Nick Carroll: A Few Things the Sponsored-Surfer Panic Has Missed

13 Feb 2020 2 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

What sticker awaits the surboard held aloft behind John John in the future? Photo: WSL/Dunbar

What sticker awaits the surboard held aloft behind John John in the future? Photo: WSL/Dunbar

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

The Surfers Always Come out on Top

There’s been a lot of kerfuffle lately about pro surfers and endorsement contracts.

Mostly this has been in the wake of the surf label Hurley’s sale to rag trade aggregator Bluestar Alliance, and the subsequent release or defection of half its colossal superstar team — including two time world champ John Florence.

Most of the angst I’ve read about this event has been in the US surf media and has involved JJF’s departure from Hurley. In the absence of any real information, it’s all been in the form of guesswork and advice. The surf industry is dead! What should JJF do? He should start his own label! He should join Dane Reynolds’ and Craig Anderson’s label! He should just go sailing around the world!

John’s the most popular surfer in the US by some miles — of course they’re gonna talk about him, even if he isn’t telling them shit.

But something about it made me think of a totally different time.

This was March 1982, at the much fabled Stubbies Classic, and the world’s top surfers were gathered in a boiling hot caravan at Burleigh, and they were pissed off.

They were pissed off because back then, the contests — some of ‘em anyway, Stubbies, Op and Offshore (the Pipe sponsor of the time) — made you wear their boardshorts.

The surfers wanted the rights to wear other kinds of boardshorts; ones belonging to smallish but quickly growing surf companies, who would pay them to wear their product. They wouldn’t be paid much, but it was more than the contest people were prepared to cough up.

They won the battle at Burleigh, and eventually with Op and Offshore too. (Though Offshore especially was even more pissed off than the surfers. Eventually, partly as a result, they pulled their backing for Pipe.)

This was the real start of the whole massive 30-something-year arc of pro surfing, the moment that fuelled decades of mad growth, billion-dollar boardshort companies, multi-million dollar paycheques, the eventual implosion, the lot. It was the moment that pro surfers officially became individuals — or as one says today, “brands” of their own, free to set their own agendas beyond the structure of mere events.

They came out on top back then. And pretty much ever since, they’ve continued to do so.

Being a top pro surfer is infinitely the best gig in the sport, possibly in the world. Everyone else works like dogs, while things just fall in your favour. The surf industry booms and pays you a fortune. It runs out of spare cash, and a billionaire shows up! Then before you know it … along comes the Olympic Games.

This is just one thing the stories about JJF have missed. The Olympic Games is about to open new doors for him and a few other first time Olympian surfers, doors that’ve been shut for generations.

The Olympics is a great lever for a big surf star to break open the bigger world of endorsement, the banks and the big athlete brands and such. These companies have seen what happened with snowboarding. They want the next Shaun White, and they will figure that surfing might be the way to get him and/or her.

Indeed it’s already begun.

Kanoa Igarashi is the blueprint. Kanoa might already be the best-paid professional surfer in the world, thanks to his deals with Japan-based companies eager to associate themselves with the fresh-faced star of the Japanese Olympic surf team. These come on top of his substantial deal with Quiksilver.

We’ve now been reliably informed that serious plans are well advanced around John’s Games appearances and beyond, involving backers — not all of whom have a surfing link — whose chequebooks are likely to leave Hurley’s in the shade.

THIS IS SURFER MONEY. IT’S ABOUT THE INDIVIDUAL, NOT THE SPORT. I BET THE WSL DOESN’T SEE MUCH, IF ANY OF IT…

Gabriel Medina’s team has also been hard at work in the same vein, putting together deals that go way beyond the surfing world, both in reach and in dollar amounts. Again, as with Kanoa, these will come on top of his deal with Rip Curl.

You’ll know soon enough. These deals will be announced progressively over the coming months, as the CT re-commences in Australia. Don’t be surprised if Carissa Moore drops a bomb not far down the track, either.

This is surfer money. It’s about the individual, not the sport. I bet the WSL doesn’t see much, if any of it. They tried selling the tour to those corpos five years ago and couldn’t pull it. They have a new focus on media and content, but they can’t make a show about the Olympics. That train’s gonna just roar on by.

The ISA will get a bit of cash out of a money pool created by the IOC for newcomer sports. They may get there one day but right now, they’re a long way off the mega-million paydays shared by the running and swimming governing bodies.

Oh and by the way, the death of the surf industry is just a tiny little bit exaggerated. Hurley is still sponsoring people. Quik and Billabong are still selling a very large amount of stuff. Rip Curl just gave their new parent, Kathmandu, a welcome shot in the arm in the first quarter of ownership. They’re not the only ones doing OK right now. The money pool is divided up a bit more broadly these days, but surfing businesses might be pulling more money overall now than in the superheated days of yore.

Those companies will be bedrock income for younger pros for many years to come, while the big guns reap the whirlwind.

And once again, the surfers will come out on top.

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