Is Sign Spinning a Sport?

Greg Hakanson, 20 used to sign for a nutritional supplement company. He heard about AArow Advertising, which teaches people tricks to spin and flip signs, about a year ago, and started coming to weekly practices to “be the best.”

“It’s more like our little culture, sign spinning. Everyone outside of sign spinning are like ‘whoa, those guys are really serious about sign spinning. And it’s kind of something ridiculous to get paid for so we love every second of it.”

Started by Ocean Beach college students in 2002, AArrow Advertising grew in the mid-2000s, became a franchise last year and have expanded to nearly 30 cities nationwide as well as Canada, Puerto Rico and South Korea.

Today, more than 500 Americans and 750 people worldwide spin the six-foot signs for AArrow, mostly men between the ages of 18 and 25, who, along with AArrow, claim the talent necessary to spin a sign isn’t just a job but a sport.

The economic downturn hit AArrow the young company especially hard since 85 percent of their advertising sales were to real estate developers, said company spokeswoman Sarah Frye.

“When the real estate market declined so did we,” she said. “We really had to shift our focus towards sports and entertainment.”

They have since rebounded, with franchises set to open in the next two weeks in Dallas, Chicago and Cincinnati and were recently nominated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as one of the top small businesses in the western United States.

The business is run like a sports league, she said, where pay, starting at $10 an hour, is based on performance to spur competition between spinners and give them the chance to be a spinstructor in emerging markets.

As the company has grown, so have its regional and national competitions. 2010 was the first year for international competition, with Ray Rivera of Washington D.C. taking home first place.

The company claims more than 450 tricks or combinations can be made up, all in the company “tricktionary.”

Sport or not, many of the best are here in the company’s hometown. Many spinners compare their job to skateboarding, because of the amount of tricks and combinations possible, and many are in fact named after skating tricks.

Robert Sizemore, who placed sixth at national championships held Super Bowl weekend in Miami, runs a weekly practice at Northmont Park in La Mesa along with Teddy Hale, the 2009 national champion. Both were raised in the East County and have been spinning since they were 14.

“It’s just like any other sport. If you’re going to be a soccer player you start in AYSO,”said John Bowerman, 18, who also grew up in the East County.

Training is unpaid, and two practices are necessary to get started. It took Bowerman three months to be a sufficient sign spinner, he said. He now spends more than 40 hours a week spinning, some on the corner, and some practicing behind his apartment building in Santee. He says it’s definitely a sport because of the amount of physical ability required and plans to be doing it when he’s 50.

“Best sign spinner around… oldest,” he said.

Hakanson plans on spinning the next five years or until he gets out of college.

“Cause I’ve worked all sorts of other jobs,” he said.

“I’ve worked food services, construction, manual labor, I’ve worked office jobs and nothing compares to just going out on a corner and expressing yourself 8 hours a day.”

As part of hired spinning campaigns and teaching others how to spin, Hakanson has made trips to Dallas and Las Vegas and within the past two weeks to Canada and is currently in the Bay Area.

Though San Diego spinners are sent out to teach on the west coast, spinners in different regions of the country are

“They all spin the same but they use a different set of tricks and a different set of swagger,” Hakanson said.

“Like the East Coast spins like Justin Brown and Dejan but the west coast spins like Matt Doolan and Robert Sizemore.”

Other perks include you get to meet people walking the street and out-of-towners in the summer. But the job has its down sides.

Aside from hecklers telling him to “get a real job” Hakanson said, there are injuries. Spinning can make the body and wrist tendons sore. He has torn muscles, and a few months ago broke his foot during practice.

“Spinjuries” are more common in east coast winters or hot Phoenix or Las Vegas summers.

Teddy Hale, the 2009 spinning champion, said he fractured his skull on the sidewalk trying to do a flip on a corner in Point Loma and spent two days in the hospital.

“I blacked out for a minute and woke up in an ambulance.”

He was back out on the corner within a week, he said.

All interviewed agreed that if they weren’t sign spinning, they would likely be working minimum wage in retail or flipping burgers – and hating it. But depending on the gig, spinners make around $10 an hour. Even for arguably the world’s best like Teddy Hale, someone who claims to have made many of sign spinning tricks and techniques, it’s not always enough to make a living.

“if I’m working full time, I would have more than enough to pay bills but since I’m not working full-time it’s cutting right on the edge.”

Hale has also done spinning gigs or training around the country and hopes to spin in Australia or Europe someday or travel the world, which he feels is a certain possibility with the company’s plans of expansion.

AArrow Advertising has also made appearances on late night television, music videos, sporting events, TV commercials and music videos. Hale, along with four other spinners, were in a music video for the band 311 last year.

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