Big Names and Bigger Money: Why are Sally, Kanoa, Kolohe, and Griff going to HB? - Stab Mag
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Kanoa Igarashi wants to upgrade his silverware. Photo: Pablo Jimenez

Big Names and Bigger Money: Why are Sally, Kanoa, Kolohe, and Griff going to HB?

With Olympic qualification and millions in endorsement cash on the line, the journey to Paris 2024 starts here.

news // Sep 16, 2022
Words by Christian Bowcutt
Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” wrote the old poet Horace. 

“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.” 

Or as the ISA likes to say, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria surf.”

Tomorrow, some of the biggest names in surfing will arrive in Huntington Beach, California. 

But why? 

Steph and Filipe have been crowned, and the sunscreen fumes have long since dissipated from the Vans US Open. At this point, you’d think the world’s best would be running home for a few months of respite after a long CT season. 

Instead, many of them are flying (hopefully not on United) to HB, along with surfers from over 50 countries, including unlikely candidates like Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland, who are all striving to hop their way to glory at the ISA World Surfing Games. 

Unfortunately, it looks like reigning Olympic Gold Medalist and 2019 World Champion Italo Ferreira will likely not be in the draw due to a foot injury. But fret not, there are still a lot of big names here, including WSL Finalist Kanoa Igarashi, the 2022 WSL Rookie of the Year (Samuel Pupo) several long-time CT vets (Sally, Kolohe, Griff, Miguel, etc.), and some explosive young talent (Erin Brooks).

For top surfers, the relevance of the ISA Games is two-fold:
1. Help their team get a first-ever 3rd Olympic spot.
2. Money––in the form of titanic Olympic-related endorsement deals (Picture a puka-shell clad Italo on your Wheaties box.)

Don’t worry, Italo Ferreira will have other chances to qualify for the Paris Olympics. Photo: REUTERS/Olivier Morin

In a bid to ensure attendance from CT surfers at the ISA World Surfing Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is granting a coveted third slot to the men’s and women’s teams who earn the highest heat totals over all of the qualifying events leading up to the 2024 Olympic games. The implications are obvious: one more surfer equals a greater shot at the podium––and a buffer–– for the country that wins it. For example, a third surfer in the roster helps a country mitigate the damage of a potential situation like the awkward fratricide that was the John John-Kolohe match-up.

Friendly-fire as Kolohe knocks out John in Tokyo. Photo: Associated Press

So, what are the qualifying events leading up to Olympic competition at Teahupo’o? Well, it’s complicated:

  1. This week’s ISA World Surfing Games at old faithful, Huntington Beach.
  2. The 2023 WSL Championship Tour 
  3. 2023 ISA World Surfing Games (Location TBD)
  4. 2023 Pan American Games (Chile)
  5. 2024 ISA World Surfing Games (Location TBD)

That means that the march of  4,117 miles to our formidable friend, Chopes, begins this week at our less-than-threatening, vertically challenged ally, HB. 

But there is another–– sneakier, shinier, savvier–– motive, far from pure patriotic devotion, underlying these surfers donning of their country’s colors in HB this week. And it does much to explain the recent practice of surfers cleverly joining teams in countries where the surfers themselves formerly have never resided in. This motive–– as you’ve likely already gleaned–– is money. 

The Olympics is a carnivalesque orgy of money-making. And surfers are cashing out on it. In a 2019 interview with Kanoa, leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, we learned that he was already “way past last year’s two million dollar figure, mostly because of endorsement deals related to the Olympics”. In countries like Japan, where surfing is exploding in popularity (Surfline’s traffic in Japan is up 22% since 2017) it makes sense for brands to throw proverbial duffel bags of cash at surfers who are representing that country. And with countries like China entering the surfing arena, the potential for commercial exploitation is limitless, and the temptation for surfers to jump ship and join China’s team will only grow, as we saw with the iconic Peter Townsend joining China’s team as head coach.

Kanoa en route to nationalistic glory (and fame and fortune). Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

And thanks to an ingenious marketing ploy from Billabong and Timmy Patterson, that involved diving through a small legal loophole in the Olympic rulebook to allow both a Billabong and T. Patterson sticker a spot on Italo’s board, these companies were able to ride Italo’s lightning-quick coattails to glory. Such visibility prompted fashion magazines like InStyle to declare an ushering-in of  a “Billabong Renaissance” with Ferreira as our Red Bull-chugging Da Vinci. 

Not to mention the fact that many National Olympic Committees (NOCs) are now incentivizing their athletes through podium bonuses. U.S. athletes are now getting paid up to $250,000 for a Gold Medal. 

But if we’ve learned anything from How Surfers Get Paid, it’s that the pie of surf-derived riches is only yielding smaller and smaller slices for each surfer nowadays. It’s no time to be a snob. Being adopted to an obscure country’s Olympic team opens up incredibly lucrative opportunities that will allow surfers to continue doing what they love. This week’s ISA World Surfing Games is the first step to those opportunities. And that’s at least one reason why top-tier CT surfers are landing in HB this week and at least partly why surfers who grew up in America are seeking team membership elsewhere. And can we blame them?

Team Canada is betting on Hawaii resident Erin Brooks to launch airs like this at HB. Photo: Ripcurl

The 2022 ISA World Surfing Games will be broadcasted live on the Olympics Surfing Youtube Channel.

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