- Who organizes the Ultraskate
- What it is
- Why it was held in 2021
- How it was possible
The Ultraskate is the highest-profile competition of distance skateboarding. It takes place annually in Miami and it attracts skateboarders from all around the world and significant (social) media attention. It is organized by the SkateIDSA (sic; henceforth “Skate IDSA,” or just “IDSA”), an NGO which also provides insurance to “sanctioned” events in the USA for a fee. The IDSA, which was formed around 10 years ago (unfortunately its website provides little background info) by Joner Straus, stepped up in the effort to lay a framework on a sport that had been growing somewhat in popularity and offered significant opportunities for the organization of promotional events for sports manufacturers and vendors.
In early 2021, while the covid-19 pandemic was still raging, and after many events had had to be canceled or postponed in the struggle against the spread of the disease, the IDSA decided to hold the Ultraskate event in Miami anyway. This decision can only be explained by weighing the interests involved against each other (of which public health interests are part). In this post I try to reappraise this conflict of interests to the best of my available resources1.
Who organizes the Ultraskate
The Skate IDSA was founded by Straus a few years ago (around 2012) and its figurehead is Andrew Andras, a prominent long distance skateboarding athlete. Straus got the idea to found an NGO dedicated to this sport after realizing that an easy way to bypass bureaucratic hurdles when setting up promotional events for sports vendors would be to connect the events to non-profit, rather than for-profit, purposes (Straus, 2020, 09:40). The sport itself had not been popular enough (or even clearly defined) to necessitate governing, but it was apparently popular (and profitable) enough for an organization like the IDSA to step up and claim the role of the “governing body” (that would help, as such bodies do, channel that profit) without seeming redundant or irrelevant to the skateboard community. The fact that Andras was part of the effort (a revered athlete and charming person by most accounts) was crucial in giving the newly formed IDSA the legitimacy it required.
Straus got the idea to found an NGO dedicated to this sport after realizing that an easy way to bypass bureaucratic hurdles when setting up promotional events for sports vendors would be to connect the events to non-profit, rather than for-profit, purposes.
A note on the scarcity available information is due. The IDSA website provides no background information about the organization and its history, except for a recently recorded interview by the IDSA’s quasi-promotional podcast series, LDPcast. The website only writes about the services it provides and its stated mission. This makes it appear as if it had been around for longer than it really has to newer members of the community. There is some background given on how the sport itself began however, especially on the site dedicated to the Ultraskate. We get the story of James Peters who started doing distance skateboarding back in the 90s or 00s, and how he helped organize small grassroots events in the American north of like-minded skaters (in fact, when I started participating in the online community, my impression was that the sport was just that).
Also, the IDSA website gives neither information about its sponsors nor does it claim to be independent or self-funded (through ticket sales for events, donations, membership fees). In fact, contrary to common NGO practice, the IDSA reveals nothing about its own status and funding.
What it is
The Ultraskate is a race without a set distance but with a set time limit. The person who has skated the longest within 24 hours wins.2 For whichever reason, this format has become the most popular way for distance skateboarders to compete with each other. The Ultraskate was invented by James Peters (Andras, 2020) around the late 90s in northwestern USA and has moved down to Florida (home of Straus, Andras and trucks manufacturer Dont Trip), where it takes place yearly on a race track designed for cars. In recent years, Dutch skaters have started organizing a similar event sanctioned by the IDSA in the Netherlands too, but it seems the one in Miami is considered the pinnacle. The participation in that event as a contestant costed 100$ in 2021. I believe the average participation in the event is around 100 persons, give or take a few dozens.
On the other hand, in early 2021 the covid-19 pandemic is still raging all over the world with governments having in place various restrictions of movement for civilians, or even total lockdowns, depending on the severity of the situation and the political environment in each jurisdiction. Many sports events had to be canceled, either voluntarily or after state orders. The Ultraskate 2021 in Miami took place as normal.
Why it was held in 2021
It is striking that amidst a pandemic, the Miami Ultraskate would still be held. At first I thought it was just a misguided decision that had probably more to do with the political climate in the USA (notoriously anti-science on the right of the political spectrum) and in particular in the state of Miami (by most accounts a right-wing stronghold). I started thinking more about it when I saw a commenter on facebook under the IDSA announcement that the event would be held as normally, who (in sincere agony but -perhaps- with naivety about motives) requested that, instead of the event, a fundraiser would be organized to keep the Ultraskate afloat for next year, to resume after the pandemic. The acute cognitive dissonance that this idea evoked (if not from the commenter, who just wanted to be cautious, certainly from the community at large) set in motion the following thoughts.
It couldn’t be simple financial concerns that forced the IDSA’s hand. The Ultraskate itself can’t have any cost if it doesn’t even take place.
It couldn’t be simple financial concerns that forced the IDSA’s hand. The Ultraskate itself can’t have any cost if it doesn’t even take place. And if we consider it an income stream that helps cover the IDSA’s expenses, then a fundraiser to cover those would have been far more than adequate. The IDSA is a website, an NGO that may have some government fees to pay and an insurance plan subscription (that may actually be the most expensive thing they have to deal with). These are things than in exceptional times like these could presumably be easily covered by friends, members, associates and sponsors. There must be also some state support (but that’s the USA, so… I don’t know). So, this account doesn’t check out to me. If it was indeed financial concerns, then the amounts that were concerning couldn’t have been that small, otherwise they would have been easily covered. I will come to financial concerns in a minute, but on the face of it, it must be something else.
If not that, it could well be misguided political motivations behind the refusal to follow pandemic guidelines, right? In this case you would have to assume that the actors involved in the decision are not many (because significant rifts would have developed among the decision makers) and also that other actors who could influence this decision, such as sponsors and prominent athletes, would have tried to do so. Dissidence would have been more public. However, only rank and file members of the community voiced concerns over this decision (more on this, and on the few channels such voices can be aired, below). This makes me think that going on with the event, although it must have been not an easy decision, was more or less unanimous or in some ways forced upon those who decided.
What sort of motivations can there be behind the decision to go on with the event, that outweighed social responsibility concerns that surely must have been raised at some point then? These can’t have been simple concerns over the yearly expenses the IDSA has to maintain itself or the Ultraskate, as I hinted earlier. Why? If on the one hand the IDSA and the Ultraskate were still (if ever) grassroots efforts to bring together the community, then they would have been more responsive to concerns over the safety of the contestants and society at large, due to the high risk of infection such events bring. And at any rate, the cost could easily be covered by the community itself. If on the other hand they were large enough to feel the danger of exposure to bad publicity, if in other words “corporate social responsibility” made sense for organizations of their size and type, they would have canceled or postponed the event as lip service to such social concerns. In that case, the lost revenue would have been much larger, but at least there would be cash reserves and also the support from partners and sponsors would have been more substantial (but this is just a thought experiment, because we’re not talking about scales like this, not by any account).
The financial gain of holding the event is apparently both too large to be neglected and too small for the fear of backlash to be discouraging.
I think the latter is key in understanding what might have gone down. Consider for a minute the kind of sponsors the event will have and the kind of returns they expect. Already from the get-go (no time to pretend!), in the text of the very announcement (also, picture right) that Ultraskate will be held despite the pandemic, Insanity Boardshop was heralded as the sponsor for safety against covid-19 infections by handing out free masks with their huge photogenic logo on it. Pantheon boards would reveal its new line of decks by offering test-rides on location (missed the link). The usual players, Dont Trip, G|Bomb and Riptide, were present too (announced sponsors include also: Hamboards, Rocket, Die Epic). Loaded did not take part in the event, but its sister brand Orangatang did. Loaded is the largest of any of the brands involved in one way or another in the sport and the one that would probably face some PR consequences had it openly taken part in this. (A note for those who might have a good memory: Loaded was universally frowned upon in social media forums for LDP as too corporate for the elitist tastes of the community, which preferred to support artisanal manufacturers like Subsonic; still, in latter years it’s made good inroads, that same old corporate profile notwithstanding. On the contrary, Subsonic which was not present in this Ultraskate, had been under fire around the same period by various users in the forums/groups for allegedly not fulfilling orders – while others reported a fine service. The tide is apparently turning for Subsonic and I wonder if the two phenomena are not unrelated.)
The financial gain of holding the event, not so much for the IDSA, but mainly for the sponsors who enable and support it, is apparently both too large to be neglected and too small for the fear of backlash to be discouraging. Most importantly, it is indirect. It represents future sales through holding an event which ostensibly fosters a sense of community (a nice story for the media), but mainly serves to pitch new products and cement brands in the minds of consumers. With amounts so small and so safely distant from the event itself, they are all flying too low under the radar of corporate social responsibility, that is, the radar of the (independent) media, to have fear their image would be tainted. And this brings me to the last piece of the puzzle: the media.
How it was possible
All of the above speaks essentially of a balance that exists between risk of bad publicity on the one hand and profit (direct through tickets, and merch sold and contributions from donors and sponsors, or indirect through advertising and future profit expectations) on the other. How they can pull this off without any fear of consequences (and of media backlash in particular) is testament to the media environment under which the IDSA and the relevant players (companies, athletes, public figures) operate. The only media for them is the social media and they seem to have total control over them. The channels of communication with the public are a couple of Facebook groups and a Tapatalk forum collectively comprising 7000 users – of course with some overlap and non-active accounts – (all three owned and/or administered by Peters and other IDSA board members), a Reddit group (apparently not connected to the IDSA) and a podcast series (which appears to operate fully under the auspices of the IDSA and whose hosts are also IDSA staff members). Reddit doesn’t have a large interested user base (if traffic stats from there to this site can indicate that).
In essence, the Facebook groups are the place where the community exchanges news, ideas and receives promotional messages directly from the manufacturers (Andras, 2020), who do not really have another way of advertising their products. One Facebook post criticizing the decision to go ahead with the Ultraskate has been muted from commenting by an admin after it amassed 133 comments (see picture right) and has sunk down in the group timeline and another posted later was immediately deleted (I didn’t consider keeping a screenshot at the time and it’s unclear who deleted the post). No explanations from the admins on their decision. It was tacitly signaled to us all that the admins won’t tolerate dissidence (see also updates below). Those who disagree are silenced or expelled. The only line is the IDSA line in forums administered by the IDSA. Comments under IDSA’s own announcements have been acquiescent.
Distance skateboarding is not a big sport. It hasn’t attracted major sports corporations. There’s only a handful of actors, mainly based in the USA, who apparently get by with the small, but adequate revenue that the sport can generate. That is as long as the sport remains small enough to be manageable for small players like them (otherwise they would lose it to more competitive actors), yet popular enough to feed them profit. The pandemic is clearly a factor that would cut into the income of quite a few of them. It couldn’t be allowed to interfere.
1. I stress that the article is, by nature, conjecture. My sources are the material linked in the text and my own impressions after six years of observing the scene. I would wish I had testimonies from the IDSA staff itself, but, as whistleblowers rarely come forth, I have to do what other writers usually do: piece together a hopefully coherent opinion that the reader can evaluate for herself. However, do also check the comment section for feedback from what appears to be an insider.
2. This format was possibly inspired by the six-day bike races, from early 20th century.
On February the 11th another Facebook user posted this statement in one of the groups administered by IDSA people (also on his own page). Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go down well with the IDSA and some of the community. In my view, there is a cultural divide on this issue between many US citizens and the rest of the world, but such hypotheses are problematic and won’t be the backbone of any analysis in here.
Also, I noticed on March 2 that an admin “muted” me on the two f/b groups and later also banned me from one. Also, deleted are now several of my posts from over the years on Peters’s forum. There was a spike of views from the US a few days prior to that, so apparently, people who control these groups read this article and weren’t pleased. Ironically, this episode neatly illustrates my point that the media within the IDSA sphere are far from democratic.