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The Changing Roll of Women in Sports

September 06, 1998|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pop culture truism: When advertising executives finally glom onto something, only then can it claim its official status in the contemporary Zeitgeist. Consider this year's favorites--ska music and snowboarding--enlisted to hawk everything from cars to credit cards to carbonated drinks.

It's no surprise then to find skateboarding, in the midst of a fourth-wave revival, featured in a recent Secret deodorant ad. Long before snowboards swooped into the marketing lexicon, advertisers invoked skateboards in the hopes of conveying those coveted abstractions of youth and cool, sometimes even rebellion. Its aggressive bad-boy image, which seethed in the '80s, always looked harsher than any tribal-tattooed surfer or skier-loathed snowboarder.

But the newest trick among image-makers is who's wielding the skateboards.

Girls.

No longer satisfied being the girlfriends and sisters of skateboarders, more girls are rolling out than ever before on beach boardwalks, at skate park "Ladies Nights" and onto neighborhood skate ramps. Girls are cruising sidewalks on pink-wheeled longboards, and they're grinding park embankments on standard boards as daringly as any guy.

Nearly one-fourth of the estimated 6.75 million U.S. skateboarders in 1996 were females, according to American Sports Data, which tracks industry statistics. While the skateboard industry reported a 20% boost in sales last year, it's still a numbers game counting who among them are girls. Most female first-timers usually use a hand-me-down board before convincing parents or earning their own pocket change for a new one, which can start at $60 and go to $200 and more.

"The overall participation of women has increased significantly," says Miki Vuckovich, managing editor of Transworld Skateboard Business, a Times Mirror publication. While he adds a footnote that "a lot of the women involved are into it recreationally more than competitively," he believes that will change as society and the sport's leaders recognize that some girls are willing to scrape an elbow to match abilities with the guys.

As for proof of marketplace legitimacy, examples abound. Consider the pro model signature skate sneaker and several skateboard models out this last year that are named after top women riders. Or the skateboard companies and board shops owned by women. Or the young women's zines and teen magazines covering female skateboarders. Or the all-girl contests. Or think of the little girl wheeling through your neighborhood.

The '90s rallying cry--"Girls Rule"--on every T-shirt has been updated to "Girls Ride."

Then there's the Secret ad, featuring a fresh-faced and smiling girl standing with one hand on her hip and the other on a propped-up skateboard, appearing in several teen magazines this fall. Among them is the latest Moxie Girl magalog (a fashion catalog posing as a magazine), which is also stuffed with a nine-page spread starring professional rider Jen O'Brien, ranked among the top five women skateboarders worldwide.

New Breed Says It's a Lifestyle

Popular-culture observers might call all this attention a phenomenon. But the young women involved insist this isn't a fad.

"There's no going back," assures O'Brien, just off a six-week run of the alternative-music / skateboarding Warped Tour, in which she skated twice daily for the oohs and aahs of thousands of kids throughout the U.S. and Canada. "For the girls doing it for the right reasons, you know, not to pick up guys or because it's the latest trend," she continues, "it's a lifestyle. The contests give them incentive to get better. And the industry now sees a market like it did with girls surfing."

O'Brien is on the short list of rising stars who've secured deals in a market that hopes affiliation with these new female idols will translate into reasons for girls to buy a new product. Elissa Steamer, 19, favored by many as the fiercest of the new breed, is also the first to land a signature board, earlier this year with San Diego-based Toy Machine.

Sponsorship's the Hot Ticket

But landing the coveted namesake sneaker is twentysomething Cara Beth Burnside, who personalized the Vans model with an embroidered sun designed like the one tattooed on her lower leg. Burnside is the undisputed big sister of the modern girls skateboard movement, as well as a snowboarder who competed in the winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

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