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The World Sign Spinning Championships: How one company turned street ads into a competitive sport

Sign spinners compete in a Los Angeles regional competition at North Hollywood Park on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. The competition is a qualifier for the annual World Sign Spinning Championship in Las Vegas. Music:
Sign spinners compete in a Los Angeles regional competition at North Hollywood Park on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. The competition is a qualifier for the annual World Sign Spinning Championship in Las Vegas. Music: "Amsterdam" by LASERS.
KPCC (via Vimeo)

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It’s probably happened to all of us: you pull up to a red light at a busy Southern California intersection. Your eyes wander to the street corner and there's a guy with a sign advertising some local tax place, burger joint or loan office. Then, all of a sudden, he’s spinning the sign behind his back. He does a backflip, then throws the sign into the air. Just when you think it’s about to land in traffic, it falls right back into his waiting hand — and you’ve nearly missed your green light. What you’ve just witnessed is the work of a company that’s changing what it means to be a human billboard: AArrow Sign Spinners.

When company founders Max Durovic and Mike Kenny started working in sign spinning, a form of on-the-street marketing, they were teenagers. They worked outside a San Diego housing development. They weren’t even called sign spinners, but "human directionals."

“We were just bored!” Durovic says. “I think the first day Mike and I worked across the street from each other, you know, it was like, ‘Who can spin it faster, who can throw it higher?’”

Boredom and a competitive nature created something between the two friends. They taught each other how to spin the sign behind their backs, then throw and catch it. That summer in San Diego, with the 1998 X Games just down the street, an extreme sport and an advertising company was born.

“We really tried to make it more extreme and more fun and spice it up, and it really started to work. Clients came to us and said that their traffic was increasing,” Kenny said.

In their first years at college, Max and Mike founded AArrow Sign Spinners, a self-described guerrilla marketing company based in North Hollywood. Today, over 2,500 AArrow employees are spinning in 35 cities and 11 countries. Last year, the company had a revenue of $9.1 million.

“We’ve placed ourselves as the professionals,” Kenny says. “So, anyone else that’s out there and is spinning signs on their own, or is trying to start their own company, we go to them and say, ‘Hey, AArrow should be the home for anyone that really cares about sign spinning and really cares about doing this the right way.’”

To spin signs the AArrow way, employees must learn from the "tricktionary" — a book of hundreds of very specific and copyrighted tricks that only AArrow-certified "spinstructors" are allowed to have.

Why all the secrecy?

“It’s our spintellectual property,” Durovic says.

Almost all AArrow spinners are male, and almost all of them start spinning in their teens. Since sign spinning only makes advertising sense on heavily trafficked street corners, most employees come from urban centers. The AArrow founders are very much aware of this.

“I think youth unemployment is something that faces every area of this country, and that if we can solve that, that helps reduce teen pregnancy and crime rates,” Durovic says. “So, spinning signs is probably a much better thing to be doing on that street corner than anything else.”

Sign-spinning to stop crime may seem like a stretch, but not to some of their oldest employees like Mike Wright of San Diego, who’s been with AArrow for 10 years.

“I was never living on the street, but I was living in a bad part of San Diego. I mean, meth dealers and everything—a meth fire happening right next to our house,” Wright says. That fire forced Wright and his mom to abandon their home when he was 16 years old.

“Thanks to AArrow, I was able to get a first check; and me and my mom, we got right out of there, we moved,” Wright says. “If it wasn’t for AArrow, we’d pretty much be doing the same thing.”

Wright says he loves to spin signs, not as a job, but as a culture and a sport. Which may have something to do with the World Sign Spinning Championships.

An AArrow sign spinner at the World Sign Spinning Championships.
An AArrow sign spinner at the World Sign Spinning Championships.
Credit: Barbara Maeker

Every year since 2007, AArrow CEOs and employees meet, this year in downtown Las Vegas, for the World Sign Spinning Championships. One hundred and ten AArrow employees from around the world, who all won their regional competitions, are here to spin for the title and $1,000 cash prize.

For the AArrow founders, the global competition is something they’ve dreamed of since day one.

“From the very beginning, I think it was all about the competition for us,” Kenny says.

“Definitely,” adds Durovic. “The NBA, the NFL — we wanted to run a sports league.”

Amid deafening chants of “AA-RROW!” the spinners prepare for a weekend marathon of sign-spinning. There are two rounds, and spinners compete twice in each. They are judged on style, energy, technicality, foot placement, audience interaction and other criteria. And that’s all before the finals.

Only five make it into the final round. Mike Wright is one of them. But there is one competitor who, literally and figuratively, stands head and shoulders above the rest: Kadeem Johnson.

Johnson, who is over six feet tall, moved to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was a kid. By his late teens, he was living with his family in Tampa, Florida, and in need of a job. His brother showed him videos of AArrow sign spinners and told Kadeem they were always hiring.

Six years later, Johnson is a two-time winner of the World Sign Spinning Championship. But he is hungry for more.

“I’ve already won twice, but I want to win three times,” Johnson says, with a determined and excited energy. “I want to win again. I want to be the Michael Jordan. Like, Michael Jordan has six rings, let’s get seven, right?”

Johnson laughs. He knows that if he wins today, he’ll be the first sign-spinner in history to win the championship three times. He knows a win today will make him a legend within AArrow. Suddenly, he turns serious.

“Next year, I don’t care who wins. But this year, I need that — I need that number one spot,” Kadeem says.

As the sun sets on Fremont Street, the final round starts. Johnson is the first up.

Kadeem Johnson performs in his final set.
Kadeem Johnson performs in his final set.
Credit: Barbara Maeker

With Katy Perry’s “Roar” in the background, Johnson throws his sign in the air and it returns right to his waiting hand. He does a handstand with the sign between his legs, and then gets on the ground, pulling out break dance moves he learned as a kid while spinning a sign in one hand. His best trick, however, is his presence — he exudes confidence and positivity, with a beaming smile and eye contact that makes his one-minute set a true Las Vegas show.

And it makes Kadeem Johnson a three-time champion.

After being announced the winner of the 2016 World Sign-Spinning Championship, the crowd swells in applause, and his fellow spinners rush the ring to hoist Johnson in the air. There are cheers, there are chants, but the spectators are already being pushed aside to make room for a clean-up crew. The AArrow banners come down and the ring disappears. Within a matter of minutes, the street returns to the foot traffic, and the spinners disperse.

There isn't a whole lot of time to celebrate. They all have to work on Monday.