Seattle Times - Geoff Baker
Fox Rio Brunner has an Instagram account with 32,000 followers, while his parents screen calls from agents and would-be sponsors. His parents watch as their 6-year-old performs “railslides’’ at a Bellevue outdoor skateboard park. Fox Rio Brunner tumbles on the concrete, dusts himself off and gets back up to try the same move. “Are you OK?’’ his father calls out. “Yes, I’m fine,’’ Fox replies, flashing a grin before hopping back on his board.He’s still a little boy, but Brunner just put on a skateboarding demonstration in Shanghai at the Kia World Extreme Games and soon will head to South Africa, where he’s again been invited to show off what some call prodigal skills.
Though he has barely been skateboarding a year, the kid’s meteoric rise not only has him traveling overseas, but rubbing shoulders with legends Tony Hawk and Steve Caballero. Mitchie Brusco, 18, a Kirkland native and one of the sport’s current stars, mentors him regularly.
Brunner already has a publicist and an Instagram account with 32,000 followers. His mom and dad, Jamie and Meagan, have to screen calls at their Issaquah home from agents, would-be sponsors and even Walt Disney Corp., all seeking business with a child fresh out of kindergarten.
“This has all been one big blur for us,’’ Meagan says. “It’s hard to believe any of it.’’
Indeed, her pint-size son hardly looks the part of elite athlete. He shyly gives yes or no answers in an interview until he’s asked about how he stumbled into skateboarding while he and his dad were shopping for a snowboard.
“I saw a skateboard hanging up by the wall,’’ Fox says. “I took it off and I started rolling. Then, the next day at 5 o’clock in the morning I just started skating out in the front yard.’’
His parents couldn’t believe how quickly he took to the sport. They entered him in a local competition for kids under-10 and he finished third, bringing him instant attention.
The Brunners head off Thursday for California, where Fox competes in a monthly amateur circuit. He won two gold medals in events last month.
“I’ve never really been afraid when I’m on my skateboard,’’ Brunner says, adding that “learning new tricks” is his favorite part.
His parents, transplanted Canadians who arrived from Edmonton in 2005, want him to keep having fun. Brunner will be a first-grader at Arbor School in Sammamish. They’re grateful for the sponsors he has — GoPro, Triple8, SkateXS and Volcom — who supplied equipment and subsidize his travel, but they want to limit his corporate exposure.
“He doesn’t have an agent and we just aren’t ready to go there,’’ his father says. “He’s still just a kid and we really don’t want to deprive him of that.’’
>Those concerns are valid in an era when corporations increasingly view even the youngest athletes as commodities.
Golfer Lucy Li last year signed a sponsorship deal with Puma Golf at age 11 while other companies constantly seek the next LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Sidney Crosby or Freddy Adu before they turn pro. Television networks have driven up broadcast rights fees for high-school football and Little League baseball. Rivals.com posted college football prospect profiles for a pair of sixth-graders.
Cities and towns now fight to build venues and stage events for a youth sports industry estimated to have an annual economic impact exceeding $7 billion.
Retired Jackson State sports sociology professor Steven J. Overman, who wrote a 2014 book “The Youth Sports Crisis: Out of Control Adults, Helpless Kids,” says the battle for sports dollars has no age minimum.
“The commercialization of athletes in athletics and sports is just trickling down from the pros, to college, to high schools, to middle schools and youth sports,’’ Overman says. “They’re using younger and younger kids.’’
Overman says so-called extreme sports like skateboarding, largely “counterculture” in origin, have been commercialized like their mainstream counterparts and marketed toward younger audiences.
He agrees preteen athletes likely represent a final untapped marketing frontier.
“If they find an area that they can exploit commercially, then they’re going to move to that,’’ he says. “And younger athletes are part of it.’’
There is an upside to sports sponsorships, namely the offsetting of costs to compete at the highest levels. They open doors for athletes that might otherwise be closed.
Jamie Brunner recalls how a promotions company, owned by a well-known professional boxer, offered to make his son a household name via appearances at celebrity-driven events.
“They were talking about having Fox onstage with rappers, the whole thing,’’ his father says. “I mean, look at him. Can you imagine him up onstage with a bunch of rappers? That isn’t him. He’s a little kid.’’
Even the Instagram account began only because local teens practicing with him had their own videos online and felt it would be “cool” to show footage of Fox skateboarding. Followers quickly besieged the account. The family struggled to respond to every message.
“We had people telling Fox they were having a bad day, but when they saw his videos, it cheered them up,’’ his father says. “How often do you get a chance like that, at his age, to make people feel good?’’
They met Colorado-based publicist Katie Moses Swope at the Shanghai event in April, where their son performed in front of thousands. She helps maintain the Instagram site and handles public relations. But she insists her job entails no business responsibilities, and the family’s prime concern is Fox enjoying himself.
“He just wants to skate,’’ she says. “It’s not for endorsements. I’m sure down the road it will come. But he’s just a little kid who’s super talented.’’
Joe Moorman, who manages the Bellevue Skate Park where Brunner usually practices, has had numerous pros come through but never saw a kid Brunner’s age execute a “360 Flip’’ and other tricks.
“His progression is so fast,’’ Moorman says. “You show him something, and then he takes it further than anybody else.’’
Moorman, 42, a fixture in this region’s skateboarding scene for 20 years, helps Brunner when asked, while offering his parents advice in a sport they barely know.
Brunner’s father feels his lack of skateboard knowledge is a blessing.
“I have nothing to teach him,’’ he says. “I just let him go out and do his thing.’’
Jamie Brunner says he recently sold two companies, so he and Meagan — a stay-at-home mom — have time to follow their son’s every move.
And while his parents watch, Fox Brunner’s skateboarding has gone from a few tricks to a an improvised, free-flowing series of moves.
“The more you watch him and the others, you realize that it isn’t so much a sport as it is an art,’’ his father says. “He’s making real critical decisions on creativity, and that’s hard to do at his age.’’
Where it all stops, nobody knows. There’s no template for a 6-year-old doing this.
“Some of the stuff he’s seeing and doing already, the places he’s gone, that’s something you can’t teach,’’ his mother says.
And his parents will keep learning along with him as he rolls through a big-time sports world rushing at them head on.