The staying power of Street League

Nyjah Huston after taking home the Street League Championship Sunday.


When the circus comes to town, all the children light up like Christmas trees. They run to their windows to watch the parade of elephants, clowns and sideshow freaks walk down Main Street while thoughts of cotton candy and popcorn dance in their heads. The ring master for the skateboarding circus that is the finals of the Street League contest series is pro skater, business mogul and pop culture icon Rob Dyrdek. And when he comes to town it is one hell of a show.

The regional lead up to the 2012 finals in Newark, New Jersey blanketed the entire state to the point that The Who's reunion tour could take some promotion tips from Dyrdek about how to make your presence known. Every billboard, bus stop, train stop and radio station advertised the contest. At my four NJ Skateshops, ticket promotions were done in conjunction with Street League rider product: Buy an Austyn Gillette Habitat deck or Matt Miller Expedition board or P-Rod Venture truck, and get a free pair of Street League tickets, with Alien Workshop even giving away a meet and greet with Rob. We had Average Joes unfamiliar with anything skateboard related coming into the shops asking, "What is this Street Luge thing?" Street League. Not luge, league. People in New Jersey were taking note.

This is also the first year that Dyrdek got my attention. To recap the past three years of Street League quickly from an at-home TV viewer's perspective: the first year was boring, at best. I likened the flowless contest to watching children riding a slide in the park, "Oh! My turn! Weeee," then back to the top of the slide. Over and over again for two hours -- the speed of the Earth's rotation was a roller coaster of fun in comparison. The second year was more exciting mainly for the fact that it was impossible to be less exciting. But to Dyrdek's credit, the changes in Year 2 greatly improved the contest in every aspect. The course got more interesting, times were shortened, and more and better skaters were added. But it still needed tinkering, and the beauty of Dyrdek is his attention to detail: "If it doesn't work, I'll keep going until it feels perfect." Dyrdek told me that back in our interview in late April after he acquired his longtime board sponsor, Alien Workshop from Burton.

Well, Dyrdek's tweaks from Year 2 to Year 3 worked. Street League still isn't perfect and he'll tell you that himself. But after three years, Street League is captivating to watch on television. Some of the most obvious and effective changes to the Street League format this year were the lessening of attempts the guys got to land their tricks, which made things move quicker and enthralled the viewer with the make-it-or-go-home factor. Next was the course revamping to give it some actual flow to embrace what kids actually love about skateboarding: staying on their board, not hopping off it after every trick. But for me, personally, the thing that really elevated the first stop in Kansas City this year from years past and actually made me sit up in my seat was the addition of Bastien Salabanzi.

Courtesy of Chris Nieratko

Chris Nieratko flies the French flag in support of Street League competitor Bastien Salabanzi.

The French former Flip Skateboards wunderkind and current pro for Jart Skateboards is an unbelievable talent on a skateboard, like all the others in Street League. But he brings something more to the contest, something it has been lacking all along -- a larger-than-life, dynamic personality for viewers to latch on to and root for. Like the winningest Street League skater of all-time, Nyjah Huston, Salabanzi has a fantastic back story of nearly being exiled from the skateboard industry, and like Huston, he is using the SL contest as his platform to make his big comeback. But unlike Houston, who is still young, awkward and uncomfortable in front of the camera, Bastien is pure made-for-television theatrics. He is generally proud of himself when he lands a trick and celebrates, allowing the crowd to celebrate with him. He doesn't hide or shy away from the cameras like some of the more reserved SL competitors; instead he runs up and kisses them. He is a different type of skater. He is a showman. It's comical that the self-props I disliked about him more than a decade ago are exactly what I love most about him in 2012.

Bastien is pure made-for-television theatrics. He is generally proud of himself when he lands a trick and celebrates, allowing the crowd to celebrate with him.

And it seemed at that first K.C. stop, as he battled Nyjah Houston head to head for the $150,000 prize, he had all of America cheering with him. And no one more than me, who made a side bet with Dyrdek that Salabanzi would win at least one stop. Sadly, that first night he fell short to Huston by five points in the end. I thought the Nyjah vs. Bastien match up would be Street League's Ali vs. Frasier. I was certain that it was just a matter of learning the Street League system that Salabanzi, having placed so high his first time out, would surely win in Ontario, Calif. But he failed to qualify and Nyjah took it again. His absence and energy were noticeably missing from the live broadcast.

I'm not big on cheating or fixing games but sometimes it's just good for business and I thought to myself, "If I was shorter and named Rob Dyrdek for the sake of my ESPN simulcast I better make sure Bastien makes it into the finals in Glendale, Ariz." Unfortunately, I'm 6-foot and named Chris, and again, Bastien missed the finals. I was pleased to see that the injured Nyjah didn't win for the tenth time, if only to keep things interesting. I'm sure the thoughts in the heads of Paul Rodriguez, Ryan Sheckler and Chris Cole (the top three in Arizona) didn't match the regret on their faces when they heard Nyjah Huston was hurt.

I know the Macy's fireworks show would be as dim as a single birthday candle compared to the fireworks in my head if I learned the nine-time champion was injured. Paul Rodriguez's hat looks like a NASCAR race car and he's known to bury his head in his sponsor-coated headpiece and pray before each run. I can't help but think that in Glendale, right before winning his first Street League ever, he was hiding a smile in that hat as he thanked God.

That brings us to the circus today in Newark, N.J., the former car theft capital of America, to the Prudential Center where the NHL's New Jersey Devils play to see the top eight ranked SL pros face off for $200K.

Coming into the event the rankings were:
1. Nyjah Huston
2. Paul Rodriguez
3. Sean Malto
4. Chris Cole
5. Chaz Ortiz
6. Luan Oliveira
7. Bastien Salabanzi
8. Ryan Sheckler

In Saturday's practice Nyjah made it known that his injury is no longer hindering him, and any contestant that was hoping Huston would lay down would've needed to pull a Tonya Harding or pray for another act of God like Hurricane Irene that dampened last year's finals. No, friends, like nearly every Street League he has ever entered, today's finals were Nyjah's to lose. The crowd was electric from the moment I entered the building. This was my first time being at the contest in person and it seemed that Dyrdek had finally achieved what he set out to do: make Street League feel like a stadium sporting event. The crowd was at a constant frenzied pace. Elements such as potato guns full of T-shirts, like those you'd see at a basketball game, were incorporated with a Fantasy Factory twist: it was a 12 barrel automatic potato gun that shot T-shirts rapidly into the audience. Dyrdek even had a mascot this outing -- the clown prince of skateboarding, Lil Wayne, did an awkward lap around the street course flailing his arms to get the crowd worked up. Music blared and announcer (and ESPN contributor) Andrew Cannon kept the people informed and engaged. It's the first skate contest I'd been to that the crowd was rabid and going crazy for every trick as opposed to just golf clapping and saying, "Not bad." Dyrdek created an experience.

I was very much hoping that my guy, Bastien Salabanzi, would come with the upset and would take it all and I'd win my $2 bet. I even stopped and picked up a huge French flag to cheer him on. But Sunday night was not his night. He barely passed Luan Oliveira to escape elimination in the first round, the lines category. His second round, the best trick, wasn't much better with him only landing one trick and barely staying alive past last year's finals champ, Sean Malto. Through the first two rounds the usual suspects volleyed for position: Ryan Sheckler, Nyjah Huston, Paul Rodriguez generally held the top spots. Bastien never rose above last or second to last in any category throughout the day and now I owe Dyrdek $2.

There was a brief moment when I thought maybe Paul Rodriguez could take the cake. It was right after his nollie crook nollie late flip out in the best trick section to take the lead with an overwhelming 9.6. But it's the big section that Nyjah makes a living on and he landed four out of six tricks with the type of flip-in rail tricks we have come to expect from Huston. At the very end, P-Rod had a shot, trailing by four points to take it, yet he used his last three attempts missing the switch front heelflips that gave him constant trouble in practice. In the end, again, it was Nyjah Huston walking away $200,000 richer.

After this third season I finally believe in the staying power of Street League and am proud that a skateboarder created such a fun and entertaining live sporting event.

I still think there's still room for improvement.

• The scoring seems very inconsistent. The same tricks are being scored differently depending on who does them.

• The course can get better yet. It's much better than years past but could still use some spicing up. Maybe a Street Loop for Street League? I kid, but a gap over a pool of piranhas would be unique and interesting. Again, I'm kidding but, switching it up completely, each stop would help keep people interested and possibly change the winning results. I can't picture Nyjah having the success he does on rails on, say, a set of up-up-up ledges or leap-frog pad ledges.

Nyjah needs a rival, someone that is neck and neck with him all day at the contest.

• And that brings me to the biggest issue with SL: Who can they find to challenge Nyjah Huston? I don't know if there exists a skater as consistent as him who can beat him. And I don't necessarily need/want him to be beaten, because knowing how the fortune he amassed prior to Street League was squandered by people closest to him, I genuinely pull for him to win. But if viewers are going to continue to follow along, it can't be the same guy blowing everyone out every time. Nyjah needs a rival, someone that is neck and neck with him all day at the contest, not just has a long shot chance of beating him at the very end because Nyjah missed a trick. Finding a guy like that, a Larry Bird to Nyjah's Magic Johnson, will elevate Nyjah and make him an even better skater. I had hoped with all my heart that Bastien Salabanzi would be that skater, but I no longer feel he's the man for the task. Bastien rips but he is older (not old, just older) and the precision that Nyjah skates with is a young man's talent. Kids nowadays are starting younger, skating bigger things sooner and landing tricks on the first or second try without effort. It's a new approach to skating, a mastery like we've never witnessed but it's very important that Dyrdek find Nyjah a dance party for Street League to go to the next level.

• Lastly, I think Dyrdek needs more fanfare than potato guns and Lil Wayne in his skateboarder costume to hype up the crowd where the pros don't. The guys can't all be Bastien (but I did see Chaz Ortiz trying to be today with some self-props) and we can't expect them to. Instead Street League should incorporate confetti, pyrotechnics, livelier scoreboards and displays to keep the energy up, much like you'd see at a football or basketball game.

Overall, Year 3 was Dyrdek's biggest success, I look forward to seeing what he has in store for next year and I urge you, if his circus comes to your town, to make sure you see it. Watching it on TV showcases the skating very well but there's really nothing like sitting with 10,000-plus skateboarders chanting, "Let's go, Bas-tien!"

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