The Surf Biz Is Nothing If Not Interesting
On the evolution of the big brand team roster.
Bumping down the rutted dirt road out of San Jose Del Cabo, Dino Andino pulls off to check a little nook and cranny. Whitewater gurgles around a small reef outcropping.
“Archy and I scored right here one time,” he reminisces.
A prepubescent Kolohe rolls his eyes in the backseat. He’s heard it before. An oversized Red Bull hat sits backwards on his head.
It’s 2009. The trip’s part of a Red Bull project with Andy Irons, Ian Walsh, and Kolohe. We were supposed to go to Barra, but the weather has other plans. Guided by the late, great Surfline founder, Sean Collins, we end up on the East Cape.
At this point in his young career, Kolohe’s facing the decision to resign with Billabong or jump ship to the newly formed Nike 6.0 surf team. Dino’s struggling with the issue: leave a core surf brand, or roll the dice and go mainstream.
At the moment, Kolohe’s the next big thing in surfing, bigger than John John. It seems like the sky’s the limit, and with Nike looking to run surf ads during the NBA Finals, the upside for the little rascal could be huge. I tell him there’s potentially a huge upside to signing with the sportswear behemoth. It’s the kind of opportunity that could set him up for life.
“Surf marketing’s not fair,” laments Dino. “There are so many good surfers out there. But I guess you have to take advantage of the opportunities when you have them.”
But then, shit, life’s not fair. When it comes to inking contracts, it all comes down to who moves the needle, “it” factor, who directly influences brand interest, engagement, and ultimately, sales. Bruce moved the needle fronting Volcom. Kelly carried Quik. Andy’s Rising Sun trunks were a runaway smash hit for Bong.
A lot’s changed since that trip to Cabo. For one, sadly, Andy and Sean left us way too early. Then the bottom fell out of the surf industry and it’s never fully come back. In 2017, the arms race to build the most badass, needle-moving surf team sort of feels like an antiquated idea.
Or has that concept just morphed into something more millennial? A survey of the top surf brand’s current rosters would indicate that they’re putting as much emphasis on personality as they are success in a jersey.
Maybe people don’t necessarily identify themselves strictly as “surfers” anymore. Surfing is something they do, but they also go fishing, snowboarding, dosing acid at festivals, flaring up the Traeger Grill and all that other stuff that works its way into their Instagram and Snapchat feeds. So, when it comes to building a surf team, which is essentially just a marketing device, it makes sense for brands to cater to a wider array of sensibilities.
But even the biggest companies have to watch what they spend. That’s hit the bottom feeders—the local pros, QS grinders and aspiring “free surfers”—the hardest.
“I couldn’t believe how many good surfers there were on the QS without stickers on their boards,” said a somewhat stunned Jake Marshall in a recent interview with Stab.
The big brands still have their prized racehorses. Hurley’s deeply financially invested in John John, who’s reportedly locked in through 2024. Thoroughbreds like Julian Wilson, Kolohe Andino and Filipe Toledo are right there with him. Gabriel Medina will be repping Rip Curl through 2021. Mick Fanning, Matty Wilkinson, Owen Wright, and Conner Coffin round out their tour offering.
After losing Kelly then Dane in the early twenty-tens, Quik’s retooled with a more international approach. Missing a World Champ from their men’s roster, Jeremy Flores, Zeke Lau, Kanoa Igarashi, Connor O’Leary and Leo Fioravanti still comprise a solid core of tour surfers. Meanwhile, Billabong’s sticking with Parko until he decides he’s had enough. Other than that, Italo Ferreira is their workhorse while Jack Freestone is off tour and in baby heaven on Kauai with Alana.
Then there are the “vibe guys” for consumers that can’t wrap their head around why competitive surfing is cool. RVCA owns this department. You can’t go wrong with a triad of Fletchers. Herb, Christian and Greyson bring roots and authenticity that’s probably impossible to find in any other three-generation combo. Al Knost, Bruce Irons, Dustin Barca, Curren Caples, Jay Davies, Luke Davis, they’re well stocked in the personality department. And with Kai Borg and the Sunset Beach Jujitsu connection, Pat Tenore and team are making surfing rad again.
This is also Volcom’s strength. Anchored by Noa Deane and Ryan Burch, ancillary players like Mitch Coleborn, Yago Dora and Balaram Stack add an extra little bit of spice to the anti-establishment enchilada. Rip Curl’s one-two combo of Mason Ho and Tom Curren is a well-played strategy blending irreverence and street cred. Bong’s got Creed McTaggart, Tyler Warren, and Donavon Frankenreiter. Quik’s got Mikey Wright. For Vans, the Gudauskas boys bring the stoke. Dane brings the spice, Joel Tudor and Nate Fletcher the salt and pepper.
The battle for the next generation’s hearts and minds hasn’t been an easy one. Bong hit the jackpot with Griffin Colapinto. There’s a lot of chatter out there right now about how well he’s going to do on tour—big things are in store for San Clemente’s next all-star—while Jack Robinson and the Moniz boys wait in the wings. Jesse Mendes and Michael February anchor Quik’s Young Gun squad. Given Hurley’s depth on the top-tier, they’re a bit light in this department, though Eli Hanneman might just be their next best investment since doubling down on double-John.
Women’s surfing continues to be a conundrum. Does the savvy marketer go with the top-tier athlete or a young lady that dazzles in a two-piece? RVCA scored a coup d’etat signing Sage Erickson last year, a winner no matter how you slice it. Hurley’s reportedly working on holding onto Carissa Moore for the next seven years. Bong’s still all-in on Courtney Conlogue, Quik would be over the moon if Steph Gilmore won another title, and it would appear Rip Curl’s plenty satisfied with Tyler Wright’s recent run.
It’s a new year. Contracts will be signed, contracts will be terminated, surf marketing and building the ultimate surf team may not be fair, but it certainly is interesting.
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