Saturday, July 25, 2009

Just Don't

I tried. I really did. But I just couldn't make it past the first few minutes of Nike SB's latest video, Debacle, even if it was free.

The skating is not the problem. Paul Rodriguez and the rest do a competent job with the skateboard action. The problems start when the skating stops. The set ups for the gags are obvious, and they are poorly executed. The opening gimmick with the car is badly telegraphed, and the second angle destroys any remaining illusion of spontaneity. I've never made it past the confrontation scene. You can see the setup coming from up the block, and the execution is so forced and hammy that it is unwatchable.

Perhaps more perplexing than the general crappiness of the non-skating content, is why it's there at all. It wasn't that long ago Nike was pushing this message:

So what is it? Skaters are just like every other athlete? Or they're a bunch of confrontational, destructive punks? Or, maybe Nike really doesn't know.

The problem is that as much as skating is a sport, it's a subculture, and Nike doesn't get that. When they look at skaters, they see a market, and a potential market share. What they don't see is a community--a community they're not part of, and can't just buy their way into.

Skating has been around for long enough that it's gone though several cycles of boom and bust. After the credits rolled on Dogtown and Z-Boys, skating sort of died off. Then, it reinvented itself before dying off again. After another reinvention, here we are, and skating is more popular than ever before.

In addition to Steve Rocco, guys like Element's Johnny Schillereff were building skating at a grassroots level, and built their brands around visionaries like Stevie Williams, Ray Barbee and Bam Margera. Element's new video, Make It Count doesn't suffer the same problem that plagues Nike SB's Debacle.

While Debacle awkwardly fumbles for some sort of narrative to make it seem relevant, Element's Make It Count simply has to tell the company's story. Element's founder was thrown out of his house at 17 because of his skating. Schillereff was virtually homeless until he finished high school before going on to found the company in 1992. When that's your story, you don't have to make silly shit up. Nike finds itself in the unenviable situation of fighting for a position in a market it's competitors created. That's a hard sale to make.

Oddly, Nike has been in this position before. Way back in the late 1990's when Lance Armstrong started winning Tours and topping the bestseller lists, Nike decided to get into cycling in a big way. Like skateboarding, cycling's popularity has been cyclical. Like the skateboard, the bike is more often viewed as a toy than a sporting good. Still, like skaters, cyclists maintained a fairly consistent core community, and over time something of an outsider culture has formed around the sport. When Nike entered the market it had (by comparison) a huge marketing budget, and the biggest star of the sport for a spokesman. Sure, there were many well-established brands with a history of involvement in the cycling community, respect for the tradition and a knowledge of the sport you can't just suddenly acquire, but marketing can make up for all that, right? Maybe, but after less than a decade, Nike quietly dropped out of the cycling business in 2007. Let's hope history repeats itself.

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