Spring Swell: Brands put money over surf culture

There’s something irresistible about donning a brand that you love. It is not as irresistible to reveal that you bought a certain product from a brand because of one of its sponsors, a polarizing concept in surfing. Do you want to be that guy that’s just parked at the beach in a Red Bull hat, Buell wetsuit and Catch Surf foamie that screams “I subscribe to Jamie O’Brien on YouTube?” Maybe you do, and companies are even more mindful of it these days.

If I had the energy to draw a Venn diagram of what sponsorship looks like in the surfing world, here’s what it might look like: You’ve got your Jamie O’Briens that work off of a vlog or other video content, bringing in GoPro and some CBD brands that complement the noncompetitive but talented freesurfer persona. You’ve got John Florence, who left a $30 million dollar contract with Hurley after Nike sold the company to brand dismantler Bluestar Alliance in Dec. 2019, to start his own line of swimwear while retaining the sponsorship of more practical brands like Nixon and Yeti. Not the last category but definitely one of the biggest is your longboarders, whose main sponsor might be Bing or Donald Takayama surfboards with an eco-friendly company and a casual clothes agreement to match. 

Not everyone fits in these categories. Kelly Slater left Quiksilver in April 2014, the first to have the advertising spot on the nose of his board free and clear of brand stickers. On the other side of the spectrum, Japanese superstar Kanoa Igarashi gets paid the big bucks from partnerships ranging from the Kinoshita Group to Visa. 

There’s a lot of corporations and small businesses that are investing into surfing, even though some of the best surfers in the world aren’t part of one of the coveted Quiksilver, Rip Curl or Billabong brands. It makes sense — surfing can be an incredibly expensive sport when it comes down to it, and for many surfers, it is their livelihood. 

So should we buy into it? Besides maybe a board sponsor, there’s something peculiar in being interested in a brand just because it picked up a seemingly random 17-year-old phenom at the beginning stages of their career, especially when you don’t even drink Monster or wear Oakley sunglasses in the first place. 

Whatever you feel when you see the stickers or logos is a product of the digital age itself. There are very few surfers who do not have a regular filmer that uploads edits of GoPro compilations that almost beg you to look at them. It’s branding in and of itself, marketing yourself as that surfer who should be the face of the brand, or someone that should at least be associated with it for whoever ends up seeing it on social media and the internet. 

There’s always going to be the concern that the sport is getting too commodified, or it is becoming too focused on image rather than talent or spirit. It’s happened with every “spiritual” sport, with skateboarding having maybe the most public debate as of recently.

But it’s also important to evaluate sponsors or companies not just in terms of how they position their partners but how they might work to exacerbate barriers to entry in the sport. This can take many forms, whether it be jacking up the price of gear to obscene levels, neglecting conservation efforts that the sport should beget or closing down beaches so that the pros can surf and the locals can’t. These practices presage the sport warping toward business rather than pleasure.

Is it true, as the writers at Stab Magazine recently wrote, that “the decisions that these brands — and most importantly, their new owners — make, shape surf culture as we know it?” Not if you work against the consequences.

Lauren Mattice is a senior writing about surfing. She is also the digital managing editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Spring Swell,” runs every other Monday.