Skateboarding's Super Agent Helps Clients Soar as Brands Too
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because women shred just as hard as men — and they deserve to be paid for it.
By Michelle Bruton
It’s the semifinal of the women’s skateboard street contest at X Games Minneapolis 2018, and agent Yulin Olliver is sitting at the edge of the course, cheering on her clients. She’s also gently rolling a stroller that holds her 18-month-old daughter, who is, somehow, sleeping through all of this.
With her flowy polka dot skirt and chic stroller, the petite brunette’s profession — action sports agent at Yunexis Agency, which represents the world’s top female skateboarders — isn’t immediately obvious. But the former snowboarder has managed to keep her shred cred intact while becoming one of action sports’ most powerful super agents. And in the process, she’s doing more than anyone to elevate female skateboarders into marketable megastars — by making them think about their brand as much as their athletic feats, and building a production house to make sure they pop on America’s screens.
Olliver’s action sports roots run deep, but they don’t begin with skateboarding. While attending college at Indiana University, Olliver, who declined to reveal her age, took up snowboarding as a hobby — and it changed everything. Though she was accepted to Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, she left after her first year, packing up her Toyota Tercel and relocating from Boston to Oregon to pursue pro snowboarding.
“You have to jump in with both feet,” Olliver says of her sudden career change, all the more true for someone starting to compete at a pro level in her early twenties. Because she had missed the years of honing technical skills such as performing tricks on halfpipes, Olliver specialized in backcountry snowboarding. “Whenever my sponsors needed a shot of a cliff drop or a backcountry pow slash or kicker, I was that snowboarder for them,” Olliver says. “I could get them photos for their catalogs and for their ads.”
We’re breaking through the glass ceiling of even what we thought was possible when we created this game.
Four knee surgeries, one broken collarbone and one dislocated AC joint later, however, Olliver — who was simultaneously earning her MBA at the University of Utah — knew she needed an exit plan. She had gotten in three solid years of pro snowboarding and had completed her bucket list: getting her picture in TransWorld magazine and earning a paycheck and free equipment from sponsors.
Eventually, she relocated to Los Angeles to finish her MBA at Pepperdine University and intern for Circe Wallace, one of action sports’ most successful agents. Her year with Wallace helped Olliver come to believe the measure of an agent’s success doesn’t come down to money; “it comes down to you believe in this person’s contribution to this world, and you’re going to be on their team to elevate them.”
Her introduction to the skateboarding world came during a marketing job at FUEL TV, when she worked with Dew Tour. In 2010 she left to run event marketing for pro skateboarder Rob Dyrdek’s new venture, Street League Skateboarding.
She struck out on her own in 2014, founding Yunexis with the goal of helping skateboarders develop their personal brands. When Olliver signs a client, she asks her to describe what the pinnacle of her career looks like. They jot it down and then work backward, identifying each step along the way. While contests — and medals — often take center stage in those dreams, building clients’ marketability is a core part of what Yunexis does. Take Lacey Baker, one of the world’s most accomplished female skateboarders. “Lacey went from $0 in sponsorships to being the face of Nike global,” Olliver says, referencing a buzzy recent Nike ad featuring Baker and Colin Kaepernick, among other athletes. “We’re breaking through the glass ceiling of even what we thought was possible when we created this game.”
Another of Olliver’s clients, Mariah Duran — fresh off back-to-back X Games gold medals — echoes that sentiment. The sponsorships Olliver has secured for Duran have “put me on the map,” she says. “At this moment, everything in this industry is growing.” In January, Duran made history as the first woman signed to Mountain Dew’s skate team, a tangible result of Olliver’s dealmaking.
Immediately after signing a client, Yunexis will clean up the athletes’ social media accounts and ensure they don’t have to pay for any of their boards, wheels and apparel through brand and sponsor partnerships. A growing number of female-focused (and fronted) skateboarding brands are emerging to partner with the female skaters whose brands are blowing up. For instance, Meow Skateboards, which sponsors Olliver clients Duran, Baker, Vanessa Torres and Savannah Headden, was founded by female skateboarder Lisa Whitaker.
Olliver can’t share what male skateboarders earn from sponsors as compared to their female counterparts; agents and athletes are bound by contract not to reveal those figures. But she stresses the case-by-case nature of these deals — within and between genders.
“I like to remind my clients that it’s not a conversation about your self-worth,” says Olliver. “However much you can move the bottom line for them is how much they’re going to pay.” She adds that, while the buying power of female consumers is stronger than males, skateboarders have long been mostly male. That means brands rely on male skateboarders to sell products to other male skateboarders. Tony Hawk and Bam Margera are household names. Lacey Baker and Mariah Duran? Hopefully, soon.
Olliver’s business is not without its challenges. She only works on commission, and she’s not yet cutting herself a salary after the cost of doing business. She is trying to increase and diversify her 11-client roster, potentially by partnering with other small agencies that don’t service skateboarders. Olliver’s husband, Brian, runs Yunexis Production House, which produces films with the agency’s clients — a huge way for the skaters to increase their visibility.
Male and female skateboarders do at last enjoy equal prize purses at the X Games. (ESPN declined to confirm those figures.) That’s thanks in part to former pro skater Mimi Knoop, who works closely with Olliver’s clients. Knoop created the Women’s Skateboarding Alliance, which acts as the official sport organizer at X Games and advocates for the athletes. The female skateboarders Olliver represents now have an opportunity to dramatically increase their visibility as skateboarding makes its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The first-ever USA Skateboarding National Team will be announced on March 19.
“Internally, we’ve been building that market up, whether it’s through brands or media or collaborating with leaders in the space,” says Knoop, who refers to Olliver and herself as “stewards of the sport.” Adds Olliver, “It wasn’t by chance that I created a representation system for these athletes so that they’d be in position and ready to go when I realized the Olympics might include skateboarding.” Quietly thinking several steps ahead has produced unprecedented results. “What’s worked,” says Olliver, “is that people don’t pay much attention to us.”
That’s not really true anymore. And it certainly won’t be next summer in Tokyo.
Read more: The Skateboarder Hoping Meditation Can Net X Games Gold.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect year for when Olliver joined Street League Skateboarding.
- Michelle Bruton, OZY Author Contact Michelle Bruton