The painful truth of Silvana Lima's Sponsorship Struggle
Words by Jed Smith | All surf photos by WSL
As a child growing up in a beachside shack, Silvana Lima could only dream of one day living in a real house. It was much the same in the water, where she first started surfing on a wooden plank, dreaming of one day riding a real board. She's achieved both today, having surfed her way from that plank to eight Brazilian national titles, two world title runner-ups, and the unofficial title of Brazil's greatest-ever female surfer. The contest winnings she accumulated along the way helped her buy that dream home for her and her family. No thanks to the surf industry, however, which she claims shunned her because she was not beautiful, "like a model."
"I don't look like a model,” Lima told the BBC in a recent video series. “I’m not a babe. I'm a surfer, a professional one.”
“The surfwear brands, when it comes to women, they want both models and surfers,” Silvana continued. “So if you don’t look like a model, you end up without a sponsor, which is what happened to me.” It's an issue she sees as exclusive to women: “You’re excluded, you’re disposable. Men don't have this problem.”
Her claims are disputed by many within the surf industry, including one marketing heavyweight, whose job it is to control the budget of one of the world's biggest surf brands. He asked to remained nameless to protect his job.
"You can point to a lot of cases of attractive female surfers being in the same predicament as Silvana Lima," he says. “I think it has a lot more do with age and relevance to the young consumer than purely looks.”
Silvana was once featured in Billabong advertising campaigns, back when she was the most progressive female surfer in the world. Then, "other girls caught up to her, she got hurt, and it sort of went that way (she lost her industry support)," the marketing manager points out. Silvana is now competing on the second tier World Qualifying Series in a bid to resurrect her World Tour career. There remains some truth to her claims, however – particularly when it comes to the relationship between beauty and marketability.
"Let's be honest, if you're looking at variables for sponsoring an athlete, looks come into play," says the marketing manager. "But that's both for males and females. We talk about it all the time, sometimes (not looking like a model) makes it a little more difficult to be marketed. If you're looking to be on a billboard unfortunately that is going to come into play to some degree.”
If you're looking for a pattern of world-beating surfers who are incredibly good-looking, it's not there. As the marketing executive points out, neither Tyler Wright nor Carissa Moore are "the skinny g-string girl”, yet both are fully supported by the industry and top of the World Tour. Glamorous, lesser-talented surfers, like Sage Erickson, meanwhile, can also struggle for industry support: Sage launched and now represents her own label, rather than having major endorsement.
The million dollar question is how brands decide who is and isn't worth throwing money at. There are a number of elements to it, says the marketing manager.
"First, you’ve gotta understand what your brand DNA is and how the athlete lines up with that… Brands don't have to offer athletes anything because they are good athletes or good performers. It's about brands deciding what's gonna work for the story they're trying to tell," he says.
"Hypothetically, John John Florence has so many things he stands for, from his spontaneity, to doing things differently and being a humble guy who flies under the radar but is super focused on pushing the sport forward," he says.
"Step two, if you have an athlete that matches well with the brand DNA then you dive into their own brand as a surfer, what fan base they have, how much interactivity and engagement that athlete has. Old school ways of figuring this out was how many people rolled up at a signing booth for this dude. Now you look at their social (media) profile, what they're doing with that medium, how many people are engaging with their posts, commenting and what not," he says, adding:
"It's far easier to figure out an athlete’s value now 'cause you have real metrics behind it, whereas in the past you had a lot of conjecture. You look at the numbers and they really do support the idea: the highest engagement rate sells the most product. There is a total correlation there," he says.
But social media metrics can also be distorted. Especially by things like beauty. There is an entire industry dedicated to selling unattainable beauty and lifestyles on platforms like Instagram.
"You’re really looking at the qualitative component of social media," contends the marketing manager, "so you get an idea of who their fan is and why they are actually getting behind them, versus someone like (model-pro-surfer) Alana (Blanchard), who arguably does sell product because she does have such a presence, but a lot of other girls have an inflated number of followers and probably don't sell that much product.”
Could there be other factors at play? Like the fact Silvana Lima is Brazilian, whereas many of the founding surf companies hail from the United States and Australia? Are Brazilian surfers less of a fit with the brand identity, legacy and DNA of companies born out of such alternative cultural environments?
Five to 10 years ago, when Silvana was at the peak of her powers, there did tend to be a prejudice toward sponsoring Brazilian surfers, admits the marketing exec:
"But in the last five years that's been broken wide open. The WSL has helped create a true global surf fan where in the past it was far more regional," he says, adding, "personal qualities and how they approach riding a wave play much more into it then just strictly, oh, that guy's from Brazil that's not our key market or whatever."
Was Silvana Lima facing a double whammy then, in being Brazilian and female, in an industry dominated by males and anglophiles?
"You could say that was 100% true maybe even five years ago," he says. “But some of these brands are owned by larger corporations now, so the whole male-centric thing doesn't fly in those circles. If you're making decisions on old boy rules, there's so many more checkpoints now.”
"My boss is a woman! So I don't feel like that point is as valid as it might have been in the past.”