Adams, Macdonald Lead Push for PRO
When the smoke dissipated Saturday night into the sky above Pomona, a world champion was crowned the king of freestyle motocross.
Nate Adams, the sport’s dominant performer, wears that crown, after exhibiting the mastery and grace he typically does while soaring between ramps on his motorcycle, flipping it, spinning it, standing atop its handlebars and hovering horizontally above its seat.
But the 20-year-old from Murrieta was wearing something he considers even more important during the LG World Championships of Freestyle Motocross at Fairplex. Affixed to his helmet was a red, white and blue sticker, signifying his support of the Pro Riders Organization.
The fledgling group includes not only freestyle motocross riders, but skateboarders and BMX riders in a push toward unification and a more powerful voice.
PRO, launched last November, has grown to nearly 100 members and intends to use its influence to ensure the suitability of action-sports event formats, course and ramp construction. It wants more of a league-type structure, with standardized rules and judging, and prize money going to more athletes.
Eventually, it hopes to offer its members insurance and other benefits.
“It’s going to be necessary as our sports grow,” says Adams, winner of gold medals at the X Games in August, and the more recent Gravity Games. “Sometimes events are not up to par -- some aren’t even safe -- and we need to have to be able to say as a group that certain things need to be fixed.”
For now, the voice is a whisper. ESPN, which launched the action-sports phenomenon with its X Games 10 years ago, has barely acknowledged the nonprofit group, saying it already relies on athlete input.
“We have an ongoing dialogue that continues year-round,” ESPN’s Melissa Gullotti said. “The athletes have been an integral part of building the X Games.”
Officials with the Gravity Games and Vans Triple Crown, also television properties, have been only slightly more receptive. Promoters of the LG Action Sports Championships have made concessions to PRO, but the season-ending event is not controlled by television.
PRO members acknowledge obstacles, themselves among them.
“We’re organizing a group of athletes who started skateboarding because they don’t want to organize in the first place,” said Andy Macdonald, 31, one of PRO’s charter members. “I got out of organized sports and into skateboarding because I didn’t like people telling me what to do.”
Circe Wallace-Hetzel, whose Carlsbad management agency, IMS Sports, represents many of the top action-sports athletes, was more blunt.
“You put a bunch of skaters in a room and they can’t agree on one thing, except that they want to make more money,” she said, adding that she would support PRO as long as it could establish clear, reasonable objectives.
Skateboarders have been trying to organize for three years. They formed the United Professional Skateboarders Assn., which Macdonald says “morphed” into PRO with the inclusion of BMX and freestyle motocross riders. A separate attempt to unify action-sports athletes by Casey Wasserman, a Los Angeles businessman and owner of the L.A. Avengers arena football team, has not materialized because many athletes perceive his plan as too controlling.
Instead, they’ve forged ahead on their own. They met with Gene Upshaw, executive director of the National Football League Players Assn., and “We learned how these things are run,” Macdonald said. “Gene said, ‘We were where you guys are 35 years ago.’ He told us that if you were hurt, the NFL didn’t want anything to do with you.”
PRO supporters acknowledge the differences between a structured sports league with team owners and the fragmented world of action sports.
“But we have to start somewhere,” Macdonald said. “Right now, we’re all like general contractors, individual companies, who have to pay for our own health insurance. A majority of the guys don’t have it because they can’t afford it -- and they make a living jumping down stairs.”
Outside observers, meanwhile, wonder whether PRO really is in the athletes’ best interest.
David M. Carter, a sports-marketing consultant for the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group, said the “added structure and protection the athletes seek could harm ... their ability to build a self-sufficient, viable league.”
Pointing out that because broadcast networks largely control the sport, he added, “And while the networks certainly care about the welfare of the athletes, at least to the extent that their participation impacts TV ratings, they are not interested in going into the league business.”
Some of the athletes are concerned as well. BMX rider Jamie Bestwick said he was waiting until PRO’s objectives became clearer.
“There should be a union,” he said, “but it should not be set up to alienate us from TV people, but rather as a link to help contests be run better and to help our interaction become smoother, rather than having everyone so scattered around.”