If you’re a skater, you’re almost certainly familiar with Thrasher Magazine’s Skater of the Year award. Called skateboarding’s “most authentic prize” by some, this prize inspires statements of adoration like “when a skater has a lil' Rusty, they're amidst a select few of pro skateboarders.”
All hype aside, what’s the deal with the Thrasher SOTY award? How did it get started, and how does it get decided today? And does it really still matter as much as ever? I did some digging to find out.
History of the SOTY Award
Jake Phelps, head of Thrasher Magazine and creator of the SOTY award, told ESPN about the first-ever award. “First of all, we used to have a High Speed Christmas party -- and we figured we'd give out an award, because no one was giving out awards at that time, in 1990.” For the tenth-anniversary edition of their magazine--their best-selling ever--Tony Hawk graced their silver cover.
“We did a reader's poll for a Skater of the Year, and it was Tony Hawk,” Phelps continued. “So, we gave the first one to Tony Hawk at our tenth anniversary party.”
For the trophy design, Phelps’s body and Noah Peacock’s face were used as the inspiration for a bronze cast. Kevin Ansell designed the cast to create the SOTY trophy, which was named Rusty. “That's his name,” added Phelps. “It's kind of like an Oscar [Laughs]."
Back in the early days of the award, the SOTY award was the result of a magazine poll. Readers would vote, and an issue profiling the winner would come out in the early months of the year.
Recently, according to Lucas Wisenthal of The Ride Channel, “The title is a subject of intense scrutiny leading up to its announcement.” Some argue that the prize has become too political. But what is the process of choosing a winner?
Selection of the SOTY
How do you catch the eye of the SOTY selection staff? “You've gotta be percolating on the scene for a long time before you can be ‘the guy,’” says Phelps.
The actual process of picking a winner is a little shaky and behind-the-scenes, but appears to be:
- Skaters (mostly professional skaters) submit their best skate parts online.
- The skaters that get the most attention get nominated for the SOTY award.
- Readers vote to narrow the selection down to semi-finalists, and then finalists.
- Phelps (and other judges) make the final selection.
Coleman Bentley, of Network A, points out that “Jake Phelps...has gone on record, saying SOTY isn’t solely a "skate part" award.” This means (apparently) that it’s not just about video footage--there’s a little bit more to the selection process.
“It's gotta be a guy that can bust out a good interview after he's chosen,” Phelps explains. “It helps to have some eloquence or some personality.”
That being said, Anthony Pappalardo of Huck Magazine is slightly wary of the place this award holds in the modern world. “I think Phelps is a decent judge of course – he’s a walking encyclopedia of skate knowledge – but why is someone who champions the free spirit of skating picking a ‘winner’?” Pappalardo asks. “Also, why do I get sucked into caring, year after year since 1990?"
Good questions--and he’s not the only one with them.
Opinions on the SOTY Award
Of course, a prestigious award can only stay prestigious for so long. Bentley argues, “While a positive change on the whole, skateboarding’s digital explosion has only served to dilute the importance of SOTY...the campaign season and coronation has become more political than ever.”
Because it’s easier now than ever before to upload skate videos and catch the public’s eye, there’s more material to sift through, and it becomes more difficult to make an objective decision.
Bentley adds, "With fewer marquee videos to bank on and more skaters to consider than ever, the criteria by which SOTY is decided has become increasingly intangible...There's room for subjectivity, of course, but at some point, the numbers have to matter, and if they don't, SOTY becomes merely an opinion and not an award. And you know what they say about opinions..."
Pappalardo also has a somewhat negative view of the award, but not just for the subjectivity--for the act of judging itself. “That’s the whole duality of skateboarding right there,” he says. “It’s free, it’s about fun and creativity, and in theory should never be judged, but with so many unwritten rules and the overarching emphasis on style, we are all judging skating constantly."
He continues, "As skaters, no matter how much we say winning or awards aren’t a big deal or a real part of skating, judging certainly is and it’s something that might be more prevalent in our “sport” than others.”
Of course, it’s hard to argue when Phelps says, “Like I said, it's history. You're part of history."
This award is a major part of skating history. Just because it may be losing some of its original relevance doesn’t doom it completely. It just needs to feel free to adapt to the times ahead.
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