John Florence, 2017 MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal. Photo: Masurel
John Florence, 2017 MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal. Photo: Masurel

Will Pros Surf Stickerless in Tokyo 2020?

A look at sponsorship limitations during the Olympics

Less than three years from today, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will begin. And whether you like it or not, surfing will be a part of it for the first time ever. One sect of surfers that was surely excited by the news of surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics is those in charge of marketing the world’s biggest surf brands. If their athletes qualify to compete in the Games, which reached 3.6 billion viewers in 2016, wouldn’t that be the biggest billboard for surf brands? Apparently, it isn’t that simple if you look at some of the Olympics’ already established rules.

Ever heard of Rule 40? Likely not. In short, it's a huge pain in the ass for most brands sponsoring Olympic qualifiers. Technically speaking, it's a by-law in the official Olympic Charter that establishes an advertising "blackout period" (nine days prior until three days after the Games) that forbids all brands that are not official sponsors of the Olympic Games from promoting their athletes on their websites, through advertising, or on social media with associated Olympic references.

For example, if Hurley isn't an official sponsor of the Olympics or Team USA, and John Florence qualifies to compete in 2020, Hurley (and the rest of John's sponsors, for that matter) wouldn't be able to say anything on their websites, in ads, or on Instagram along the lines of "Good luck in the Olympics John!" or "Go for Gold, John" or even "Go Team U.S.A". On the flip side, athletes also won’t be able to mention their sponsors if they aren’t official sponsors of the Olympics. That means no “I’d like to thank my sponsors” speeches on the podium, on social media, or anywhere else.

Carissa Moore has a solid chance of making the Olympics. But if she does, she’ll have to comply with Rule 40. Photo by Craig

Evan Slater, Hurley's Sr. Director of Brand Communication, has become familiar with Rule 40 since the year Nike acquired Hurley. "It's pretty black and white: as a brand, if you're not an official sponsor of the Olympics, you can't say the word Olympics at all in your promotion," Slater told me over the phone. "There are a million ways people work around it, but you can't reference it in any way at all."

At the 2016 Rio Games, non-official sponsors were banned from using all of the following wording when promoting their Olympic athletes: 2016 Rio, Rio de Janeiro, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Medal, Effort, Performance, Challenge, Summer, Games, Sponsors, Victory, Olympia, Olympic, Olympics, Olympic Games, Olympiad, Olympiads and the Olympic motto "Citius – Altius – Fortius." According to Sports Illustrated, if an athlete didn't comply, they ran the risk of getting disqualified or even stripped of a medal.

The rule might force surf brands to get creative with their marketing campaigns around the Olympics, similar to what some companies did before the 2016 Games. Under Amour, not an official Games sponsor but still a sponsor for 250 Olympic athletes, released a commercial before March featuring Michael Phelps training for his last official Olympics—without explicitly saying anything about the actual event. They just alluded to it. Still, they had to submit their idea to the IOC by January and had to launch the campaign in March—–well before people were even thinking about the Olympics.

Other small-name brands, like Oiselle, a Seattle–based women's apparel company that sponsors many track and field athletes, were a little less subtle. Sally Bergesen, the company's owner, started using phrases like "Big Event in the Southern Hemisphere" and "city that rhymes with Neo Bee Sin Arrow" in her social communication to side-step the law. A month before the Games started, she received a letter from the IOC asking her to take down an Instagram post that said, "She's going to RIO!" when one of her sponsored athletes, Kate Grace, qualified for the 800-meter track-and-field event.

The red tape doesn't end at social promotions. According to Slater, it's likely that athletes won't be allowed to rep any sponsor logos on their boards besides the board manufacturer's. As for wetsuits, there's a chance that surfers might not even be able to wear their wetsuit sponsor's rubber. That all depends on whether or not the IOC and the ISA deem a wetsuit (or boardshorts) as a "performance product."

According to Slater, if a product is not classified as a "performance product"—say a surfer's tracksuit or shoes—then an athlete must wear whatever is provided by their federation's sponsor (the sponsor of Team U.S.A or Team Brazil, for example). But if something is categorized a performance product, an athlete can use what he or she pleases.

"For example, if Adidas sponsors the German Olympic Federation, a German track-and-field star who is a Nike athlete is able to wear his Nike shoes in competition," says Slater. "But they still have to wear the Adidas German Olympic Team tracksuit."

So if the IOC and the ISA, for some reason, don't view a wetsuit as an item that has any affect on the performance of the surfer—which Slater argues that it does—then, hypothetically speaking, if Rip Curl sponsored Team U.S.A, we could see guys like John John or Kolohe rocking a Flash Bomb.

I asked Slater how he'd feel if the above scenario occurred. "I think that would be a problem for all brands, to be honest," he said. "It's a little different than a lot of sports, but in surfing, this [brand sponsorship] is a lot of the top athletes' primary salaries. So if you're paying a bunch of money for these guys to represent your brand and this is the ultimate stage, it’s a little tricky if they're forced to wear a competitor's product in competition."

We likely won't know the official ruling on surfing performance products until next year, so maybe these branding restrictions won't make a huge impact on Olympic surfers. But brands like Hurley are certainly crossing their fingers that the IOC and the ISA sees a wetsuit as a performance product—because there's a good chance that at least one of their athletes will take part in the 2020 games.

"We're still in that wait-and-see mode since there are still so many unanswered questions," said Slater. "But as a brand, we're excited about the opportunity. There's debate on either side on whether it will do anything for the sport—I'm somewhere in the middle. But as a brand, it'll be interesting to see what kind of effect it'll have."