Tue, Jul 17, 2007 - Page 14 News List

The sky's the limit

A downward shift in the skateboarding demographic and the accessibility provided by the Internet has major labels seeking to endorse kids as young as seven

By MATT HIGGINS  /  NY Times News Service , BEN LOMOND, California

Nine-year-old twins Tristan Puehse, left, and Nic Puehse at home in Shingle Springs, California.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Perhaps it was inevitable that skateboarding would produce the nine-year-old Puehse twins.

With tremendous talent, Nic and Tristan Puehse (pronounced PEW-zah) of Shingle Springs, California, outside Sacramento, have become a grass-roots marketing phenomenon. Their ability has taken them to China and onto The Ellen DeGeneres Show. They have 14 sponsors, including Nike and Gatorade. And they are the stars of one of the most popular skateboarding videos on YouTube, a clip that has been viewed more than 2.5 million times since it was posted in January.

None of this would have been possible without the support of their father, Michael, a man with a vision, a video camera and a marketing plan.

"If they continue to progress like they're doing, there's no doubt they're going to be pro," said Michael Puehse, who has helped his sons' careers by sending videotapes of the boys to potential sponsors since they were 6.

The twins' emergence has taken place in a US$5 billion skateboard industry that is increasingly turning to the very youngest skaters, some as young as 7, to promote its products. Almost half of the US' estimated 11 million skateboarders - 43 percent - are between 6 and 11, according to the market research company Board-Trac.

Sonja Catalano, the president of the California Amateur Skateboard League, had to create a new division for sponsored skaters 10 and younger to accommodate their growing ranks.

"These kids do videos there on YouTube," she said in June at a league competition in the Santa Cruz Mountains. "They're on MySpace.com. They have resumes. Down South, it's a little crazy. Half of them have Hollywood agents."

Although the value of sponsorships starts out modestly for the youngest - usually free equipment, apparel and minimal monetary payment - the rewards are great for those who continue to excel. Ryan Sheckler, 17, first won an X Games gold medal four years ago. Today, he earns in the low six figures in prize money alone, with sponsorship deals adding significantly to that. Nyjah Huston was 11 when he competed on the Dew Action Sports Tour and at the X Games in the summer of 2006, earning tens of thousands in prize money.

Catalano remembers skateboarding before the X Games and the great expectations. She helped found the league 28 years ago with Frank Hawk, the father of the skateboarding star Tony Hawk.

"We didn't used to have any parents," Catalano said. "That's what drew a lot of kids to skateboarding, and that's what drew a lot of kids to skateboard contests in the first place."

"It was their thing," she added.

But while skateboarding may still be the kids' thing, parents have now embraced it as well.

At a league competition in June, cars unloaded children with helmets, pads and skateboards at a skate park surrounded by soaring redwoods. In a scene somewhere between a Little League game and a punk rock concert, parents cheered as music blared and an MC called out tricks performed by skaters, some of whom had only recently completed kindergarten.

One of those competitors, Drake Riddiough, is 8. He did not know sponsorship existed when Jason Crum spotted him at a competition in the summer of 2006. Crum had created Half Pint Skateboards that same year to fill a void in the booming youth market. Crum noticed that most of those at skate parks were younger than 12, but they were using boards that often were too big and featured gory graphics.

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