Eye of the Targaryen. Photo: WSL
How Kanoa Igarashi Became One Of The World's Most Famous And Highest Grossing Surfers
The Stab Interview, with Kanoa Igarashi.
You probably watched as Kanoa Igarashi—aged 21 and sporting a bleached yellow mop—earned his first Championship Tour victory last week at Keramas.
Kanoa’s surfing was sharp and precise throughout the event, showing no signs of hesitation as he attacked each gurgling section. His post-wave claims were comedic and theatrical. Kanoa’s treatment of the 11x World Champion, Kelly Slater, whom he defeated in the semifinal, was playfully arrogant.
“I'm gonna make Kelly fight for it,” Kanoa said, prior to their heat. “I wanna talk trash to him. I want him to trash talk me. I want him to play mind games with me. I want to experience it all. But I’m gonna try to smoke him.”
Kanoa did smoke him. Then he beat Jeremy Flores in the final, resulting in a fit of screaming, face-punching, board-slapping, and a condemnation of all the “haters”.
To avoid confusion, all of that was Kanoa’s reaction—not Jeremy’s. Naturally, critics had much to say about the winner’s “antics”, but it didn't seem to bother Kanoa. It just fueled the fire.
Surfing's greatest chair-lift.
Kanoa’s coach, former CT-winner Jake ‘The Snake’ Paterson, recently described his pupil as a "ninja-assassin" and noted a remarkable improvement in his performance over the past couple years. Kanoa finished 10th on the Championship Tour in 2018 and now finds himself at number two in the world, fully entrenched in his first World Title race.
Another indicator of Kanoa’s rapid ascension: he made his first appearance on Stab’s Rich List in 2018, which marked the then-20-year-old as the seventh-highest paid surfer in the world, usurping powerhouses like 7x World Champion Stephanie Gilmore; all-board, all-wave master Kai Lenny; and perennial World Title contender Jordy Smith.
However, it could be argued that neither Kanoa’s CT ranking (10th in 2018, second as of late-May, 2019) nor his perceived cultural capital (Kanoa has less than 200k Instagram followers and was the 70th most popular surfer on Stab’s 2018 reader survey) justify the income in relation to his peers.
So, how is it that Kanoa pulled in nearly $2M in 2018? And how does he expect to make even more this year?
One word: Japan
Kanoa returns to the adoring fans of his (new) home nation.
The land of the rising sun is one of the wealthiest, most commercially developed nations on earth, and the Japanese public finds immense value in athletics. As a result, so do the nation’s top brands, who in turn sponsor Japan's finest athletes.
An example: tennis star Kei Nishikori is the sixth-ranked male singles player (tennis) in the world. However, he commands more endorsement money than all but one of his peers (think: Federer).
How is this possible?
Beyond his tournament earnings, the majority of Kei’s funding comes from distinctly Japanese brands, the most generous of which is the Nissin Group, known to westerners as Cup Noodle.
Nishikori also receives endorsements from a Japanese construction company, a credit service, a soft drink co., an airline, a telephone co., and even a TV station. While these partnerships may seem odd for a tennis star, they’re par for the course in Japan’s sporting society.
As a Japanese athlete, if you’re good enough to “make it” on an international level, you can scrape the big bucks from any (and every) Japanese national market sector.
Nishikori makes multi-millions from the Cup Noodle co.
Before the start of the 2018 Championship Tour season, Kanoa decided to switch his official WSL nationality from USA to Japan, making the following announcement via his Instagram:
Growing up in Huntington Beach and surfing through the amateur and professional systems here has made me who I am as a surfer. I have so much support and love from fans and sponsors here in the USA and America will always be part of who I am. I am very appreciative of all that I've been given and I want to thank everyone who has supported me on the way. The opportunity to represent Japan on the Championship Tour and potentially in the Olympics is a huge honor and one I am proud to accept. Being able to work with Asian countries as they develop their own unique surf cultures is a really exciting prospect for me and I'll take everything I have learned around the world, and definitely here in America, as I take on this new challenge.
Kanoa implied that the Olympics were a factor in his decision to swap nations, which makes a lot of sense. Based on the qualification system set in place by the ISA and IOC, only two male Americans will be eligible to compete in the 2020 Games, and those two spots will most likely come from the 2019 Championship Tour standings (assuming two Americans finish within the top 10).
In fairness to Kanoa, if Olympic qualifications were based on the 2018 CT standings (which they are not), Kanoa would have qualified whether he was from Japan or the USA, as he finished 10th overall with only one American (Conner Coffin) in front of him. However, that’s discounting John Florence and Kelly Slater, both of whom missed the majority of the 2018 season due to injury but have since found themselves in the current top 10 (John Florence is the only surfer ahead of Kanoa on the 2019 CT). Also not to be forgotten is Kolohe Andino, who finished just one spot behind Kanoa in 2018 and is currently number five on the CT.
Long story short, surfing for the USA creates uncertainty when it comes to earning an Olympic bid. However, for Kanoa, surfing for Japan equates to an Olympic guarantee.
CT ranking aside, Kanoa has Japan's Olympic slot in the bag.
As the host nation for the 2020 Olympics, Japan has been granted both a male and female slot into the surfing event, regardless of their athletes’ qualification statuses. Being the only Japanese surfer on the Tour, Kanoa has no direct competition for that slot. In other words, if Kanoa finishes in the CT top-10 again in 2019 (which looks likely), he’ll be guaranteed a spot in Tokyo 2020.
But even if he doesn’t, there’s a very good chance Japan would grant Kanoa that spot regardless, due to his past competitive achievements in relation to his compatriots.
Tokyo 2020 will be the first time surfing has ever been in the Olympics. That makes it a special event to be involved in from a historical sense, which is why Kelly Slater, the 47-year-old, 11x World Champion, is trying his damnedest to earn a slot before he officially retires from competitive surfing. But there’s more to the Olympics than just their historical relevance—there’s also a lot of money in those gold, silver, and bronze medals, and you don’t need to melt them down (or win one, for that matter) to collect it.
The Olympics are the most watched sporting event in the world, and with broad viewership comes the ability to broadly market products. This leads to Olympic athletes receiving up-sized endorsements to flaunt their brands’ logos on the main stage. And right now, Kanoa Igarashi has all but received his Japanese tracksuit for Tokyo 2020.
That’s why Kanoa’s bank account has been, and will continue to be, pumped by seemingly random Japanese companies—a miso soup company, a construction company, and allegedly even the Japanese government—for the next couple years.
Having heard rumors of his massive endorsement figures in 2019, we cornered Kanoa at the Rip Curl Pro Bells (prior to the Keramas victory) about his life, his business, and his aspirations to become an international superstar.
This is The Stab Interview with Kanoa Igarashi.
Wait till you hear these chubby cheeks speak!
Stab: Hey Kanoa! You made the switch from American to Japanese nationality last year, and we understand that was primarily an Olympics-based decision. Is that a fair assessment?
Kanoa Igarashi: Well, there are different aspects to it. My whole family's from there. All my Japanese fans have been like, "Come on. We need a Japanese flag on tour." And I feel a strong connection with Japanese culture.
I just felt like it was... not my duty, but I just felt like I wanted to have that responsibility of putting Japan on Tour. Then at the same time, I liked the idea of having that fairytale story of a Japanese kid, first ever one on Tour, and then having a spot guaranteed spot in the Olympics. For me, it was like the stars aligned. Olympics 2020 is in Tokyo, I'll be 22—it all made sense.
And it's not like I went over there because I didn't think I could qualify from the US or whatever. Even if I was surfing for the US, I would have qualified last year from my CT ranking. It was more that I wanted to be different, and I felt like it was a good way to represent my roots, my family, and at the same time differentiate myself from my peers.
But it’s gotta help to know that you’re guaranteed a slot in the Olympics, especially with the host nation. That’s part of the deal that you'd mocked up with the Japanese government when you decided to switch, right?
Yeah, I’m currently the only surfer guaranteed a spot in the 2020 Olympics. And whether I’m injured, whether I don’t have a leg, whether my neck gets broken, I’m still gonna surf.
Ahhh, you got your lawyers to draft the perfect document?
Yeah, and having that guarantee was something that released pressure in a way, but then it just put a thousand pounds of pressure on me at the same time.
There have been shows in Japan saying, "According to our fan vote, Kanoa has the highest probability to get a gold medal." So that puts these extra eyes on me that everyone's like, "Oh, he's Japan's best chance, let's put all our coins into him." Which is good, but at the same time it's like every move I make, they’re watching.
Kanoa has made himself a worthy investment in recent years.
You just used the phrase “putting all their coins into him,” which I realize was a euphemism, but at the same time, it’s clear that a lot of commercial opportunities have come from your Japanese and Olympic connections. Can you talk us through some of the sponsorships you've gained through these new avenues?
Well, yeah… the bulk of my pay comes from non-surf, Japanese companies. I have a lot of sponsors like Visa and Dior, who are not getting stickers on my board but are major contributors to my career. If I wanted, I could have 15 Japanese companies that you've never heard of on my board, and I could be making a lot more money from that. But at the same time, I don't want to be that guy that has all these random companies—like a miso soup company or whatever—on my board. At the end of the day, I want to keep my surfboard core with companies like Quiksilver, Red Bull, and Oakley.
But even beyond the stickers, my Japan deals are a little bit different from my endemic deals. Quiksilver is like my employer—I put the hat on, put some of their clothes on, get paid monthly, etc. But with a lot of these Japanese brands, I get hired for a specific campaign, so it’s like, "We’re going to give you a hundred grand to do this, bang!”
What does that work look like for you?
Last time I was in Japan, I was up every morning at 5:30 AM and coming home at 11:30 PM. I was doing 10 to 15 interviews per day, whether it was in the taxi or in a studio. I'd have meetings with my Japanese sponsors, I’d do photo shoots with my Japanese sponsors, a lot of TV appearances and stuff like that.
But then with a company like Visa, we did a huge campaign together that's out right now in Tokyo. We shot for three days straight, with call times from 6:00 AM until 9:00 PM.
And then all of that exposure helps you get more business in the future, right? It just compounds on itself.
Yeah, like this Visa one, this is the biggest publicity thing I've ever done in my life—by far. The campaign that we shot is being broadcast on Tokyo’s busiest street… basically their Times Square. Apparently 4.6 million people walk by every day.
So obviously that builds up my profile. I've gained 15,000 followers in the last few weeks, and I’m currently “trending” in Japan. That’s led to more business offers, to the point where I’m actually having to turn jobs down. I’ve never had to do that before.
And didn’t you meet Japan’s Prime Minister?
Yeah, well, Japan won the ISA games last year, and I guess it was the first time that we have ever been in the running for a medal, so that was a huge deal. When we were going into the final day, the Japanese media was like, “Oh my God, we're guaranteed a copper medal!”
So all the major TV networks sent out teams to cover the event, and I remember saying in one interview that morning, “Copper? Nah, we're going for gold.” That made huge headlines.
Then we won, and the response was pretty crazy. You have to remember, Japan doesn’t fully understand how the surfing world works. So to you and me, the ISA Games aren’t a huge deal, but to them, they see it as the closest thing to the Olympics.
So we're two years away from the Olympics, and in their eyes, Japan is winning gold medals in a pre-Olympic event. Then on top of that, it was the first year I had ever done ISA with Japan, so the assumption was that I had clinched it for the team. In reality, I got second in the event, but the rest of my team had their best results ever, making the finals and semis and stuff. So it was really a group effort, but the media gave me all the credit, which I was kinda bummed about, but I can’t really control that, so whatever.
Fast forward a day or two, and the Prime Minister wanted to meet me. We ended up on top of this building, and he flew in on a helicopter with this massive security team. They patted me down for weapons and everything—it was crazy.
So I'm shaking. I don't typically get nervous talking to people, but the way it was all panning out, they made it seem like such a big deal, which it was, but I didn't realize the scale of how big it was until he actually rocked up with five security guys around him. I didn't get to see his face until the security crew separated. Then he just... appeared... and walked up and shook my hand.
His message was basically, “I'm putting my faith in you. Japan is putting its faith in you to win Olympic gold.”
I was pretty taken aback. I said something like, “I feel like you're sending me off to war.”
Then said, ”I hope you take it as it a war.”
So it was a cool moment, but it put a ton of pressure on me. Sometimes I'll have sleepless nights about it—literally.
Like, what if I mess up? What if I let the country down?
But at the end of the day, I'd rather have that opportunity to mess it up than to not have a shot at all.
Kanoa hopes to do one better in Tokyo 2020... or else!
Did you think that you would reach this level of fame when you decided to be a pro surfer?
Of course not. No way. I always knew that I was never going to be a superstar or a well-known person. I remember being 12, and I'd be like, that sucks. I was a big fan of Tiger Woods and LeBron, and I'd be like, “Well these guys are superstars, they've got the craziest life, but no matter how far I get in surfing, I'll never ever get to that point.”
Then all of a sudden I'm on TV in Japan, I'm on billboards, people recognize me in America, Europe, Australia, and it’s like my dreams as a kid—no, the dreams that I didn't have as a kid—are becoming a reality. And it all revolves around the Olympics.
Last year you were on Stab's Rich List for the first time, and you landed ahead of seven-time World Champion Stephanie Gilmore and perennial penny-grabber Jordy Smith. Do you expect to increase your ranking this year, riding all that Olympic hype?
Yeah, for sure. Like, literally weekly, the hype gets bigger in Japan for the Olympics, and as the Olympic hype grows bigger so does my personal value to brands. Japan is just a whole different market, and I'm certainly not gonna shy away from it.
Sometimes I hear people talking bad about me, because I'm not a World Champion but I'm making World Champion money. I get that, but it's not my fault that I could be getting paid more than the guys that are doing better than I am on Tour. I'm just doing my best, and by a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, I happen to be in a really good position.
Plus, I think the Olympics could really change the whole economy of surfing. I’m obviously feeling that change now, but I think that will start to trickle down throughout the entire surf industry. I think it'll most likely be after the Olympics that we really see the surge, but it's definitely on its way.
I'm sitting across from you right now, and you have what is basically bleached blonde hair. Is that something that you did for some media shoot, or just because you wanted to?
I had a shoot with GQ and wanted to do something interesting. The first thing that I came up with was like, "Oh, I'll dye my hair silver."
Actually, I wanted to get white hair first, but it turned out silver, and then after being in the sun for a few days it turned blonde [laughs].
But this all comes back to wanting to show my personality. I feel everyone in surfing has a script, and they have to follow the script or else they'll get rousted or whatever.
I don't care what people say, and I can be happy with myself that I didn't hold anything back. At least I know that people are talking about me now. At least I know that I'm doing something different.
Kanoa is also sponsored by Dior.
And from what you were saying before, it seems that even as a kid you had dreamed of being a “superstar”. Is that the vibe you're going for by dying your hair, wearing designer clothes, doing the Visa ads, etc.?
Definitely, but at the same time, I don't really care about fame. I don't care about even care about the money that much. For me, it’s all about the lifestyle that guys like Lebron, Ronaldo, Odell Beckham Jr., or athletes of their caliber get to live. They’re flying in private jets, driving nice cars, wearing designer clothes, traveling the world, eating the best food—they just have this crazy lifestyle, and they can do whatever they want.
Then the flip-side is that they're still so good at what they do. They’re the best athletes in the world. They turn it on and off, and to me that’s super impressive.
It all comes down to that confidence of not worrying about people’s opinions. I think those guys like Odell, LeBron, Ronaldo—they have a different type of confidence. It's a confidence outside of their sport. It’s a confidence in being who they are, unapologetically.
Like, Odell Beckham Jr. gets rousted daily. Ronaldo gets rousted daily. But the guys that get the most hate are the ones that have the most confidence, and the ones that have more core fans.
I’d rather have someone like me because of who I am, not because I'm ranked 10th in the world or because they like my forehand carve or whatever.
So is that something you've thought about for the Olympics? Like, showing up in a helicopter, wearing a nice suit?
Funny you should ask that – I've actually pitched the helicopter idea to Japan. Because the thing is, there’s this big debate about surfers in the Olympics. Typically, all Olympic athletes have to stay in the Olympic village, but because Chiba is an hour and a half drive from Tokyo without traffic—and there’s obviously going to be traffic during the Olympics—they want to give the surfers an exemption to stay in Chiba so they can practice and compete more easily.
But I went to the Olympic Committee and I said, “No, I want to stay in Tokyo. I want to stay at the Olympic village, and I'll get a helicopter to Chiba every single morning and evening.”
Because I want to have the full experience. I want to be in Tokyo—I'm in the Tokyo Olympics, not the Chiba Olympics. And I want to soak it all up—the fans, the excitement, and being around all these other great athletes.
That's what LeBron would do, that's what OBJ would do. I'm not LeBron or OBJ, but I can strive for it, and I can add that value to surfing and make it interesting. It will make people interested and know it's not just a hobby, it's a real sport.
That's the image of surfing that I want to portray, at least for Japan. Because it's so new in Japan, it's so fresh. I don't think people realize how fresh surfing is to Japan, which makes surfing a really malleable concept to the wider public.
I want to be part of that shift where we inspire younger kids to say, “Wow, surfing is sick. It’s not just about doing big airs and getting crazy barrels, it’s about the lifestyle."
So getting back to the chopper thing, that was the last request I had. And the Olympic Committee said, "We'll make it happen." So we’ll see how it goes.
Would you rather win an Olympic gold medal or a World Title?
Whether I win or lose, the Olympics are the biggest opportunity I'll ever have in my life. It'll be worth more than winning 15 World Titles, and more attainable too, because it's obviously only one contest. Plus, for all we know, it could be the first and last one ever.
The thing is, so many people have won World Titles. I'm not talking down on them, I’ve obviously trained my whole career to win a World Title, but a gold medal in surfing is different. It's unique. No one has it. So I think for me, I'd rather win a gold medal just because of how everything has aligned. It almost feels like it was made for me.
How does your surfing compare to the guys that are winning World Titles?
I feel like I'm right there. I feel like I'm coming into my own now. For the first time since I was 10 or 11, I feel like I've gotten a lot better at surfing. I'm just getting to that point where I can see myself in that World Title race really soon.
And ultimately, that’s what I want—I want to be the best surfer in the world. But I’m not there yet, so for now, I’m going to focus on what's immediately attainable. The Olympics are number one on that list.
(Note: this interview was conducted prior to Kanoa's win at Keramas. He is now fully committed to a 2019 World Title race on top of his 2020 Olympic preparations.)