TAMPA — The Dew Tour has carved a niche in the action sports world by providing daredevil athletes with a professional league and increased television exposure, transforming skateboarding and BMX from idle pastimes to full-fledged careers.
But every professional league needs a feeder program to identify young talent.
The Dew Tour has that, too.
The Gatorade Free Flow Tour has become the Dew Tour's minor-league system. An amateur summer circuit for BMX bikes and skateboarding, the Free Flow Tour, now in its seventh year, has stops across the country crowning winners in various categories.
Today, the Free Flow Tour comes to Skatepark of Tampa for the first time.
"Overall, it's a pretty organized series," Skatepark of Tampa general manager Ryan Clements said. "The nice thing about it is it gives athletes an opportunity to work their way up, and it gives them recognition."
Skateboarding is always looking for new blood. After all, Father Time catches up fast with athletes who spend years flipping, twisting and surviving bone-crunching falls. In its ever-changing sports scene, skateboarding has undergone a youth movement, with teenage pros becoming standard.
But no one turns pro just because they are young. Skateboarders need a body of work. They attend amateur contests, produce Web videos and generate buzz through word of mouth.
"It's a hard and long process," said CJ Dixon, who skates for Skatepark of Tampa and will participate in this weekend's Free Flow Tour. "You can put a lot of work into becoming a professional skateboarder. But there are not really clear goals or steps that you have to become one."
One of the ways skateboarders can get recognized is by attending amateur contests. One of the most renowned is the Tampa Am, which is hosted by Skatepark of Tampa each December and includes competitors from around the world. But winning the contest does not guarantee a spot as a pro.
"You just know when someone has it," Clements said. "They have that quality about them."
The Free Flow Tour offers something different. There are more than 40 contests from May through September. The winners at each stop get to compete in a contest that is held in conjunction with the Dew Tour. Two skateboarding and two BMX champions from there then get to compete with pros at the Dew Tour's final stop of the season in Las Vegas.
Instead of grinding through the amateur ranks for years, a skateboarder or BMX rider can fast-forward the process by performing well enough to get face time with some of the best in the business.
"The tour gives a lot of guys who have struggled to get noticed a chance," Clements said. "It can catapult you pretty quickly. There's something super positive about that and the way Gatorade has given back to skateboarding in that way and tries to recognize young talent."
And the younger the athlete is, the better. Last year, the Free Flow Tour set a maximum age limit of 21 for competitors in skateboarding and BMX.
Dixon, 19, is close to reaching the limit. He rides for Gatorade in an ambassador program that helps him defray costs for traveling to events. Two years ago, he made it to the Free Flow Tour Final but was not one of the two champions from that event who got to compete with the pros.
"Getting to the final stop is not going to automatically make you become a professional skateboarder," Dixon said, "but it will definitely give you some recognition. That's what I'm looking for. I've been skating for about 10 years now, and my goal still is to make it as a pro."