Miles from the coast, far from the nearest surfboard, Julian Wilson sweats. Outside it’s raining, which western Oregon does so generously. Inside, Wilson flips a tractor tire across the floor of an otherwise empty gym. Only a trainer looks on.
Wilson, 24, is a professional surfer—among the best. The gym is one of many like it in a cutting-edge sports complex on Nike’s global campus, built to pull Olympians out of merely great athletes. Wilson flips his heavy six-foot tire some more, then moves to the speed bag before a set of stair sprints.
This whole scene is confusing if your image of a surfer involves, say, a board, or a beach, or a pathological avoidance of rain-soaked inland gyms. And if so you’re not alone. Plyometrics, unilateral strength training—these terms don’t jibe with the carefree ideal of a genuine surf dude. At least they didn’t used to. But this is why Wilson is sweating there, alone on the gym floor: To change your mind. To get your attention.
The Australian earned close to $300,000 just in prize money last year. His endorsements added a few times that. He’s part of a generation for which surfing isn’t countercultural playtime—it’s a sport, a career, and a billion-dollar industry. It’s grown up and out, into Iceland and Morocco and the favelas of Brazil. Surf brands are publicly traded on Wall Street. Talented kids get home-schooled like child pop stars. Hawaiian John John Florence, the Platonic ideal of a surf-prodigy-turned-pro, has been sponsored since age 6. They can afford BMWs before they’re old enough to drive.
But for all its growth, surfing still lags other sports—even other action sports, like snow- and skateboarding—in mainstream popularity. Interest may spike and wither, but a half-century after Gidget made it a phenomenon, surfing remains mostly coastal. A niche. A novelty.
Wilson and his peers could change that. They are—forgive this—riding a wave of developments that bring surfing closer than ever to the global living room, from new media to management to better performance to the sheer volume of dollars spent grooming and marketing young stars. Guys like Florence and Californian Kolohe Andino, South African Jordy Smith, and Gabriel Medina—at 19 perhaps the most exciting surfer to come out of Brazil—they might just make you care about surfing.
Back in Oregon, Wilson showers off. The first event of the ASP World Tour is weeks away. Wilson is here at the world headquarters of one of his sponsors to prepare for it. He’s been in Oregon for two weeks, training daily, sometimes twice. Between sessions he sits in design meetings, where the technical merit of an extra-stretchy boardshort is carefully probed. At night he holes up alone in a downtown hotel. He drinks only water, sleeps often, and eats much. For him it’s a business trip.
“Guys now train hard,” Wilson says of today’s surfers, “and they put a lot of effort into the way they come across. It’s not so much the going out and the hardcore parties, things that kind of left that mark on surfing as being a sport where you can just travel the world and have a fat time and get paid to do it. If you’re like that these days you’re going to be left behind.”
This professionalism—a word that’s now eclipsed “gnarly” in the surf lexicon—is driving an ascent into the world of sport. The old war stories about competing high or hungover, on no sleep, borrowing a board the morning of the contest—they’re just that: old. And totally foreign to the pros today, for whom fitness and preparation are gospel.
“The next generation coming up is even more serious at a younger age,” says Florence, only 20 years old himself. “More training, more mental and psychological work being put in at an earlier age.”
At an ASP event now it’s normal to see trainers and coaches, managers, agents, personal filmers paid to catch a pro’s every ride—and this for each individual guy. Spin bikes and Swiss balls are on-site to help competitors warm up. There’s a massage table. Meals are catered.
“It’s a little less rogue now,” says Hurley’s Peter Jasienski, who works closely with Wilson, Andino, and Florence. “They’re aware of their influence over an audience, whether it’s kids or adults or fans of the sport. That’s the biggest difference.”
The results aren’t surprising: Better surfing, better role models, and a better image for the sport in general—all of which is music to the ears of the surf industry. And the industry controls the coins.
Professionalism, after all, is a symptom; money is its cause.
Two years ago Dane Reynolds, then a popular 25-year-old with no World Tour wins, was re-signed by his sponsor Quiksilver for a reported $23 million over six years. (The media half-jokingly called it “The Decision,” as in LeBron James to the Heat.) Bidding wars have become a common thing when top surfers hit the market. The 2007 race to sign Jordy Smith was so intense that Nike supposedly organized a call from Tiger Woods to woo the teenager.
It’s against this very green backdrop that squat-thrusting in an Oregon weight room suddenly makes a lot of sense. Global surf industry revenues topped $6 billion a few years back. That figure is predicted to double by 2017. If surfers have started behaving like athletes—like professionals—it isn’t by accident. It’s because a World Tour victory today nets an oversize six-figure foam check plus possible sponsor bonus. “Even though companies and contests seem to be struggling, there’s more money in surfing than ever,” says Florence, now in his second full year on the tour. “Not just for the surfers, but for the events and the sponsors.” For some of the surfers, that is—the very best ones.
“Those three athletes [Wilson, Andino, and Florence], I would say, represent modern surfing,” says Jasienski. “But it’s not just the investment surrounding them; it’s the fact that they see it as a professional career. They represent themselves well in the media, they’re aware of their influence on the youth, and they really maintain their own media marketing machines.”
They earn their keep, in other words. Which isn’t easy. It calls for gyms, and coaches, and a lot of smiling, and the other trappings of a professional that you’ve just read about. Brands aren’t simply throwing money at the nearest golden boy. Because they can’t afford to.
That $23 million for Dane Reynolds? It makes a nice headline, but Quiksilver also withdrew support for Reynolds’ signature sub-brand Summer Teeth last year, along with several others, in a round of fierce downsizing. Billabong is desperately seeking a private equity rescue for pennies per share, down from the $12-$14 range five years ago. Analog Clothing (owned by Burton) abruptly dropped its whole team and left the surf business last October. And Nike, too, ended its surf program. The industry is hardly in fat times.
The tumult revealed that the core surf market is still relatively small. Giant surf brands get giant by selling also to nonsurfers at urban flagships and landlocked department stores. Lately, their wares just aren’t moving like they need to. The global economic slowdown is one reason. New consumer tastes and trends are another. Both have put a squeeze on the industry just as the sport itself
seems ready to graduate.
That’s been bad news for midlevel pros, who are an easy expense to cut, but it puts a premium on surfing’s 1 percent—true icons who can really push product. Surfers like Wilson, Andino, and Florence. Surfers who are “their own media marketing machines.”
On a trip to Japan in 2007, Wilson caught an average wave and went left. He launched into the air, spun an inverted backhand loop with his feet completely off the board, his hands grabbing its rails, and then landed clean and rode out. The move had never been done, and Wilson named it the Sushi Roll. Footage soon leaked and caught fire across the surf world.
But as remarkable as the trick itself was the way it spread, through online photos and YouTube, becoming an overnight high-water mark for progressive surfing. This was an early glimpse of his generation’s M.O.: a new, radically technical brand of surfing captured and shared with equally radical ease. And that was six years ago.
Since then technology has only cranked up the model, bringing things faster, freer, in higher fidelity. A ride or even a whole contest can be beamed to fans before the surfers’ hair is dry. Cheap equipment and social media mean anyone can be a producer, and nothing falls through the cracks.
This sea change was on display two years post-Sushi Roll in 2009, when Jordy Smith stomped a rodeo flip in Indonesia that instantly tore through the Web. It’s on display in Done, the short film Florence released online last year, featuring all his best surfing compiled over several months—the type of project that used to take a team of people at a couple of companies to produce and distribute. Now it’s just one man and his filmer.
Wilson and Andino, too, have dedicated personal cameramen on call. In the last few years both have created blogs stocked with unseen footage that’s just days old when it hits. Never before have fans had this kind of access to the best surfing, and never has the best surfing been this good.
“There’s a bigger audience following surfing now than ever since I started,” says Wilson, “definitely in the last 10 years or eight years. Back in Australia it’s becoming a lot more mainstream. It’s on TV. And it was pretty startling last year during U.S. Open time to see a lot of surfing on [ESPN’s] Top 10 Plays of the Day and that kind of stuff. iPhones are incredible, keeping people in touch with the events and getting updates—it’s a lot more accessible than it ever was for people to follow.”
And there Wilson hits on the most crucial point of all: The new order, his new order, is on display on the ASP tour—at events like this year’s U.S. Open of Surfing, where millions will visit Huntington Beach, California, over a weeklong contest, from July 20 to 28. The best surfing isn’t just in blogs and magazines but in competition, on a global stage, with the ASP juggernaut pumping it out to new, far-flung eyes. While the tour was always the height of surf competition, now it’s simply where the best surfing goes down period, month after month.
“The athletes involved are increasingly concerned with putting on an excellent show,” says Medina. “I think that captivates the audience and brings new fans.”
And in 2014, thanks to a deal the ASP struck late last year, those contests will be ready for their close-up.
In October 2012 a company called ZoSea Media acquired all media rights to the ASP tour, with plans to renovate and expand. Now and for the first time, a single group—helmed by veterans of MTV, Time Inc., and the NFL—will produce and broadcast surf contests. The plans would make surfing a real spectator sport, easy to find and follow beyond the confines of the coast—a sort of Holy Grail that’s been elusive in the past.
“Now it’s just accessibility—that’s the biggest issue,” says Hurley’s Jasienski. (Hurley holds the license to one of the tour’s longstanding events, the Hurley Pro at Lower Trestles in Southern California.) “If you can’t be on the beach, how can you be part of the energy and share that enthusiasm, whether you surf or not? The core surfers, coastal residents, they’re all tuning in, but now [it’s about] access to sport and access to competition, that energy, that story.”
“To be honest I don’t think it’s ever going to have a live following on TV like basketball or soccer,” adds Wilson. “It’s just too unpredictable—the waves, getting the time windows and stuff. But if they package the events and put them on TV, and show the best waves, show how it all works, I think you could captivate a huge audience.”
A huge audience—and huge advertisers. ZoSea’s makeover will take the pressure off struggling surf brands, which now pay more than $2 million a pop to sponsor major ASP events. Instead, ZoSea hopes, big mainstream brands will enter the space with their big mainstream budgets in tow, and then … hello world.
At press time Wilson, Andino, Florence, and the rest of today’s best surfers are on Tavarua Island for the Volcom Fiji Pro—an event that briefly disappeared from the tour in 2009 for lack of sponsor support. If things go well in the coming years that won’t ever be a problem again. If things go really well, a million households will see Wilson doing Sushi Rolls on SportsCenter someday. And they won’t bat an eye. It’ll just belong there.
That’s the vision, anyway: a sport in transition, out of the minors and into prime time. A new generation with the star power to take it there. A passionate fan base so much bigger than the beach, just waiting for its onramp to get engaged.
Now more than ever it’s a good time to care about surfing. Can you be convinced?
Check out the August 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands July 16) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.