The New Normal: Super Agent Blair Marlin On The State of Surf And Catching Coronavirus
"2020 has sadly proven to be the most devastating time for the surf industry in my lifetime."
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone with a more unique and valuable perspective, as far as the surf industry and Coronavirus goes, than Super Agent Blair Marlin, who unfortunately for Stab keeps a famously low-profile and is not one for publicity or soap boxes.
For the last fifteen years, Blair’s managed everyone from Andy and Bruce Irons to Dane Reynolds and Eithan Osborne. While his nearly unrivaled access to the inner workings of athlete’s contracts means there’s always information Stab wants that Blair understandably ain’t giving, we were thrilled when he agreed to do this interview, which actually was done over two nights, a week apart, first when the stay-at-home order locked Southern California down, and second after we got the news that Blair, who had self-isolated with his family in a small mountain town in Idaho, was battling Coronavirus.
Let’s start there before we get into the weeds.
Stab: So when we first talked a week or so ago, you were settling into isolation up in the mountains, trying to make sense of all this, and now you’re battling Coronavirus in one of the densest concentrations in America. Walk us through your last ten days.
Blair Marlin: I operate well in panic-situations for the most part. But this has been different. As soon as my office in Carlsbad announced it was going to be shut down for an undetermined amount of time, I was on the road within 2 hours with a packed truck heading up to Sun Valley Idaho to be close to my son who lives there. Seemed like if something like this is going to happen, the best place to be is a remote ski town about the size of Cardiff, nestled in a little valley in America's middle.
Upon arrival, the family and I made a game plan to quarantine amongst the six of us. Within three days of me being here, it was announced on the news that this little county where I was located, well within middle America, made top-4 on the charts in the USA of infected persons per capita.
My son’s grandma came down with a fever first and went to get tested. The following day my son’s mom, who had been feeling sick for over a week, decided she would go and get tested, too. That’s when my son started to get a cold and he was able to shake it in about 4 days.
Here in Sun Valley, unlike California, it’s easy to get tested, but the rules are that you only get one per household. They say that if one of you has it you all can count on having it. The toughest part is that results don't come back for over a week.
Meanwhile, I had been feeling a tight chest for over a week but felt great otherwise. My son’s grandma and I had been working out on cardio machines next to each other prior to getting sick and I figured eventually one of us was going to get it from the grocery store or something.
Fast forward to four nights ago: I had just eaten dinner and started to feel some crazy aches in my body. Aches that went deep to the bone, all through my legs, hips, butt, and back. Felt like I had run a marathon and I couldn't figure out what I could be sore from.
Along with that came a super mild cold. I went to bed early thinking that some good sleep would make things better. Well, it didn’t and the following day I woke up feeling the same symptoms. By mid-day my son’s grandma called me to let me know her results finally came in and they were positive and told me that someone from the county would be contacting me based on me being in close contact.
My son’s mother’s results came back the following day with the same outcome: positive.
So now, I’m four days into this really strange but mild feeling sickness, and fortunately a fever and cough haven’t shown up yet. Now my son’s grandpa is sick to complete our entire quarantine circle. He does have a cough and because he’s had some prior lung issues we all are keeping a close eye on his condition.
I am not trying to paint a horror story here because everyone who has been sick in my camp or is sick now is doing ok at the moment, and for me personally, I can say with those symptoms mentioned, I am feeling like this is probably a 3 for me on a 1-10 scale of being sick. I consider myself very lucky as of now, with multiple people being heli’d to larger hospitals daily from where I am and all of the other tragic cases that are continuing to rise across the globe.
Did you know anyone before you left up there who had it or has it?
Before I got it I didn’t know anyone personally who had it, so I’m hoping this gives a little hope to those of you who, like me, have been glued to the news and wondering how it might affect you or your family.
How has your thinking changed around this since Snapper got canceled and businesses shut down?
Nevermind Snapper, or the business, the whole world has changed and I have no choice but to change my thinking with it.
I’m speaking to the sponsors and athletes daily to get any kind of updates I can of things going on in the industry.
I am doing all I can to make sure my athletes go above and beyond what their sponsorship expectations are. It’s a fine line to walk, though. With the amount of people sick, losing their jobs, kids to occupy at home, stressed to the fullest about losing everything, we need to keep everything in perspective. It’s very real, very scary, and very much not the time for a “go buy” this or that post.
I am just trying to encourage these athletes to speak to their following and communicate with them and the brands through social. A lot of brands are reaching out and making some of their athletes accessible in live feeds or chat rooms, and some of these athletes are also jumping onboard with different charitable causes to help feed or house the less fortunate or lend help in any way possible to the frontline workers at the hospitals.
I saw Olukai did a giveaway today of shoes to any frontline hospital workers who signed up for it on their site. I thought that was beautifully executed by a brand and creative giveaways like that get reposted by not only ambassadors but also the general public.
Sadly, not every brand at this time can afford to be giving away product, let alone employ someone to ship that product out. With where we are in this pandemic and the time we have ahead of us to be in lockdown, I am looking forward to seeing how clever and creative both athletes, celebs, and brands will get—and I’m not talking about just in surf.
Can you talk about the actions brands are taking as they pertain to athletes in general? Are most brands sort of following each other’s lead?
Every call I have had with the brands has been very different.
Before you ask, no I’m not going to answer any kind of “Gossip Girl” type questions regarding contracts or payments.
The fact is that most of these brands are not bringing in a dime, and haven’t been for a little while. They have staff and operating costs. Athletes might be the first ones that your readers think about, but you gotta take a step back and realize that these global brands have massive buildings that are filled with hard-working talented folks in accounting, sales, marketing, design etc.
If the world is in lockdown, retail is shut and for some of these businesses, their shipping facilities aren’t even allowed to open. So, unless you have some giant vault of cash sitting around to float these costs for this undetermined amount of time on lockdown, without any return on investment, you have some serious decisions to make.
To answer your specific question though, most brands are approaching this situation differently as it pertains to athletes. There isn’t a person in this entire industry that won’t be impacted in some way, and sacrifices will need to be made. I have a ton of respect for the executives at some of these brands who are being forced into making the tough decisions in the best interest of the business. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they aren’t affected by this either. This impacts them tremendously and they are also responsible for letting go or furloughing their friends/co-workers that they are used to spending more time with than their own families.
What I have seen throughout my discussions with a few brands is that everyone involved is on the same page: wanting to do whatever they can to make sure each and every one of these brands is still standing tall once we are through this tragic situation.
I feel like the realness of the situation has silenced a lot of the humming and hawing over Snapper being cancelled, etc. That event feels like a distant memory right now.
It's so ironic that Tom Hanks got sick on the Gold Coast and went to a hospital there. That was the craziest thing. You don't fuck with Tom Hanks. He's never done a thing wrong. Just global perfection and here he is the first person we were given that we could actually follow his progress with the virus.
I think the WSL did a really good job too, by the way. They could have called it off even earlier than they did but that was a huge decision and I think they handled it well. That must have been so hard not knowing. I mean look what happened to you guys with Stab High. Brutal timing!
Ok, what do you think the average pay cut is going to be for athletes until the ship rights itself?
You can talk to your friend Gossip Girl about that one.
Come on! Ok, well. You’re privy to a lot of the back-end of these larger brands that are seeing layoffs and furloughs and contract negotiations. What’s this gonna do to the surf industry?
I think some brands were walking on fairly thin ice prior to this even happening. It’s no secret most of our industry has been struggling, is it? Combine those struggles with an event like this, that is really hard to plan for, and it becomes a pretty dire situation.
What is it going to do to our industry, you ask? I wish I knew that answer and had a timeline to it. I am confident that the big brands will mostly all come through this and ideally get most of those furloughed folks back to work in the coming few months.
But I wouldn’t be surprised to see quite a few smaller brands popping up as a result of some very creative, talented people having the free time to work on their own brand right now, putting all the knowledge and contacts they received after years at some of these big brands to use. That’s got me pretty excited...
Does this feel like the most significant historical event that you've ever like lived through industry-wise?
I got in the industry in 1999 starting at Transworld Surf, before quickly moving to DC in 2001. I remember walking into Ken Block's office and saying: “Hey, I want to go take the surf team to Indo on a boat trip for $50k. Plane tickets will probably cost another $20k.” No questions asked back, no paperwork to fill out, he was just like, “Yeah, sweet”.
That was a skate and shoe brand that sponsored a few surfers, so you can imagine what life was like at a surf brand like Volcom back in the day. They had money to burn making movies and putting on massive premieres. It was just a different time that I really wish some of my younger athletes could have experienced.
In 2006, I started managing athletes at Wasserman and brands were still very strong financially for close to ten years after that. I honestly didn't think it could get any worse than what it was in late 2018. Then in 2019 it got even more challenging. Now 2020 has sadly proven to be the most devastating time for the surf industry in my lifetime.
Talk to me about the future of the sport, Olympics, etc. in the face of all this.
I don't know what the Olympics necessarily will do for surfing in 2021. I am praying, for the sport’s sake, that they get at least some kind of swell for the athletes to showcase their abilities in Chiba. I hope to be proven wrong, but I don't imagine that it will move the needle too much.
No matter what happens in 2021, knowing that in 2024 it is at Teahupoo, in a prime swell window, might possibly make for the most exciting Olympic event ever though. Hearing that Tokyo might be canceled, I can’t lie, I wasn’t too sad about it, knowing how important first impressions can be.
You're not the first person to bring that up. Because I felt like an asshole seeing that silver lining in the fact of it potentially being canceled, but I was like, am I the only person who feels this way? All the surfers have to feel that way.
If anyone doesn't agree, I would love to hear their argument otherwise.
The other hope for the future, which goes along with some of the stuff that you guys are doing with Stab High are these wave pools.
These brands obviously have done a great job on the coasts telling their story, but there is a massive portion of the world that is landlocked that has never been introduced to surfing or has any idea of who John John is. A majority of these consumers currently go to get their boardshorts or bikinis at the Hollister store in the mall, because that’s where they see a guy and girl holding surfboards in the store window.
That's where I see the largest opportunity for the brands in the coming years.
I have way too much to say on the topic of these pools and am a huge fan of them obviously, so I’m going to stop here. What do you got next?
What do you think happens to the WSL long-term if this year doesn't happen?
I have so much faith in what those guys are trying to do in growing the sport. Erik Logan and Pat O'Connell are a solid team. Eric takes a lot of heat from those who just want to hate but the man is sharp and proactive and like it or not, he is seeing the way of the world and making calls knowing that content is key to growing the profile of not only the sport, but the athletes involved. It would be a tragedy to see the tour not happen this year but I do have confidence that those guys have some content ideas in the works that could hopefully satisfy a bit of our craving until 2021. I am sure some reading this are going to hate on the "Ultimate Surfer" program that they are looking to do on ABC, but I'm also guessing most of you will probably watch it. The fact is, they aren't making this show for you or me, they are making it for everyone else. They are making it for those in middle America in hopes to attract and make a connection, and from that their son will want to be multi-talented like Eric Gieselmann and the daughter and all her friends will idolize and do everything they can to want to be like Coco Ho.
Do you think for the cheap-seat haters, watching the WSL get canceled and seeing these iconic brands struggle, that the reality of losing a lot of what we’ve taken for granted sort of takes the barbs out of their criticism, or does it validate it?
I struggle with anyone in life who brings me criticism without ideas of how to fix it. I'm open to all opinions. I might not agree with you but I respect somebody who brings something constructive to the table.
I'm all for shaking shit up as well. I've spoken to Sam [McIntosh] multiple times about it. I wish to God that Stab could work with WSL in some way. In the coming few years, as these developments with wave pools start to pop up more, I do believe Stab High could be the most amazing tour on the planet if given the opportunity to get some select top CT men and women involved along with some of the other competitors they have.
The issue lies in the fact that there's only a couple companies that are supporting surf events at all these days, and I think that those endemic ones have made it very clear of their allegiance to Stab. Sam's probably having to walk that line. But why can't there be two tours that could coexist with each other?
This Rebel Tour they're talking about in golf is going to be really interesting to see if it actually gets legs and gets off the ground. I brought it up with Erik Logan and asked how are they going to get it funded? You look at the PGA tour and it's sponsored by American Express, Visa, MasterCard, BMW, FED EX. How is this Rebel Tour going to get the sponsors? He said, Oh, it's already financed. They already have the sponsors for it ready to go. And I'm just like, okay. So there's enough sponsors for the PGA and for this other tour where the winners each weekend take home over $1,000,000 USD? CRAZY!!!
We need to get to a level where corporate companies like that are looking at surfing for more than just using a surfer in a commercial running to the water from their car. However we can't get there until we're on that grand scale of people being able to see and experience surfing and be true die-hard fans of the athletes like other sports. Random thought on athlete popularity: have you guys ever done the math on whether Gabriel has a larger following than the WSL and all the males on the CT tour combined? It’s gotta be fairly close I’m guessing. Sorry, my mind wandered there for a second.
Is this craziest event that's happened that’s affected your job?
Up to this point, Andy passing and Quiksilver filing for bankruptcy were the two darkest days, in that order, that I can remember in my 15 years of doing this job. We aren’t through this yet and yes things are grim as hell at the moment and potentially only to get worse, so this will definitely rank 2nd, but that’s as far as I am willing to let it go. Like everyone else, I really look forward to hearing some news of positivity soon. We need it so badly right now!