Poor Pro Surfers

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