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Tony Hawk: From Skateboard Misfit To CEO

In the world of skateboarding, only one man can claim Bill Gates status: Tony Hawk. With a $1 billion video game franchise, Hawk is the most successful skateboarder in the world. His brand is affiliated with everything from skateboards to Jeeps to cell phones to cheeseburgers to games. He's releasing his 12th video game, "Shred," this week.

But the story of this unlikely sports mogul actually begins just before he retired from competitive skateboarding. In 1999, the lanky 31-year-old from Carlsbad, Calif., stunned the skateboarding world when he catapulted himself off the side of a massive U-shaped skateboard ramp, turned two-and-a-half rotations and landed the first-ever "900" at ESPN’s X Games.

"It was a personal achievement, it was something that I had strived for for years and years and years and, in a lot of ways, had given up on," Hawk says. "But I just didn't think of the resonance that that would have."

And resonate it did. Just a few months later, Hawk released his first video game, "Tony Hawk Pro Skater." With the publicity surrounding the famous "900" trick, and the popularity of the Sony PlayStation, the timing of the release couldn’t have been more perfect.

"We had no idea how big the game would get so quickly," says Dave Stohl, the video game's producer. "You could almost watch every week -- bigger, bigger, bigger and then explosion. It just got huge."

"Tony Hawk Pro Skater" launched a franchise that would grow to generate over a $1 billion in sales in the United States, according to retail analyst NPD Group. And it wasn't just the game that got popular; the sport itself was also growing. The National Sporting Goods Association reports that the number of people skateboarding jumped 70 percent from 1998 to 2004. Meanwhile, participation in traditional "stick-and-ball" sports was flat or even declined.

"The soccer mom has become the skate mom," says Mark Lewman, an action sports marketing expert. "Tony Hawk is an ambassador of skateboarding. He's inherited that role through the things he's done in his career as a skater, as a video game pioneer, as an event promoter and an entrepreneur."

But, of course, he didn’t start out that way.

"When I started skating, it was such a small community," Hawk says. "You didn't aspire to be rich or famous or make a career out of it because that wasn't something anyone had done yet."

It was Hawk's father, World War II Navy fighter pilot Frank Hawk, who helped his son -- and the sport -- get organized. Frank Hawk founded both the California Amateur Skateboard League and the National Skateboarding Association, organizations that held contests and gave structure to the sport.

Steve Olson, an older pro skater who saw Tony Hawk on his way up, remembers Frank Hawk.

"He gave a platform for a bunch of delinquents that were misfits or outcasts to the normal world of athletics," Olson says. "Frank Hawk was the dude. Like, he was running the contests."

Today, both Hawk and Olson are able to look back on skateboarding's early days when it was derided as just a toy, and look to their sons to see how far it's come. Olson's 24-year-old son, Alex, has turned pro, while Hawk's 17-year-old son, Riley, is an amateur skater.

That's something Hawk says he wishes his father could have seen.

"You know, if I had one regret it's that my dad didn't get to see how big this all became because he was my biggest supporter, and he died in '95 of lung cancer," Hawk says. "He would have never dreamed it got like this. That it was this big."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Gregory
Nina Gregory is a senior editor for NPR's Arts Desk, where she oversees coverage of film across the network and edits and and assigns stories on television, art, design, fashion, food, and culture.