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SPoT's Rob Meronek on Tampa Pro and the contest business

By Colin Bane
March 12, 2010 8:39 AM

Rob Meronek is the Chief Financial Officer at Skatepark of Tampa and co-founder of SPoTlight Productions, the full-service global event production company behind the Damn Am series and many other contests.

With the 16th Annual Tampa Pro competition getting under way this weekend, we took the opportunity to talk with Meronek about the business side of running high caliber skateboard contests, building credibility with core skateboarders and within the skateboard industry, and working with high profile sponsors and high caliber skaters to pull off high quality events.

This weekend is the 16th anniversary of Tampa Pro and the first year you've run it without a vert contest. What can we expect from the contest this year?

Tampa Pro's been weird over the years. Pretty much no one registers ahead of time. It's not like Tampa Am where it fills up a month or two before. For Tampa Pro people just kind of show up, a lot of them the night before the contest, but it always ends up being a great field of competitors anyway. We'll have a lot of people just roll up Friday night. It's crazy like that.

Nike's really good about bringing all their riders, and P-Rod's been in town all week, hanging with the kids and skating. One of my favorites, Dennis Busenitz, just registered today so it should be a good show. Right up until Friday afternoon it's pretty unpredictable on who's going to be here, but there will definitely be some surprises.

Tampa ProWho have you been surprised by so far?

Nyjah Huston and Austen Seaholm will be here, and we haven't seen either of those guys in a couple of years. Rob Dyrdek's starting up this Street League thing, and it seems like he's saying, "We don't want you to skate certain contests," trying to steer people away from skating on the soda pop tours.

A few months after hearing that, all of a sudden we get people signing up that we haven't seen in years, guys who've been busy skating in the arena contests, you know, the guys you see on NBC six times a year.

You've been making a lot of cracks about the "soda pop" tours and the X Games on the SPoT website. What do you think they're still getting wrong with those made-for-TV events?

I don't know if you can really say they're missing anything, they're just different. I've gone to the X Games as a spectator over the last four or five years and I've tried to ask myself that same thing. I think the final conclusion is they're just different. We can both exist, but they have a different audience to please.

We're just out to do this for skateboarders and skateboard fans, so we don't necessarily have to answer to the higher power of a "mainstream audience." I don't even know what we would change if we were running those big shows, but I wouldn't necessarily even want the job.

Tampa ProHow did SPoTlight Productions and the whole concept of turning it into a full service event production company come about?

Especially when we first started doing more of the Damn Am stuff and people saw we were thinking beyond our own park, more and more people were like, "Hey we want to start a skateboard contest, we should get those guys in Tampa."

That happened enough that we decided to turn it into a legit business and actually help people run their contests. It's been one of the most fun new projects we've started over the years. It's been amazing to be able to travel, meet more and more friends from all over the place, and get in tune with what's going on with skateboarding around the world. It's opened the door for us to do a lot of interesting things.

How big is SPoTlight Productions at this point, compared to the Skatepark of Tampa business? And what are your plans for expanding it?

SPoTlight is growing, but it's still pretty small compared to our stuff going on here at Skatepark of Tampa, which has a retail shop, online store, a maintenance department, and tons of other general business type stuff going on. When there aren't events, like in the last couple months, we (Ryan Clements, Brian Schaefer, and I all own 1/3rd equally of SPoTlight Productions) pretty much just meet once a week to go over issues that need attention.

As far as big contests and stuff we're working on, you'll have to put your ear to the rumor street on that one. It has to do with that one dude with that one TV show on the network with the three letters [Editor’s note: This month the star of Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory on MTV announced the launch of Dyrdek’s Street League, a new 3-stop tour held on customized concrete street plazas and featuring 24 pro competitors with exclusive contracts].

What have you learned from 17 years of running these events?

Even after 17 years, we always meet back up the Monday or Tuesday after every event and go, "What sucked, and how do we fix it next time?"

A few years into doing that we started to pull away from the standard thrown together at the last minute vibe of every other skatepark contest, and people started to take notice.

We still try to improve every time we put on an event and we're always considering new formats and interesting new ways to run a contest, but we also decided we'd explore those options with new contests like the Copenhagen Pro and any other new contest we start instead of messing with the formula at our own contests. We've been running that forever and I think it's always made for a real exciting day on Sunday for the Finals, where we always get two or three skaters on Sunday with perfect runs, just blowing the doors off the place, So, you know, you learn from your mistakes, and you learn from what you've done right.

I think one of the most important things we've learned is the how important judging is.

Tampa ProAmateur skateboarding is not really small potatoes anymore, and you've managed to get Nike SB and Red Bull and some other high profile sponsors involved. From a business perspective, what do you think each party gets out of that sponsorship relationship?

We've seen our share of sponsors come and go, and it depends on the particular sponsor. For the most part, if someone is super sketchy and just leaves a bad taste in our mouth the way they're coming in trying to ride on the back of what we've built, we have no problem with just going, "No thank you." We've definitely turned down our share of weird sponsors here and there.

Of the ones you do see on board with us, they're all great people who are fun to work with. They're either skateboarders or people who are really in tune with it and really understand it. We wouldn't be working with them if it wasn't that way, and the idea is to find good matches where we can mutually support each other. We get the benefit of a solid sponsor who can help us out with the costs of running the contest, help us out with the prizes and whatnot, and they get to be associated with a contest built by skaters and for skaters and ride on the reputation we've established for doing it right.

Let me ask you about Nike specifically. This is a company that had been an outsider and came into skateboarding very carefully and extremely successfully. What do you think Nike did right to achieve that level of credibility?

It's a combination of things. For one thing I know everyone we've ever dealt with at Nike is a skateboarder and is right on our level. From a regular skate rat kid perspective the things they've done right are backing skateboarding, making great shoes, and getting a great team.

But behind the scenes what they did right in the industry was to get a great staff that's on it, bring in some actual skateboarders and then, you know, actually listen to them, let them have the reins. Nick Halkias over there is great to work with. We grew up skating with him and he used to work at the skatepark. The team manager, Hunter Muraira, actually skates, which is more than a lot of TM's can say. He can't kickflip very well, but he can skate. Kevin Imamura too.

One of the things I've appreciated about the SPoT website is how free you are with the numbers, what's getting the most traffic on your website, and what's selling best in your shop. Why has it been important to you to maintain that level of transparency?

The only thing I really hold back on is the actual dollar figures. I'm not shy to share the basic interesting stuff about what's moving, what isn't, who's popular, and who's not. I'm an accountant and CPA and web geek on top of being a skate nerd, and I find that stuff fascinating and interesting so I assume other people will too.

One part of my job is putting stuff up on the website every day, and that just kind of comes out with it because it's where my mind is. And then we put the rest of the behind the scenes up because it's all part of the lifestyle, part of what's behind these contests and everything else. When it comes down to it we're skateboarders first and foremost. We work in a skateshop and run a skatepark, we party all the time, and who we are is an important part of what our business has become.

What's your favorite event?

I think Copenhagen Pro and Amsterdam Am might be my favorites. I love being over in Europe and seeing a whole new set of skaters, getting out and about.

Here in the US I think the Volcom Damn Am might be my favorite, right in their backyard there in Costa Mesa. It's pretty awesome: It's during Halloween, everyone's wearing costumes, they feed us good, we're just chilling in the parking lot, it's super mellow and laid back, and that's the way a skateboarding event should be.

SPoTlight Productions also manages the Converse Coastal Carnage and East Coast Carnage invitational bowl jams, the Vans Downtown Showdown, and the Johnny Romano Make-A-Wish Skate Jam. Other recent SPoTlight Productions events around the world have included the Maloof Money Cup, the Rotterdam Grand Prix of Skateboarding in Holland, some of the DC King Of.. and Red Bull Manny Mania contests, the Mini-Ramp and Best Trick competitions at the Action Sports Retailers (ASR) trade show, and The Moat Show, a new East Coast skateboard industry tradeshow hosted by the Skatepark of Tampa.



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