Poor Pro Surfers

posted by / Magazine / July 15, 2014

illustration_4Condos. Illustration by Slider Emberson


That’s not sympathy, just describing them. Poor pro surfers. Their fortunes fell with the industry, which fell with the economy, which fell on cactus. Times are hard for middle-class pros. Not the Fannings or the Florences, but the 99 percent.

That’s what people keep saying. But it doesn’t quite add up.

Why do surfers get sponsored, anyway? In theory it’s because they project a cool lifestyle and rip in places you’d rather be. Brands pay to rent the cool. We buy a T-shirt and the cycle starts over.

So now we’re told the cycle is rusting — why? When in the history of mankind has it been easier to “project a cool lifestyle” than today? The answer is: not ever. Food bloggers do it. Tweens do it. Your phone does it for you out of the box. A pile of billion-dollar apps exist just to make all our self-promotion turnkey.

For surfers, whose lifestyle actually is cool, even without cropping and a filter, this stuff should be child’s play. Now should be their golden age of super-distributed flaunting. So what’s the problem?

Maybe it is the economy. Maybe it’s weak sales at Pac Sun trickling down to an Orange County conference room where budgets and surf teams get clipped over coffee. But maybe it’s a lack of ingenuity too. Maybe we just need some new models for sponsorship — new ways to play the game. It’s 2014, after all. Cats on YouTube have talent agents. That girl who sang “Friday” got a production deal. There must be ways to get Dion Atkinson and Laurie Towner paid.

How? Let’s just think a minute.

The first thing to mind is crowdfunding, where fans micro-sponsor a surfer at a few dollars each. In return, “sponsors” get to see the surfer compete or make films instead of quitting to earn his real estate license and sell condos. Everyone wins. (And people have done it.)

A populist hero like Dane Reynolds could crowdfund his retirement tomorrow, but someone who actually needs the money would probably have a hard time. (In theory, if they had that kind of fan love, they’d already be sponsored.) Instead, what crowdfunding is really meant for is getting a surfer to that last Prime event he needs to qualify, or underwriting his two-minute sizzle reel that makes an actual brand take notice. The crowd is better at bankrolling one-off projects than whole human livelihoods. Next year’s Kai Neville movie: of course. Flynn Novak’s rent: probably not.

So…what else?

There’s always patronage, where a wealthy benefactor pays to keep an artist — or, in this case, a pro surfer — from starving. This allows the pro to surf full time, which makes the patron a sort of community servant to all surf fans. Could it work in practice? Not really. Maybe there’s a new-money tech mogul out there with a thing for surfing and some app cash to spend, or maybe the surf industry itself has enough millionaires now that one would step up, but it’s not a real solution.

What if pros were sponsored on commission? Every paycheck hinging on contest results and promo benchmarks. No new Instagram followers? No check. Didn’t make the Quarters? No check. Not enough blog traffic, Vimeo views or plugs on the Surfline homepage? No check. Surfers already get world title bonuses and photo incentive; this would just take things further. Companies love the deal because it’s risk-free; they only pay if the team performs.

Or maybe brands could sponsor projects, rather than riders. Volcom could launch a one-year effort to surf (against establishment) at every spot in California, stringing the sessions into a monumental film. They’d pay to get the surfers they wanted involved, sponsored or not, the way studios pay actors in Hollywood. Which seems to work all right for the actors, and for Hollywood.

Or what about the Zipcar/Netflix/Spotify model? Buying access, not ownership. Brands could rent a pro when they need one and quit paying when they don’t. You only want Evan Valiere on your team for the Hawaii season? Fine. That’ll be $100K. Parko puts together a boys’ trip and invites Dean Morrison? Billabong could do a three-week deal to get stickers on Dingo’s nose, the new Summer ’15 trunks on his waist, and all media rights from the trip in perpetuity. Marketing a la carte.

If none of these ideas work out and a surfer still just can’t get picked up, he can always start his own brand. Problem solved, sponsor found. Now, he just has to sell clothes to a bunch of fickle, sexting, insecure young people (who, as it turns out, like the idea of surfing more than surfing itself) and their moms. In Anaheim. Forever.

Or maybe the condo thing. Condos are neat. Poor pro surfers. —Stuart Cornuelle

Tags: , ,

Related Posts:

  • gbroagfran

    Maybe it is time for pro surfing to just plain disappear. Wouldn’t bother me a bit.

  • Michael Nova

    Bingo! gbroagfran

  • zionlov

    What does a pro surfer budget really look like? Just curious. What does it cost on average to fund someone on the QS? CT? Or how about someone like Alex Gray, who just follows swells around the planet. What does that cost annually?

  • mike


  • Teddy Allen

    Why is the industry hurting? Maybe it is because it overestimated our stupidity in thinking we would actually buy a pair of surf trunks for $80 made in some Asian factory. Good riddance.

  • rspkt

    This is some solid truth here. The stores selling these products are just as much at fault though. I remember when you could buy a t-shirt for half the price stores tend to sell them now. It’s ridiculous.

  • Masta

    It is not normal … see the benetfits of the surf wear industry .. it’s like tenis or soccer wear industry .. why the contract and price money are so low ?

  • freerider

    There actually is a wealthy benefactor out there right now- is name is billionare – Dirk Ziff. Dirk is basically funding the new ASP and Zoosea and paying the prize money where the asp can’t find a surf company sponsor for their event-like the j-bay event in progress and the Fiji Cloudbeak event before j-bay. Who do you think put up the prize money for these events- Terry Harder?? Not! Good old Dirk. Terry Harder and Paul Speaker really scored when they got a hold of old Dirk. I’m sure Dirk is paying their salaries also (you know Terry and Paul aren’t working for free) and everyone else’s salary at zoosea- Kieran, ect. But no amount of money might be able to keep a sinking ship afloat. Maybe the time of the teenie bopper surf starlet groupies is coming to an end? No big loss. The good news- I think most surfers already know-the best waves ever ridden on the planet- by a so called pro or anyone-will always be the waves you catch and ride yourself- whether its 2 feet or twenty. It’s always better to ride your own waves..

  • rel0627

    Make the contracts public like all the other sports, hard time justifying $50 tshirts when the details are made public.

  • freerider

    My faith if surf mags has almost been renewed with this article. Finally showing some cojones and somewhat showing the unfiltered other side of things.. Kudos to Stuart

  • freerider

    But as far Volcom surfing against the Establishment–it wouldn’t work. Since The Kering group’ (which is a French owned women’s fashion compnay– (pronounced “Caring”– to appeal to the feminine side– bought Volcom– Volcom is now officially owned by the Establishment and now “is the Establishment” Volcom even recently dropped the “Youth against Establishment” creed- because it was so hypocritical now–you can’t surf against yourself. Kering’ (Caring)– also owns Gucci –which makes high end purses for women and now they own Volcom –so next time you see someone wearing a Volcom–(now owned by Kering- “Caring” — a French women’s fashion company)–umm–it kind of makes you wonder about their taste..

  • freerider

    Lets not forget Hurley is owned by “the Establishment also”– Hurley is owned by Nike– the company where your mom and dad and mainstream america buy their jogging pants, jock straps, running shoes and roller blades. Buying something from Hurley–is the same as buying and wearing something from Nike– (corporate America–the Establishment). Sorry dudes, every time I see someone wearing something from Hurley, (Nike), I just have to kind of laugh.

  • R

    Hurley is owned, operated, and ran by Hurley, they used Nike resources and Nike gets a cut. You like to seem like you know so much but actually you know little.

  • R

    See comment above but would like to add: no none cares.

  • freerider

    Sorry R- from all my research (Wikipidia, the Web, ect.) Hurley is owned 100% by Nike..

  • freerider

    Kudos to Surfing mag and Stuart again- for a relatively unbiased, unfiltered and fresh article.

  • seldom seen smith

    F the surf industry. #saltlife

  • freerider

    seldom seen smith may be speaking for the silent majority out there.

  • JrMistMaker

    But they operate as a separate entity whose financial results are simply included in Nike’s. While Nike might own Hurley they are, for the most part, an individual operating entity that gets manufacturing synergies from Nike.

  • Andrew Bennett

    Make them get real jobs like we all have. Bring back the 70s

  • freerider

    For the most part? Any way you try to twist it -Hurley is still now 100%owned by the Man-the Mainstream-Corporate America-the Establishment- the place where your mom and dad buy their jogging pants, jock straps and rollerblades. Every dollar of profit from Hurley goes straight into Nike’s pocket. The execs. at Nike are probably sitting in their corporate offices somewhere- in their shirts and ties, sipping a drink and laughing their butts off how easy it was for them to buy into (whats left of it) surf culture..

  • Steroid rocks

    Uh…u can’t institutionalize the ocean like a grass foot ball or baseball field school funded by tax dollars thus no pay dirt for surfers. Besides lil Johnny gets to play basket ball in 1 st grade the school won’t throw him in the ocean on a surfboard at gym class…if u want to make money get the fuck out of the ocean

  • JrMistMaker

    Dude, Hurley only made 260MM last year… That is less than 1% of Nike’s total revenue. if Hurley disappeared tomorrow they wouldn’t notice for 6-9 months. Listen dude, you clearly dont understand how the corporate world works. I would encourage you to find the local community college (or your college, if you in one right now) and take a corporate business and economics class.

    And if you are that worried about “The Man” influencing surf culture, stop surfing. You don’t realize it but I guarantee the majority of the gear you own has in some way been touched by “the man”, whether that was through a parent co, a sponsor (ie – private equity) or financing, and sometimes theres nothing wrong with that.

  • yeah guy

    You’re a moron. No amount of balls were needed to write said article. Balls would be if they stopped taking advertising dollars (from companies like Hurley) and simply wrote and ran photos for free. Did you know surfing mag is owned by a company that also owns mags such as; Baseball America, SUP Stand up Paddler and SLAM? You think Nike isn’t running ads in those mags, which pays the bills at surfing including Stuart and his “big balls” (probably) hourly wage. Without “the man”, you moron, surfing (the cultural and spot) as you know, wouldn’t exist. Grow up.

  • freerider

    Only 260 million? Dude-to most of the world that’s some serious cash.
    Majority of gear?, my main stick is made by a local company here on the big island–my trunks are a off brand I picked up at Wal-Mart. I don’t always use a leash. A board and some wax are all you really need–I have no idea what all this gear is– your talking about.

  • goodwill

    Stopped taking ad dollars? Quit paying photographers and writers? What world do you live in? Do you, yeah guy, work for free?

  • freerider

    Without the man- culture and surfing as we know it would’t exist. Wow– seems like that would be a totally good thing.—— Ever since the first Polynesians picked up a board and started catching waves–surfing has been doing just fine without the man..

  • yeah guy

    Right… Because we all know how fun an alaia is. Without the money innovation is slow and almost nonexistent regardless of industry. My comment was surfing as YOU know it would not exist. Surfing is where it is because of the Man and the money. How old are you? Really? I’m guessing 17.

  • yeah guy

    Please read my entire comment and they we can continue with a dialog.

  • yeah guy

    I love my Gucci suits.

  • freerider

    Is anybody really happy with surfing today? Clogged line-ups, euro surfers, yuppi wanna-bes- surf schools choking up spots.. 50 guys out at your secret spot.

  • yeah guy

    I just bought the sickest most comfortable Hurley trunks and wetsuit top, a new set of FCS 2 fins in my Merrick Weirdo Ripper and my Audi Q7 just got detailed today, then I went to crossfit and sneaked in a late morning session with said Merrick… So yes, yes I am quite happy with surfing. Sure beats the hell out of the Polynesian surf stick you suggested. Also… Pretty pumped on my 14 day boat trip I’m prepping for that I paid for with the money that I earned working for the man. Have fun at the secret spot you mentioned.

  • freerider

    You mean your new “Nike” trunks-don’t you? Don’t even know what a AudiQ7 is-is that some kind of retro board? When you get back from your 14 day boat trip-you can you hassle with the crowds and surf schools- for the rest of the year- at your secret spot also. Say Hi to Al for me.

  • perplexed

    Jeepers what’s with all the hate for the “man”.Honestly who gives a rats ass if mags are owned by corporations or if
    Hurley is owned by Nike.

    If some people want to pay silly money (I wouldn’t) for surf brand clothing if they
    like the style good for them that they work to afford nice things.

    As a grommet all I had were hand me down boards and 2nd hand wetsuits. Since then I’ve put my head down, worked hard and made sacrifices to get ahead. Therefore I couldn’t care less about lazy bums resenting me for driving a nice car, etc.

    Surfing is essentially playing in the ocean for the pleasure of it. If surf stores and companies go
    completely bust and stop existing my shaper will still be making boards regardless.

  • freerider

    Don’t hate the man, don’t hate anybody- but most surfers I know started surfing as a way to get away from the mainstream. Then to see these big companies– who have no roots in surfing–move in (just trying to make a buck) and capitalize on it– I don’t know, its hard to just sit back and do nothing. Guess I just have to voice my opinion.. But your right, if every surf store and company went bust and stopped existing- surfing would go on as usual for 99% of most surfers. We’d get boards from our local shapers or shape and glass them ourselves– in the garage or our backyard, (I’ve done a few).– All you really need is a board and some wax, everything else is optional. Peace…

  • perplexed

    No worries:) I’m fully with you there but consider surfing is less mainstream today than it was 10 years ago or even 20 years ago (considering how the ASP can’t find sponsors for events and Gotcha, Billabong etc going bust.)

    My biggest gripe with corporate fall out on surfing was when Clark foams went under and my shaper couldn’t source his spec blanks anymore;) At least working with epoxy to glass boards is not so toxic…