In case you missed the headlines, Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi of Torrance has introduced a bill to make surfing the official sport of California. Muratuschi, a member of the Assembly’s informal “surf caucus,” announced the proposal at a news conference in Hermosa Beach last month, while standing next to a statue of the 1960s surfer Tim Kelly and wearing a Hawaiian shirt. “Nothing represents the California dream better than surfing,” he said.
That depends on how you define the California dream, of course. Were he to take a state poll, Muratsuchi would certainly discover that far more Californians skateboard than surf. This is one of many reasons why skateboarding, not surfing, should be California’s state sport.
Let’s start with the obvious: Surfing as we know it is from Hawaii. The sport has Polynesian roots, and modern surf culture grew up alongside the resorts of Waikiki. That’s why surfing is already the official sport of that state.
In fact, it was Hawaiians who brought surfing to California. The first people on record to surf in North America, back in the 1880s, were Hawaiian princes: Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole, David Kawananakoa and Edward Keliiahonui. They fashioned boards out of redwoods and put on a demonstration in Santa Cruz. The pastime was further promoted in California in the early 20th century by two more Hawaiians, George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, who traveled around the state and proselytized about the pleasures of wave riding.
Skateboarding, by contrast, is native to California. The sport was born sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s when bored surfers, smarting from flat or otherwise bad wave conditions, screwed roller skate wheels onto wood planks so that they could go “sidewalk surfing.”
But there are other virtues to making skateboarding, not surfing, the state sport. Skateboarding is more egalitarian. While surfing can easily cost a newcomer $1,000 in gear, a basic skate set-up can be had for around $100. This difference in cost is one reason why the Surfrider Foundation reported in 2011 that the average household income for surfers was $75,000, while most “core participants” in skateboarding come from households where the median income is between $25,000 and $49,999, according to data from the International Assn. of Skateboard Companies.
Skateboarding is more geographically accessible. To surf, not only do you have to be at the beach, you have to be at a beach with a particular combination of wind and tide conditions. To skate, all you need is a smooth concrete surface.
Because it is both cheaper and easier to do, skating is significantly more widespread than surfing. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Assn., there are about 1.7 million surfers, windsurfers and sailboarders in the United States, and even that figure is thought to be inflated by tourism. There are 6.2 million skaters across the country, according to the IASC.
It’s especially popular in Los Angeles. Nearly 1 out of every 10 children between the ages of 6 and 17 in L.A. County knows how to skate, according to a survey by the LA84 Foundation. And 70% of them are nonwhite.
Thanks in part to the Tony Hawk Foundation, which has helped open 544 skate parks in the U.S., there are now skate parks in Watts, San Pedro, Canoga Park, Long Beach and Compton, among other places. The Kelly Slater Wave Company’s artificial wave pool in Lemoore may have boosters dreaming of surf contests in landlocked locations around the world, but the sport will have a lot of catching up to do.
There’s no question that California has played an important role in the history of surfing. Californians helped surfboards evolve from heavy, canoe-like planks to the thin chips of today. We invented the wetsuit, created a multi-billion-dollar surfing industry, and developed the modern science of wave forecasting, opening the door for big-wave riding. Some of the best surfers in the world, including Kelly Slater and Keala Kennelly, have made California home. And we surely have the edge when it comes to surfing lore, from Butch Van Artsdalen and the hellraisers of Windansea to Miki Dora and the pranksters of Malibu.
But we didn’t invent it.
Both surfing and skating will make their Olympic debuts in Tokyo in 2020, before the Games come to L.A. in 2024. Summer surf here is patchy at best, so the conditions could embarrass. Skate ramps and half pipes are consistent.
Assembly Bill 1782 is already winding its way through the Legislature, but it’s not too late to reconsider. California should be proud of its truly indigenous pastime.
Dennis Romero is a writer and reporter in Los Angeles.