"It's going to be crazy, when Snapper comes around, to see how many people don't have stickers on their noses," a surf agent/manager told me on the phone last week.
Stickers, of course, mean sponsorship. Sponsorship means money. Money means support, security, affirmation, status, private jets to the Turks and Caicos, access to the most powerful people on earth, maybe a plot of land on Mars in a few years (who knows?). The point is that great surfers, surfers at the highest level of our little aquatic world, aren't stickering the most valuable real estate on their billboards --the nose -- because companies don't have the cash to pay them at the level in which they've become accustomed.
A Reasonable Question You, The Reader, Might Ask: Who gives a fuck?
I know it's a reasonable question because that's what I asked when this assignment was handed to me, and I am a reasonable man. Because while I know professional surfers are only humans that want to keep their jobs like the rest of us, there is still a part of me that has trouble sympathizing with those that go surfing for a living. Maybe a couple years in construction or behind a desk would be good for them?
But, as a reasonable man that wants to keep his job, I accepted the assignment and made a couple phone calls to find out why so many surfers -- from competitors (Miguel Pupo, Keanu Asing, Josh Kerr) to aerialists (Matt Meola, Josh Kerr) to big-wave guys (Greg Long, Damien Hobgood, Josh Kerr) -- currently have naked noses.
Here's what I learned.
This is not the normal ebb and flow of sponsorship. Because yes, it's normal to have free agents floating around after Hawaii, as they finalize deals with new companies. And surely there is some of that happening now. But among the people I spoke with (who asked to remain anonymous), there's a growing trend of companies dropping "mid-tier" surfers, or re-signing them for sometimes 300-percent less than their previous contracts. Why? Because companies are saying, "This is all we've got for you, take it or leave it." And they're not just playing hardball. That really is all they've got.
The superstars and the groms, however, are not feeling this strain. The superstars -- guys like John John, Julian, Jordy -- with surfing that wins contests and looks that move product, are still getting big contracts (lesson: Have a name that starts with "J"). The groms are also getting paid good money, as companies invest early (preteen) in developing them to be tomorrow's superstars. (The sad reality, of course, is that 90 percent of those kids go on to be mid-tier surfers, heavy with expectations, light on education and real-world skills.)
So why aren't companies able to pay surfers like they used to? The WSL is as good as ever, from a production standpoint, with polished/ad-heavy webcasts. Surfing just got into the Olympics. Wave pools are getting better. This should be the golden age! We can't use "the economy" as an excuse anymore -- the DOW's almost at 20,000 and the consumer confidence index is at a nine-year high.
But by all accounts, surf retail is struggling, profits are way down and costs are being cut. And the first place they start? Marketing budgets. Because if you have $80,000 to spend and must decide between optimizing for eComm or financing someone's fifth year on the QS, well...what would you do?
So, surfers are struggling because brands are struggling because retail is struggling, and retail is struggling because you're not buying surf clothes like you used to. And while I won't assume to know your personal reasons for pumping the purchasing brakes, I'll throw out a couple of theories.
You have more choices, because of the Internet, so if brands like Brixton or Roark appeal to you more than Quiksilver or Hurley, you can make that decision without sacrificing convenience or options (whereas a brick-and-mortar surf shop historically gave more space to the big brands than the little guys). So there are more little guys chipping away at the big guys' market share. And, because the little guys don't have the cash to sponsor big-level athletes, the expanding middle class of surf brands is, ironically, making it harder for middle-class surfers.
Speaking of small brands, Former launches this week. The company was created by Dane Reynolds and Craig Anderson (along with skater Austyn Gillette), two former Quik riders that, while under contract, were as likely to wear a Die Antwoord T-Shirt as they were The Mountain and The Wave. And given the historical influence that Dane and Craig (and many other free surfers of the same generation) had on the global surf community, it's not a stretch to assume that their aversion to big-brand logos has rubbed off on us, and is being reflected at the bottom lines of the industry's largest companies.
What does all this mean? Everything. Nothing. Who knows? Maybe, as webcasts improve and the CT, QS and BWWT rise in popularity, the John John's and Jordy's of the world can re-inspire you to wear big-named brands again. Or maybe you'll see a growing pack of passionate, Caucasian surfers, who scrap in every heat like their careers depend on it -- because they do. Or maybe this trend just keeps up -- the retail surf pie is divided among many small companies, fewer surfers are sponsored, and we settle into a renewed landscape, one that will surely be shaken in another 50 years when wave pools are scalable, middle America can surf, and Mary-Beth from Kentucky isn't sure if she feels comfortable surfing in the Weed Maps Pro. -Taylor Paul