The End of Amateur Surfing

Products of the post-amateur world: tomorrow’s pros are also today’s. Photo: Billy Watts

Just a few years ago, the former USSF (now Surfing America) wasn't much different from the former USSR (now Russia): it was a loose, poorly governed grouping of regional satellites and it basically sucked. Toward its end, the United States Surfing Federation was as cool as abstinence. Finals at its US Championship routinely featured no known names and multiple Texans. Few top juniors bothered with the organization at all, most instead fixing their attention on the rival NSSA.

But there was a time when the USSF — and NSSA as well — commanded groms' obedience better than their own parents or even television did. Kids would actually forgo cash money for the privilege of competing as amateurs, because that was the rule — if you accepted any sponsor coin (even travel support or entry fees), you were a pro and ineligible for the prestigious am circuits or the US national team. Just last month we did a Christian Fletcher interview in which he described covering his Astrodeck logos with packing tape back in the '80s to avoid losing am status.

Thank God that's done and dusted, because Kinect is not cheap. Get money money.

When Matt Archbold was a kid, the word “amateur” meant something: no corpo kickbacks. His son Ford would laugh hard at that. Photo: Ryan Foley

Today the US amateur infrastructure is well run and well supported, but it has none of its old teeth. Kids are swayed by pastures much greener than surf P.E. and a contest T-shirt. They're eligible as tweens for a dream life, same as their heroes, with travel, money, and endless water time. No grom can be expected to pass that up for plastic trophies and algebra class. Ironically, they're not that dumb.

So while the pro/am distinction in surfing was always at least a little dodgy, this generation really unplugged its respirator. Now the sport's main gatekeepers are sponsors who give or withhold a paycheck and a marching order: chase that swell, come to Hawaii, do the Europe leg. But the sponsors aren't parents (and whether even the parents are parents is often in question); they think in US dollars, and in those terms, a ninth grader "home schooling" from the deck of an Indo charter is perfectly reasonable so long as he's getting photos with his logo showing. Just don't ask him to spell "contingency plan."

Pro surfing no longer asks for ID at the door, it actually kidnaps. I don't know whether this is a good or a bad thing, and it would depend on whom you’re asking, but either way surfing is now closer to the Hollywood model of co-opting childhoods than to the mainstream sports model of scholastic team participation and a path to college. The kids don’t mind, their jus stokd 2b surfin wit frndz hahha :).

But maybe someone should mind. Get money money. —Stuart Cornuelle