|(Posted 10/5/2004) |
By David Washburn, San Diego * Union-Tribute Staff Writer. Edited by Josh Rabinowitz for SkateboardDirectory.com
At age 47 – and still dressed like a skater – some say that Tony Alva * is as sought after as he was a quarter-century ago.
With The Clash and Public Enemy pictures on the wall, a Bruce Lee calendar on the door and techno music pumping through the computer speakers, the office has an atmosphere more akin to a teenager's basement hangout than the nerve center of a business poised for a breakout year.
But considering the business and its owner, it would seem odd if things were any other way. Located on a beat-up street in Oceanside, it is where skateboarding icon Tony Alva oversees Alva Skateboards *, the manufacturer of his signature skateboards and skating gear.
Inside the "Sugar Shack," as the office has been dubbed by his small staff, Alva fidgets with a wet suit draped over a well-worn couch, shuffles through the day's mail and talks about his career in an industry he helped invent, and the good fortune that has come his way in recent years.
It started with the 2001 * release of "Dogtown and Z-Boys *," a documentary that chronicled the exploits of Alva and his fellow Z-Boys – a group of 1970s outlaw teenagers from Venice Beach * and Santa Monica * who revolutionized skateboarding with their surfing-like moves in empty swimming pools.
The documentary was a hit, especially in the important under-25 demographic.
So Sony * Pictures bankrolled "The Lords of Dogtown *," a feature film with Alva as one of the main characters.
At age 47, but still dressed like a skater with Vans * shoes, loose jeans, his shirttail out and his dreadlocks tucked under a baseball cap, some say Alva is as sought after as he was a quarter-century ago.
He was one of the principal consultants on the movie, helping to authenticate the scenes and even rewrite parts of the script. And when the movie isn't beckoning, he is managing Alva Skateboards, which saw sales quadruple after the documentary.
"Riding the wave of the documentary is one thing, but with this next film coming out, we're going straight to the mainstream market," Alva said. "Come next year, I think sales will be going through the roof."
The company is selling between 600 and 700 skateboards a month in addition to clothes and other skateboarding gear, said Matt Tumolo, who runs the day-to-day operations at the Oceanside location. He also said that most of Alva's boards, also called decks, go for between $50 and $150 and are sold to skate shops in th USA *.
With the movie due to open either next spring or summer, Alva has added workers, warehouse space and leased the storefront next door to accommodate a more robust sales operation.
He is hands-on with the business, which is unusual among his contemporaries, said Beth Lucia, his agent and business manager.
"There aren't too many professional skateboarders left who can be found in their shops," Lucia said. "He keeps it very grass-roots."
Right now, the sport is as popular as ever: an estimated 11 million Americans rode a skateboard last year. And consider this: the skateboard industry generates about $5.7 billion in annual revenue, as much as surfing and snowboarding combined.
But track the business of skateboarding over the past 30 years and it resembles one of the "vert" maneuvers that have come to define the sport: zooming up, hanging in the air for a second and then crashing down.
Since becoming a cultural and commercial phenomenon in the mid-to late 1970s, the industry has experienced peaks and valleys that have attracted, and then scared off, many an entrepreneur. Only guys like Alva, who consider skateboarding far more than just a business, have stayed for the entire ride.
"If you were tough enough to ride it out, you're still involved in skating," Alva said.
"If not, you're just a name from the past."
Widely considered the most aggressive and cocky of the Z-Boys, in the 1970s Alva found himself on the cover of just about every skateboarding magazine, as well as mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone. And when he wasn't posing for cover photos, he was traveling the world doing personal appearances and skate competitions.
In 1977, at age 19, he blew off sponsorships from established skateboard manufacturers and started his own company.
Reportedly, the company had revenue of more than $2 million in the first year, and for the next few years, Alva was living the proverbial dream.
"I was making over $100,000 a year, buying cars off the lot for cash, traveling the world surfing and skateboarding, taking my girlfriend out for nice meals every night," he said. "For a kid, that's big pimpin'. It was a big deal."
Then came the early 1980s, and his fortunes faded along with the popularity of skateboarding. Reportedly, his company went from selling hundreds of thousands of boards a year to virtually zero *. And Alva, who had saved nary a dime, went from famous jet-setting outlaw athlete to a dude working a part-time job and selling skateboards out of a garage.
"He's always been a legend," said Skateboarder Magazine * editor Brian Peech of Alva. "But at far as the brand, there have definitely been times that it wasn't as prominent as others."
John Falahee, who grew up with Alva and was his business partner during the 1980s, remembers a tense time as they struggled to sell skateboards in a tanking market.
"Who can raise their hand and say, 'I can run a multimillion-dollar company'?" Falahee said. "We didn't go to school for it. I was a surfer and he was a skater/surfer. So now you're asking us to structure purchase orders and schedule shipments.
"We've matured. But at the time, come on – it was hand to mouth."
The sport had another brief comeback in the late '80s, and Alva's company sponsored a team called the Alva Posse and again was selling between 10,000 and 20,000 boards a month. But the tide changed again in the early 1990s.
"The street-skating, little-wheels *, baggy-pants crew came in and made it stupid for a lot of the old-school skaters," Alva said. "So we totally shunned the entire skateboard industry and went real underground back in our garages to make boards."
In 1994 *, knowing in his gut that what he considered real skateboarding would eventually come back, Alva opened his shop on Wisconsin * Avenue in Oceanside. For several years, the business sold just enough boards to stay afloat.
During that period, he hooked up with Jeff Black, a part-time disc jockey and graphic artist.
"When I first met Tony, he was traveling a lot, doing appearances, going on skate trips, pretty much just lying low," Black said. "We weren't pushing the business real hard."
Things pretty much stayed that way until 2000 *, when Alva's brand of vertical skateboarding started making a comeback. Many say that the resurgence was largely due to the popularity of ESPN *'s X-Games *, which features extreme sports, and Encinitas resident Tony Hawk *, considered the Michael Jordan of skateboarding.
That year, Alva hired Tumolo, who had telemarketing experience and had taken some business-management classes, to handle day-to-day operations.
"He didn't have a sales force, didn't even have a computer," Tumolo said. "He needed to have someone in the shop selling boards for him all day, every day."
Even with the documentary and movie buzz giving the company a boost, Alva still is not among the top-selling skateboard brands. But he is confident that the authentic, grass-roots appeal of his name will set him apart from his nearly 80 competitors.
"We're not going to sit around and wait for the industry to tell us that skateboarding is cool," he said. "We basically tell them. And then when they finally hear us, that is when Nike *, Red Bull * or whoever has to come to us if they want to make money in our world."
About Tony Alva
Personal: Age 47. Born in Santa Monica. Lives in San Clemente. Father of 9-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter.
Education: Graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1975. Attended Orange Coast College and Golden West College in Orange County *.
Career: Owner of Alva Skateboards since 1977. Opened Oceanside location in 1994. Was in Guinness Book of World Records for 25 years for jumping over 19 barrels on a skateboard in 1977. First winner of the "Skateboarder" poll for world's best skateboarder in 1977.
This article was originally entitled "Chairman of his boards: Skating icon uses hands-on approach with business" and was found at http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/business/20041005-9999-1b5alva.html
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