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Small wheels keep on turning: Boston Celtics invest in pro skateboarding league

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BOSTON - There might not be many obvious similarities between high-tech electric car racing and some dude in a hoodie riding a skateboard.

To Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck and his fellow investors at Causeway Media Partners, it's all about re-imagining the way you look at sports.

"It's a twist on an existing sport," Grousbeck said this week after the group invested in Street League Skateboarding, a professional circuit for the growing but decidedly low-tech sport. "They're reconfigured sports for the modern era."

A Celtics owner since 2002, Grousbeck and a dozen of his partners in the NBA franchise have raised about $100 million to invest in sports media and entertainment companies through Causeway Media Partners. Their first plunge was a stake in Formula E, an all-electric, Formula One-style racing circuit that has celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Branson hoping to mine it for planet-saving technological breakthroughs.

The follow-up is in another wheel sport.

The fact that it's low-tech is part of the attraction.

"Skateboarding's not a very expensive sport to pick up. It doesn't require you be a part of a team," said Causeway co-founder Mark Wan, who is also a part-owner in the Celtics and the San Francisco 49ers. "That's one of the goals of street league is to make this really accessible."

Like Formula E, Street League Skateboarding is a new take on an established sport — giving it both a track record and potential for growth. Grousbeck compared it to the way ultimate fighting re-imagined boxing, or new formats that took cricket matches from five days to 2 or 3 hours. (Causeway is not an investor in either.)

"These are well-travelled sports," Grousbeck said. "We've told our partners that we're going to look at things that are successful and try to take them to the next level. These aren't pure startups. It's not seed capital."

Founded in 2010 by skater Rob Dyrdek and business partner Brian Atlas, Street League Skateboarding has grown into the sport's most lucrative competition, with a $200,000 first-place prize for its world championship. It already has a TV deal with Fox Sports 1, a sponsorship agreement with Nike and the top 20 skateboarders under exclusive contracts.

But Atlas and Dyrdek decided it was time to bring in outside investors.

"We were maxed out on our resources," Atlas said. "We felt like we were hitting a ceiling with our own business in terms of our revenue. We needed, beyond the strategic support, the additional firepower to grow. And that's what we believe Causeway will be able to bring."

Causeway will put $4 million to $5 million into the league — with the possibility for more down the line. Atlas said the partnership will also bring along its expertise in everything from human resources and ticket sales to big-picture strategy and media contacts developed over a decade in legacy bat and ball sports.

"We met with a lot of people," Atlas said. "We feel extremely privileged and blessed to have landed with a group of guys that have that experience."

Professional skateboarding has the potential to draw fans from 10 million recreational participants— an estimated 30 million worldwide — who are 86 per cent male, 59 per cent from 18-24 years old — a demographic that would be attractive to companies making headphones and other electronics, action sports apparel and skateboards themselves.

"Skateboarding is a lifestyle for a lot of these young people," Wan said. "They now can identify with professionals who do this for a living and have a pretty good lifestyle."

They also have a future — if they're good enough.

Part of the Street League plan is to create a "path to pro" that would lead from public skate parks — SLS has already helped build or design about 10 of them across the country — to a world championship. This year's season begins this weekend with the first Pro Open, in Los Angeles, which lets 20 elite skateboarders compete for more than $75,000 in prize money and a chance to earn their way onto the world tour.

By next year, the league hopes to have more entry-level events feeding into an open championship. A series of arena shows — this year there are two scheduled, in Chicago and Los Angeles — would be followed in August by a Super Crown championship.

International expansion is also part of the plan. The possibility of skateboarding becoming an Olympic sport — it is under consideration for the 2020 Games in Tokyo — would give it even more exposure.

"It could be a real boon for the sport," Wan said. "It's not something we're assuming or counting on, but we're thinking it would be great for the sport, just as it has for snowboarding in the Winter Olympics."

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