Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Sports craze, fans hit the riverfront concrete this week

X Games phenomenon converges on Cincinnati

By Jeremy W. Steele
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Ryan Graf, 13, of New Lebanon, Ohio, jumps his skateboard up onto one of the obstacles at Baker Bowl Skate Park at Smith Park in Middletown as his friend John Collins (right) watches.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
Surrounded by friends watching for his next move, there's not a ramp or bank that Aaron Pyle won't try.

The 17-year-old from Middletown is next to fearless at the Baker Bowl Skate Park in his hometown. His only padding is the bandage wrapped around his left knee - a memento from a recent spill - as he launches into the air and flies over the unforgiving concrete below.

"Kids want to have fun and go fast, and kids tend to do what their parents tell them not to do," Aaron explains amid the clatter of crashing skateboards. "And doing extreme sports is one of those things."

This Saturday, Aaron leaves his home turf. That's when he takes to the Mobile Skatepark Series street course along Cincinnati's riverfront - the same course the pros will be skating as they battle for a chance to compete in the X Games, the premier competition for extreme sports.

Some of the world's best professional skateboarders, inline skaters and BMX riders will compete as the skating series returns to Sawyer Point Friday through May 27 on its five-city tour of the nation. It also will draw tens of thousands of Tristate youths who spend more time imitating Tony Hawk than Ken Griffey Jr.

The free five-day event also gives amateurs a chance to compete and aspiring extreme-sports enthusiasts a chance to try out the professional-level course and half-pipe - a large, U-shaped ramp.

It will be Aaron's second time competing. Last year, he finished ninth out of 31 in the harrowing amateur street course competition, a 60-second run through the tight course of steep ramps.

5.5 million - Number of skateboarders nationwide, 1992.
9.7 million - Number of skateboarders, current.
$1.4 billion - Retail sales of skateboarding merchandise in 2002.
1,000 - Estimated number of community skate parks nationwide.
Four - Number of community skate parks open in the Tristate.
10 - Number of Tristate skate parks after current projects are completed.

Tristate skate parks:

Baker Bowl Skate Park
Where: Smith Park, North Verity Parkway, Middletown.
Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk.
Bill Cappel Youth Sports Complex
Where: 43rd and Decoursey streets, Covington.
Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk.
Miami Meadows Park
Where: Off Ohio 131, Miami Township.
Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk.
Oxford Skate Park
Where: 6025 Fairfield Road, Oxford.
Hours: 10 a.m to 7 p.m. May to September , 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. October to April 5.
Florence Skate Park (opens May 31)
Where: Ewing Boulevard and Ky. 18, Florence.
Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk. Opens May 31.
Sources: Skatepark Association of the U.S.A.; National Sporting Goods Association; International Association of Skateboard Companies

"It was scary," Aaron recalls.

Despite the threat of wiping out that can lead to scrapes, bruises and broken bones, young males, their interest stoked by video games and national TV coverage of extreme sports, are increasingly drawn to skateboarding, inline skating and BMX ridinc. And Greater Cincinnati communities are taking note.

Since Middletown opened Baker Bowl in 1999, community parks have opened in Miami Township, Oxford and Covington, and Florence Skate Park opens May 31. At least five more community skate parks are in the works in the Tristate, and there are also small private parks scattered around.

"Almost every little burg has one now, and some of them are yet to be discovered," says 24-year-old Jason Reser, a BMX rider and owner of Reser Bicycle Outfitters in Newport. "They're just sprouting up all over the place within the last two years."

The craze is drawing thousands away from traditional sports such as baseball, football and basketball. In the past decade, participation by 6- to 19-year-olds in those three sports has been declining while skateboarding, inline skating and BMX riding has seen a 400 percent increase, according to California-based Aggressive Skaters Association Events, the organizer of the Mobile Skatepark Series.

"For a while the media labeled it as extreme, crazy stuff," Reser says. "These kids don't consider themselves extreme. They're just having fun."

The Greater Cincinnati Sports Corp. hopes to capitalize on that fun. The nonprofit group lobbied to bring the Mobile Skatepark Series to Cincinnati.

Last year, the event drew 70,000 people downtown, spurring an estimated $2.2 million in economic impact, according to a Xavier University analysis. The event is scheduled to return in 2004, and talks are under way for a longer stay.

"We want to make this a staple event," says Leslie Spencer, director of the Greater Cincinnati Sports Corp. "Our younger demographic is leaving in droves. This is just one vehicle that gives Cincinnati's younger generation something to do."

And as more area youths are exposed through events such as the Mobile Skatepark Series, more will pick up skateboarding, inline skating and BMX riding, says Rick Bratman, president of ASA Events.

Bratman also hopes the touring event helps spur more conservative civic leaders to provide support for sports once considered to be a part of a negative subculture.

"Kids are leaving mainstream sports in droves, and action sports are picking up most of those individuals," says Bratman, who is starting to work with high school athletics associations to organize skateboarding events.

Thirteen-year-old Ryan Graf of New Lebanon is one of those teens ready to take on skateboarding as his only sport. Graf also plays baseball, but he and friends have become more involved in skateboarding since they saw a video of Hawk doing a half pipe about two years ago.

"Once you get started it's kind of addictive," says Ryan, who traveled with friends to Middletown to use its skate park - the first such community skate park in the Tristate - after school Monday. "You want to be the best you can get."

Aaron wants that, too. He still plays varsity volleyball, but has given up baseball, football and basketball to focus more on his inline skating.

"It's a lifestyle," he says. "Hopefully, it will turn into something else - like a career for a short time. You can't do it forever."


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