organize open event in your area where you’d have a chance to talk in friendly atmosphere with skilled riders, borrow a bike, try some tricks under a supervision of instructor, grab a coupon to get some kind of discount at nearest shop which sells BMX bikes and parts? Wouldn’t that leave a better impression and actually had much better chance to convince you it’s worth to enter this sport?

In comparison with aggressive, other skating communities produce very little media. Sometimes short edits, but team videos and paid VODs are basically unheard of. While they do have professionals among them, like speedskating superstars like Joey Mantia or Bart Swings, their status is not quite like “Pro” in aggressive. Instead of being focused on current audience, these communities put their energy and resources in to a grassroots work, making an effort to popularize the sport using more direct means. And it turns out, they are getting way better results with this approach. An open workshop event where people can come and try skating under an eye of experienced tutor and see a demo does have a potential to bring more new faces in to skating than any video, pro skate or “banger trick” landed.

Most important video in history of aggressive could be released tomorrow and it would still be irrelevant for the outside world and wouldn’t bring any new people to the sport. Same goes with release of another pro model, launch of another skate company, another skater becoming a pro.

Is it really a priority for a sport with shrinking audience and starved economy to have people with icon status making a living only from skating? Is it that important to dedicate time, energy and money in to things which will appeal only to existing fans?

Sometimes watching what is happening on aggressive scene is like seeing a band that released one great album 20 years ago but now has to do gigs like playing during cheap restaurant opening just to stay afloat, but for some reason its members still behave like they are kings of the world and superstars. It does raise an eyebrow, at best.

I’m not saying that it’s time to ditch the Pro bladers and to stop making media. I just think it’s time to re-evaluate what is expected from people with Pro status and from teams, to rethink what kind of media blading needs right now and how to use them to popularise the sport. Time to make community more open and active in recruiting new skaters. Without this, how many years does blading have until current audience no longer will be able to keep business alive and until no one will be able to skate at the top level simply because of age? 10, 15, 20?

I’ll leave this to sink in.