Skateboard Rules (for the New Economy) 

This 17-year-old punk from the suburbs rides a skateboard, loves his mom, and uses the N-word. He'll probably make $80,000 next year.

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One sunny afternoon last month, Corey answered the front door with a friendly seventeen-year-old's smile, wearing a black leather jacket, tight jeans, and chain-lock necklace. He was home on a weekday because unexcused absences at Las Lomas High School had finally caught up with him. If Corey wanted to graduate in June with the rest of his peers, administrators told him he'd have to do it through independent study.

Over his jacket, a navy blue sling kept Corey's arm tucked by his side. He'd recently broken his collarbone in a skateboarding-related incident, the kind that most high-school skaters are all too familiar with. Corey and a few friends were skating at school when Corey's board shot loose. A wrestling coach picked up Corey's deck, and the two engaged in a quick game of tug-o-war, which ended on the ground. Corey is 6 feet tall and 132 pounds: when he hit the concrete, the collarbone between his neck and left shoulder folded like a taco, then snapped. Corey wouldn't be able to skate for at least two weeks, or until he could raise his arms above his shoulders for balance. By Corey's estimate, he's broken eighteen bones so far, which isn't as bad as it sounds. "Look at this," he said, admiring the nub of a bone poking out from beneath the skin.

It's been a rough year for Corey Duffel. After his Big Brother interview hit the streets and then played on the magazine's Web site, most of Corey's sponsors ditched him. Ricta Wheels and Nike's newly purchased Hurley Clothing division were the first to go. Others soon followed, when African-American riders protested sharing a brand with their sport's budding John Rocker. Even though Corey no longer rode for Think Skateboards, he still was on Venture Trucks, another of Greg Carroll's product companies. "I dropped him from Venture right away," Carroll says. "I wanted nothing to do with the kid, or anything he was about."

Since skateboarders aren't governed by any official organization, there was no "punishment" for Corey in the way of fines or suspensions. Instead, rabid skate fans, mostly suburban male teenagers, flooded the fan-based bulletin boards on the Internet to weigh in on their new villain. Most of the dialogue was limited to reactionary teenage angst. But some kids warned Corey not to appear at contests or risk catching a deck-slapping to the face. Others flat-out threatened to kill him. "Don't come to Philly," one fan wrote. "We got Stevie's back."

For weeks, the message boards crucified Sharon Duffel's son. When she and her husband read Corey's interview, they cried. "We didn't raise Corey to talk like that," she says. And when she logged on to read what the kids now had to say about her son, she felt awful. "There were times when I wanted to lash out on people. I'd read the things kids were saying on these boards and I would get so angry, because they were saying things that weren't true about Corey and our family. For a mother, it was very saddening."

Saddening as it was for the Duffels, the incident followed a traditional arc, one that's more recognizable in other American sports: athlete says something racially insensitive, media swoons, sponsors back off, apology follows. But in skateboarding, the athletes can't be told to sit down for five games. Skateboard superstars are indeed athletes, yet they also are rock stars. Controversy, of any scent, typically smells sweet.

Thrasher offered Corey a mea culpa interview on its Web site and billed it an "exclusive." In it, Corey regretted using a "derogatory word," and insisted that neither he nor his family were racist. He wasn't raised that way, he said. He took responsibility for his comments, if only temporarily, then said he felt like a pawn in Big Brother's strategy to sell more magazines. They'd double-crossed him, Corey said.

Still, Corey pledged in the new interview, "It's going to be a tough hole to get out of, but I want to get out of it fast. I'm going to try to get a lot of coverage and speak out. By doing this, others who don't know me might realize I'm not as bad as they think. I want to gain some respect back."

It took a good six months for things to cool down. But when they did, several new sponsors came shopping for Corey Duffel.

3. Call Some Photographers

Sharon Duffel used to be a soccer mom; now she's a skater mom. "We used to fill up the car and take all the neighborhood kids to games. When Corey got into skating, we did the same thing: loaded the car up with a bunch of kids, but we just went to skate parks." Little did Duffel know that her son would become one of the celebrities in what has become the country's predominant sport for kids.

Skateboarding is arguably bigger now than baseball. According to a survey prepared last summer by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, "More Americans rode skateboards last year than played baseball" -- which is a remarkable claim at first glance, but not unbelievable. The International Association of Skateboard Companies estimates that 16 million skaters roll around the United States, and that nearly a third of those, 5 million, live in California. Since 1997, 800 skate parks have opened up nationwide. And last year, the skateboard industry -- and all the products related to it -- generated $1.4 billion in sales.

Like all sports, it's the superhuman talents of the top pros that excite the marketing machine. After Tiger Woods walked his way through a string of tournament victories, Big Bertha golf clubs found their way into the hands of duffers all across the country. Likewise, after pro skaters Mark Gonzales and Natus Kappas mind-blowingly olleyed up to a handrail and slid down a staircase on the same day a decade ago, skateboards began flying out of skate shops. The sport left its steel-wheel days far behind.

But, unlike golf, skateboarding's biggest stars today aren't necessarily the ones with the most talent or the best score. Skaters maneuver within a sport in which doing well in competition is only half the battle. The other half, and the increasingly more important half, is projecting a marketable personality that translates into product sales.

"Skateboarders work like independent contractors who are responsible for marketing themselves," says Justin Regan, team manager for Emerica, one of the industry's top five shoe companies. "They're in control of making their image into a marketable commodity -- a commodity that a company can use to sell whatever: boards, shirts, shoes."

For Corey, crafting an image on wheels began the day he handed his sponsor-me tape to Think's Greg Carroll. The industry was hungry for younger stars, Carroll says, and Corey's fearless style, coupled with his youth, hit the mark. As his sponsor, Carroll put Corey on his "flow team" and started flowing him free skateboard gear prominently branded with Think's logos.

From there, it was up to Corey to hound photographers and skate journalists to arrange photo shoots and interviews. If Corey appeared in a magazine photo wearing a Think T-shirt, then he was paid a "photo incentive" fee of $100. The cycle is self-fulfilling: the more appearances Corey makes in the magazines, the greater demand for his image from fans. Corey has a natural aptitude for this skill.

"A lot of ams expect the photographers to call them up, and I'm just the opposite," Corey says. "I want to work with them. And they like that." Carroll's early endorsement opened doors for Corey, one he's still well aware of: "When I called photographers up, it was like, 'He's Greg's kid. Give him the time of day.' "

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