With the closing of Nike Snowsports, we ask what the future of skateboarding holds.

Anyone with so much as half an eye on the worlds of fashion and streetwear can't have failed to notice that skateboarding is the hot girl in the room right now. From catwalk shows to high street brands and celebrity A-listers, these days there's nothing sexier than showing a bit of grip tape. Granted, it's not the first time the sport has been dragged into the spotlight (skateboarding's mainstream appeal seems to rise and fall with all the regularity of a halfpipe), but this time there's something different in the air. This time it feels like it might be here to stay.

Need proof? Forget the fact Palace is being worn front row at fashion shows, that Selfridges is building its own (temporary) skate park or that Rick Owens, Christian Loboutin and Jil Sander are designing their own deck graphics – that passing hype will fade. For a real sign that skateboarding is poised to get the superstar treatment, you need look no further than Nike's recent decision to call an end to its multimillion dollar investment in snowboarding. The reason? It's putting everything on four wheels.

The last time skateboarding enjoyed such a major spell in the limelight was around the turn of the millennium, when a certain Tony Hawk's Pro Skater was instilling carpel tunnel syndrome in the thumbs of videogamers across the globe. Back then, a fresh wave of kids began to take an interest in ripping their knees up, but the emphasis was still very much on "dropout chic" and the countercultural history of the sport – true mass appeal was some way off.

Image via Jojo Pix

This was a time when the skateboarding industry was just getting over the weak public and financial backing of the ’90s (a period of stark austerity in comparison to the glossy memory of ’80s vert riding). With the climate more settled, skating's internal landscape was littered with independent brands eager to put those tougher times behind them. The mainstream was viewed with a distinct air of suspicion (something it was only too happy to reciprocate), and the two worlds remained largely isolated from each other, each going about their separate business with little need for overlap.

This skateboarding micro-universe created an economy filled with names largely unheard of outside its borders. Brands like Etnies, Globe, C1RCA, Emerica, DC, éS, DuFFS, Axion and DVS, while undeniably still mass-market entities, were producing footwear and clothing that was designed specifically for the skate community (whether or not they actually skated). While big guns Nike and adidas had attempted to break into the market on several occasions previously, they were never viewed with the same trust or respect as those skate-specific brands that ruled the roost.

In fact, despite a couple of accidental hits with the Blazer and Air Jordan I in the ’70s and ’80s, Nike had twice failed to crack the difficult skate market, seen instead as a corporate outsider that lacked true commitment to the scene. In 2001 it even attempted to hide its advances by purchasing startup footwear brand Savier (with some minor success), although its core image remained as toxic as ever. Faced with such negativity, many brands might take the hint and respectfully duck out. Nike, however, was determined to give it one final push and, in 2002, announced the launch of Nike SB – their last big grab at a slice of skate pie.

The move was met with a lukewarm response. Despite a hyped early collaboration with Supreme, the launch shoe – the Nike SB Dunk – suffered lackluster sales. Unperturbed, Nike pressed on, and in 2004 signed its first team riders in the shape of Paul Rodriguez and the sadly now departed Lewis Marnell. Rodriguez released his first signature shoe the year after, backed up by collaborations with Stüssy and that notorious Staple shoe. Then, in the years that followed, a smattering of tasteful hookups with artists like Sabotage and Pushead or bands like Dinosaur Jr, De La Soul and [The] Melvins saw the SB Dunk slowly improve its standing in the skate community, while its repeated emphasis on outrageous design concepts and OTT colorways gave sneaker fans something to really lust over.

By the mid ’00s, Nike SB had a serious following of collectors and after picking up riders like Stefan Janoski, Omar Salazar and Brian Anderson, began dropping well-received skate films like 2007's Nothing But The Truth. By 2009 they'd successfully poached big guns like Eric Koston, who they immediately gave his own signature line, and in 2010 Nike announced that its Action Sports arm was the fastest growing sector of the business. By 2012 they'd built their own Los Angeles skatepark and, a full decade after they re-entered the game, it was clear Nike SB wasn't going anywhere.

What's so remarkable about this story is how far Nike managed to transform its image within skateboarding – a subculture traditionally so opposed to encroachment from major sportswear corporations. When it set out in 2002, the company's penetration into North American skate footwear was negligible. By 2010, they had a 40% share of the market. By 2013 it was 55%. And, if recent events are anything to go by, they're not stopping there...

Image via Odopod

After it was reported that slower than expected snowsports sales had dragged the overall Nike Action Sports sector down to net zero growth this year, the company wasted no time cutting off what it saw to be a dead limb. With snowsports now gone, Nike SB has the entire Action Sports budget to work with and it's going on the warpath. According to Nike spokesperson Jenna Golden, the company sees skateboarding as "its biggest brand driver and growth opportunity," and as such will invest heavily in "innovation, design and marketing resources." That means it's going in hard in 2015.

All of which should be a good thing for skateboarding, right? Better products? Bigger contests? More sponsorship? Well, that depends entirely on your opinion of the way large companies affect the competition. Nowadays, despite skateboarding riding a 20-year high in the popularity stakes, many of those brands so familiar in the ’90s and ’00s are almost nowhere to be seen. Furthermore, with its hand moving ever further up rudder, Nike has been able to steer the overall evolution of skate footwear, dictating what it should look and feel like via changes in direction to better suit its purpose.

Thanks to the introduction of technologies developed elsewhere in its R&D portfolio, many of today's sleek, sporty skate shoes bear scant resemblance to the designs and silhouettes of old. Some simply call that progress (Eric Koston himself has praised Nike as  somewhere he can "really, truly innovate"); others, meanwhile, argue it represents an "athleticisation" of skateboarding, designed to bring it in line with core areas of Nike's business like running and basketball. Ultimately, which of those arguments you buy depends on how committed you are to the nostalgic heart of skate culture, as well as recognizing it as a sport.

Obviously it's important to remember that Nike SB is not the be-all and end-all of skateboarding today. Skating has, and always will be, a grassroots pastime, and wherever there are fans willing to do things their own way or tear up the template and produce the products that they want, its independent spirit will thrive. However, for the generations of new riders just starting out, the influence of a cultural behemoth like Nike is undeniable. Anyone who's grown up rocking the Swoosh will doubtless feel some degree of affection or familiarity with the brand, and as the older, more cynical voices become less vocal, Nike's foothold within the market will only grow.

Exactly how far that trend will continue, not even Nike knows. Right now, Nike SB is a long way from challenging the numbers turned over by the company's basketball or soccer divisions, and it's unlikely to scrape their surface any time soon. Nevertheless, if the world's current love affair with skateboarding continues and ever greater numbers of people find themselves drawn in, you can bet your bottom truck nut Nike will push the business in that direction until the wheels fall off.

Then, perhaps, it'll be another sport's time to shine.

Main image via istia.tv

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