PHOTOGRAPHY: KIRSTEN SCHOLTZ/GETTY IMAGES
BRAT PACK From shaggy-haired dudes to highperformance athletes, the ambitious stars of surfing’s new guard have an eye on the mainstream – and a sport in transition is hoping they grab the world’s attention. WORDS: STUART CORNUELLER Australian star surfer Julian Wilson is part of the sport’s new breed of professional athletes
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PHOTOGRAPHY: GRAHAM SHEARER
iles from the coast, Julian Wilson is sweating. Outside it’s raining, which it does so generously in Oregon, in north-west America. Inside Wilson flips a tractor tyre 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 make Olympians out of merely great
BORN November 8, 1988 HOMETOWN Coolum Beach, Queensland, Australia LONG LIFE Before switching to shortboards, Wilson won the Australian Junior Longboard title at the age of 14. IN THE PINK Wilson is an ambassador for the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and rides pink boards in competition to raise money and awareness for the American charity. Twitter
T H E N E W B R AT PAC K athletes. Wilson flips his heavy 6ft tyre 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, a beach, or a pathological avoidance of rainsoaked inland gyms – and you wouldn’t be alone in being confused. Things like plyometrics and unilateral strength training just don’t go with the carefree ideal of a genuine surf dude. But this is why Wilson’s sweating there, alone on the gym floor. He wants to get your attention. He wants to change your mind. The Australian earned around US$ 300,000 in prize money alone last year. His endorsements brought in a lot more on top of that. He’s part of a generation for which surfing isn’t countercultural play time – it’s a sport, a career and a billiondollar industry. It’s grown up and out, into Iceland and Morocco and Brazil. Surf brands are traded for huge amounts on world stock markets. Talented kids get home-schooled like child pop stars. Hawaiian John John Florence, the ideal of a surf prodigy-turned-pro, has been sponsored since he was six. They can afford BMWs before they’re old enough to drive. Yet for all its growth, surfing still lags behind other sports – even action sports
The next generation of surfers is more serious at a younger age. There’s more work being put in such as snowboarding and skateboarding – in mainstream popularity. Interest may spike and wither but a half-century after surfing became a beach phenomenon, it still remains mostly coastal. A niche. A novelty. Wilson and his peers could change that. They’re – to use a pun – riding a wave of developments that are bringing surfing closer than ever to the global living room, from new media to management, to better performance, to the amount of money spent grooming and marketing young stars. Surfers like Florence and Californian Kolohe Andino, South African Jordy Smith and Brazil’s Gabriel Medina – they might just make you care about surfing.
ulian Wilson is in the shower. He’s been in Oregon for two weeks, training at his sponsor’s headquarters in preparation for the first event of the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Championship Tour. Wilson is working out every day, sometimes twice. Between sessions he sits in design meetings in which the technical merit of an extra-stretchy boardshort is carefully probed. At night he holes up alone in a hotel. He drinks only water, sleeps often and eats a lot. For him it’s a business trip. “Guys now train hard,” he 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 great time and get paid to do it. If you’re like that these days, you’re going to be left behind.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: BILD: ASP ROBERTSON
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Ut aut laut ut magnam, ipsae officius, aut quiatur, tem reiciae nobis et lant rem
John John Florence at the Billabong Pipe Masters on Hawaii
PHOTOGRAPHY: KIRSTEN SCHOLTZ/GETTY IMAGES
T H E N E W B R AT PAC K This professionalism – a word that’s now eclipsed ‘gnarly’ in the surf lexicon – is driving the sport’s rapid ascent. The old war stories about competing high or hungover, on no sleep, borrowing a board the morning of the contest are just that: old. Totally foreign to the pros today, for whom fitness and preparation are gospel. “The next generation of surfers is even more serious at a younger age,” says Florence, just 20 years old. “There’s more training, and more mental and psychological work being put in at an earlier age.” At every ASP event, it’s normal to see trainers and coaches, managers, agents and cameramen paid to catch a pro’s every ride. Spin bikes and Swiss balls are on-site to help competitors warm up. There’s a massage table and a catering area. “It’s a little less rogue now,” says Peter Jasienski, global media director of surf
More training, more work – the next generation of surfers is even more serious at a younger age
JOHN JOHN FLORENCE BORN October 18, 1992 HOMETOWN Honolulu, Hawaii, USA HEY, BRO(S)! Florence is the oldest of three brothers – all of whom are professional surfers. BOY GENIUS At 13, Florence became the youngest surfer to compete in Hawaii’s prestigious Triple Crown surf series. Six years later, he became the youngest to win it. Twitter
T H E N E W B R AT PAC K brand Hurley, who works 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.
wo years ago, Dane Reynolds, then a popular 25-year-old yet to register an ASP World Tour victory, was re-signed by his sponsor Quiksilver for a reported US$23 million, to be paid over six years. (The media halfjokingly called it ‘The Decision’, referring to LeBron James’ 2010 transfer to Miami 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 reportedly organised a call from Tiger Woods to woo the teenager. It’s against this backdrop that squatthrusting in an Oregon weight room suddenly makes a lot of sense. Annual
Dane Reynolds just signed a contract with Quiksilver over US$23 million – to be paid over the next six years worldwide surf industry revenue now exceeds US$6 billion, a figure predicted to double by 2017. If surfers have started behaving like professional athletes, it isn’t by accident. It’s because an ASP World Tour victory today nets a six-figure cheque plus extra potential for sponsorship earnings. “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 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, but it’s not easy. It calls for high-tech gyms and experienced coaches, and a lot of smiling, as well as all the other trappings that come with being a professional athlete. Brands aren’t simply throwing money at the nearest golden boy – they can’t afford to. That US$23 million for Dane Reynolds makes for 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 US$12-$14 five years ago. Analog Clothing (owned by Burton Snowboards) abruptly dropped its whole team and left the surf business last October. Nike, too, ended its surf programme. The industry is hardly in fat times. The tumult revealed that the core surf market is still relatively small. Huge surf brands only get so big by selling also to non-
PHOTOGRAPHY: CORBIS BILD:
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Ut aut laut ut magnam, ipsae officius, aut quiatur, tem reiciae nobis et lant rem Kolohe Andino with a nice a air in San Onofre, California
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PHOTOGRAPHY: BRIAN BIELMANN/RED BULL CONTENT POOL
surfers at urban flagships and landlocked department stores. Of late, their wares just haven’t been selling like they need to. The global economic downturn 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 progress to the next level. All this has been bad news for mid-level pros, who are an easy expense to cut, but it puts a premium on surfing’s one per cent – true icons who can push a product. Surfers like Wilson, Andino and Florence, who are “their own media marketing machines”.
n a trip to Japan in 2007, Julian 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 landed clean and rode out. Wilson named this the Sushi Roll. Footage soon spread across the surf world. The most remarkable thing about the brand-new move was the way news of it broke online. Through photos and YouTube, it became an overnight high-water mark for
BORN March 22, 1994 HOMETOWN San Clemente, California, USA POP POPS UP Andino’s father, Dino, was a pro surfer in the 1980s and ’90s; he won a US Championship in 1990 and was named ASP Rookie of the Year in 1991. AND MOM TOO Kolohe’s nickname, Brother, is simply how his parents referred to him after his younger sister was born. Eighteen years later the name has stuck. Twitter
T H E N E W B R AT PAC K progressive surfing. This was an early glimpse of the new generation of surfing’s radically technical brand of surfing, captured and shared with equally radical ease – and this was six years ago. Since then, technology has only cranked up the model, bringing things faster, freer, in higher quality. A ride or even a whole contest can be beamed to fans before the surfers’ hair is dry. Cheap equipment and social media websites 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 features in Done, the short film Florence released online last year, showcasing his best surfing over several months, and 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 cameraman. Wilson and Andino have dedicated personal cameramen on call. In the last few years, both have created blogs stocked with unseen footage that’s only days old when it is published. Never before have surf fans had this kind of access to the best surfing, and never has the best surfing been this good.
Wilson and Andino have dedicated cameramen on call. In the last few years, both have created blogs stocked with unseen footage “There’s a bigger audience following surfing now than ever since I started,” says Wilson, “definitely in the last eight or 10 years. Back in Australia, it’s becoming a lot more mainstream. It’s on TV. And it was pretty startling last year during US 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.” There Wilson hits the most crucial point of all: the new order, his new order, is on display at the ASP World Tour, and at events
like this month’s US Open Of Surfing, a week-long contest set to bring millions of visitors to Huntington Beach, California. The best surfing isn’t only found in blogs and magazines, but in competitions, on a global stage, with the ASP juggernaut pumping it out to new eyes. “The athletes are increasingly concerned with putting on an excellent show,” adds Gabriel Medina. “That captivates the audience and brings new fans.” Thanks to a deal the ASP struck late last year, surf contests will be ready for their close-up in 2014.
n October 2012, a new company called ZoSea Media acquired all media rights to the ASP tour, announcing plans to renovate and expand the brand. For the first time, a single group – spearheaded by veterans of MTV, Time Inc and the NFL – will produce and broadcast surf contests. The plans are set to turn surfing into a real spectator sport that is easy to find and follow beyond the confines of the coast – a sort of Holy Grail that has been elusive in the past.
T H E N E W B R AT PAC K “Now it’s just accessibility – that’s the biggest issue,” says Peter Jasienski, whose company holds the licence to one of the tour’s long-standing 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 its 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 as well as how it all works, I think you could captivate a huge audience.” A huge audience leads to huge advertising revenues. ZoSea’s makeover will take the pressure off struggling surf brands, which now pay more than US$2 million a pop to sponsor major ASP events. Instead, ZoSea hopes, high-profile mainstream
Live surfing on TV? It’s just too unpredictable – the waves, getting the time windows and stuff brands will enter the space with their sizeable mainstream budgets, and then the sky’s the limit. In June this year, Wilson, Andino, Florence and the rest of today’s top surfers are on Tavarua Island for the Volcom Fĳi Pro. The event brieﬂy disappeared from the ASP Tour in 2009 for lack of sponsor support, but if things go well in the coming years, it won’t happen again. If things go really well, a million households will see Wilson doing Sushi Rolls on ESPN and no one will bat an eye – it’ll just belong there.
hat’s the vision, anyway. A sport in transition, out from the shadows and into primetime. A new generation with the star power to take it there. A passionate fanbase so much bigger than just those who visit the beach, just waiting for its opportunity to get engaged. Now is the moment to care about surfing. It’s time to get on board.