The most significant stamp this recession will make on pro surfing probably can't be measured in numbers. No matter what happens with the ASP or the "rebel tour," contest sponsors will return, venues will be resurrected,and champions will be crowned. But for "endemic" surf brands that have seen their rosters of young talent swell over the past decades, recent layoffs represent the load shedding of an avalanche. For those laid-off surfers whose sights had been set on future junior titles--or simply cash to make it to the next qualifying event, or the next biggest wave, or the next heaviest barrel at Pipe--many will be funding those dreams with means earned outside of the surf "industry."
For World Qualifying Series (WQS) contenders--mostly younger surfers with dreams of scratching into the big-time--unemployment presented a gargantuan obstacle. A serious go at cracking the upper ranks of the WQS requires a $30K to $50K travel budget, and even successful Dream Tour pros have spent years toiling on the WQS circuit. Selling a brand on forking over that kind of dough for what is usually a low-profile stint was never easy. By 2009, it'd become nearly impossible. The ASP's Al Hunt recently confirmed that registration for all but the biggest WQS events is down.
"The second-tier surfers have been hit the hardest," said Quiksilver's Chad Wells. He'd been in on many of the tough calls his company made. Almost half of their amateur team was cut. Key "specialists" were let go. To put those decisions into corporate context, Quiksilver retired several of its presidents--expensive people with 401Ks and severance packages--and Wells never really knew if his job was next. Yet the way it went down for most surfers was basic contractual math, their contracts were up and their "services" were no longer needed. Some amateurs were axed midstream, and heaps of unofficial "bro" arrangements ended. All of which cut both ways. "Those are the toughest calls to make. If you don't have a guy filling that specific spot in the lineup, as a company, you'll be missing those photos and that prestige."
So sure, it's a bummer for brand marketing, but how does the sloughing off of talent affect the future of professional surfing?
Karin Kendrick managed the women's team for O'Neill. She spent a lot of time with her athletes and became friends with many of them. In the end, she had to weigh in on the toughest decisions a team manager has to make (like cutting ASP No. 5 Melanie Bartels). Afterward, Kendrick herself was let go.
In retrospect, she says, "All of these cuts force you to zero in on the one person you think will be the best." This means gambling marketing dollars on really young kids. The big problem with this strategy, she says, is that "talent and abilities change wildly in those years."
Chad Wells agrees, saying that the way things stand now, "If a kid isn't cutting it by their junior years, he or she should be looking at college."
And so what?
Wells points out that Dane Reynolds showed natural talent in his early years, but lacked the kind of competitive success that would get him noticed (and supported) today. Clearly he would have been passed up for a young surfer with more junior titles under his belt. So it's not simply talent that the surf world is missing out on by casting so shallow a net, it's personality and greatness. And both of these things speak to our culture. Can we afford to gamble our culture on a handful of dumb-dumb prima donnas with known records? Or do we cast wider for the dark horses, the unknown greats,the come-from-behind champions?
"What needs to happen," says Kendrick, "is that athletes need to go outside the industry. There's only so many surf companies, and the sport is growing bigger than even they realize."
In a way, the recession and the growth of the sport have caused this to happen already. Most famously, earlier this year Carissa Moore signed a contract with Target. But there are many smaller examples of ambitious surfers looking outside the normal avenues to make their dreams happen. In April of this year, Luke Dorrington--a pedigreed ripper from the Gold Coast--arrived at the Trestles 6.0 WQS wearing a West Kimberly Mines cap. In a way, West Kimberly was his new sponsor. Dorrington had surfed for Billabong since he was a grommet but was cut due to the recession. So, he went to work in Western Australia's mining industry to finance his QQS bid. "I didn't want to sit around in Coolangatta and just wait for something to come to me, like a lot of people do," he says. "I knew what I wanted." At the Trestles event, he posted the highest score of his first heat and then beat Hawaii's Hank Gaskell and the Dream Tour's Nathaniel Curran. He didn't go all the way, but it was a long way from the mines.
As a consumer of surf media, that's the kind of story I want to follow. And as a member of this culture, it's the kind of story I hope we can identify with for a long time to come.