Oliver Kurtz has done everything (seemingly) right in this little game of surf. So why can't he (among many other elite surfers) secure a sticker on his nose? Photo: Ricante Hot Sauce
The Art Of Navigating A Sponsor In 2019.
What have you done for me lately?
Dooma Fahrenfort here, welcome to my Thursday night mind-dump.
Over the next few Fridays, I'll be providing a sometimes long, probably short, opinionated piece that have lots of grammatical errors and possibly a few bits of useful information. First up is the thing I'm closest to – athlete management and brand sponsorship.
I frequently get asked to manage people's kids, and through shocking communication skills, they finally realize I'm not interested. It's not that I don't want to manage more surfers than Jordy Smith and Mikey February, it's that I don't want to deal with delusional parents, and more importantly, the money’s just not out there like it once was.
Before we go any further, here’s this week’s lesson: Ask not what your company can do for you, but what you can do for your company.
It’s 2019 and the middle class has been ripped out of the surf industry. Adriano de Souza has 14 sponsors and only makes $90k per year, and Dane Reynolds has been forced out of retirement and into the garment game. He’s got three hungry mouths to feed and one of them doesn’t want to be fed. The one with no appetite is Ando, of course – the only unsponsored man I’d hire if I was brand right now.
Sure Craig sucks to deal with and he cares more about his Instagram's aesthetic than your bottom line, but isn't that the very reason surfers used to be cool? They had edge, man!
But Craig is the exception, not the rule.
The rest of you budding pros that want more money or a logo on your board can go and get fucked.
The best businesses are the ones that provide a service. They add value to people's lives, which is why we give them our hard-earned cash. Patagonia tells us to stop buying their product and repair our clothing that's torn and tethered, and how do we react to that? We go out and buy more of their clothing.
We've officially lost it and surfers are not immune. Every kid that can do a cutback wants to become a pro surfer, travel the globe on their sponsor’s dime, and retire at 35 with a house on the beach at Pipeline. Unfortunately, the future is a lot more grim than that, and it's only getting grimmer.
Guys like Roy Powers and Laurie Towner (who once had amazing careers) are now laying tiles and pushing people into waves to survive. They've found out harder than anyone that the real world sucks.
But it wasn't always that way.
After the Jordy/Dane bidding wars, parents realized their kids could make serious wedge out of surfing and the sport was changed forever. It became cool to train and bring your coach to events and the very reason surfing was admired by all mankind had vanished. The adored carefree lifestyle in which we had all enlisted wasn't a lifestyle anymore, it had become a sport with real-life accountability and bottom lines.
The financial crisis combined with Nike throwing down real cash for surfers ripped apart the middle class. By offering huge amounts for Jordy/Dane/JJF and co, the brands had no choice but to drop all the little guys to keep their shiny toys. Surfers like myself and others far more talented went from making $50k to $12k and in turn bitched about how much the industry now sucked.
Would I have sponsored me back then? No way, I was another blonde-haired kid with my hand out constantly wanting more. Sure I had a cool accent but that wasn't selling any product and Billabong already had four pricks better looking and winning real comps, not the Cosmic Creek. However, I was one of the fortunate ones that got taken in by ex-pros and industry heads and got out in time, then signed myself up for a job and decided to learn a skill. I'm referring to the skill where I listen to others smarter than myself and then repeat what they say in my own words with the aforementioned accent. Yet here I am managing Jordy Smith and Mikey February trying to tell you what you're doing wrong and what you need to do.
A few weeks ago I woke up and decided that the surf in Southern California sucked, and that I needed to go find some waves. I convinced Sam McIntosh to drive with me up to San Fran and hunt some cold tubes around town. We had seven hours in the car and yelled at each other for the entire duration. One conversation stuck though, and it was about a call Sam had recently taken with a pro surfer who was asking for sponsorship advice. In typical pro surfer fashion, this person phoned Sam and bitched about the industry, how all he wants is $30k a year to travel the world and compete and rationalised it being cheap because it wasn’t a six-figure deal.
I’ve known Sam for a long while – he's a realist and sees contracts in a linear way.
To justify that $2.5k month, and if a brand is operating at a 20% margin, this surfer needs to sell them $12.5k worth of product per month, whereby their average product might sell for $60. All of a sudden that person needs to sell 208 pieces of product a month, or, 2,500 pieces of physical product a year – no easy feat.
Sam suggested that rather than talking about what a small figure it was, to angle the conversation around what value you might be able to add to their business. He challenged the surfer to come up with something the brand might not be able to do themselves.
The point is this: instead of going to brands with your hand out and adding another email asking for new suits to some poor, underpaid marketing manager’s inbox (more on that next time), tell them how you're going to make their life easier, amplify their marketing efforts, and connect with their audience.
Cliché buzzwords, yes, but surf marketing managers love them.
And it's actually not that hard to figure out your place in the modern surfing market. A quick squiz around any brand’s social media or website will show you the obvious flaws in their business.
Sam suggested to the unnamed surfer that Rip Curl is backing "The Search" harder than ever. Their challenge? There aren’t that many new waves. At least since Mick’s discovery in 2017. If you can provide the new perfect aquatic canvas for Mick, Mason and Gabs, your contract is now justified. I heard Rippy paid an unnamed South African big wave surfer a healthy chunk of change for The Snake.
Figure out what your skill is beyond bogging rails and trying to nail clips or win heats. Go to a brand with a plan, show them that you're thinking about them and what hole you're going to plug for them – and I don't mean the receptionist at the front desk.
It seems like all the brands have caught the 'experience' bug and are pushing the adventure side of things. Like exploring? Are you somewhat self-sufficient? Know how to put a trip together? You could have something there.
Billabong turn you down? Don't worry, there are nine other surf brands pushing a similar strategy.
I've watched Oliver Kurtz chase swells, nail insane airs, high five every open palm and still not find a main sponsor. Here's a surfer more deserving of a sticker than most of his peers but the big guys run the other way when they see him. Why? Because each brand has more Olivers than they know what to do with. Kids would rather watch Ben Gravy surf the trough at Kelly's pool on his Wave Bandit than watch Kelly actually surf the wave. Everything is upside down, so get creative.
Dylan Graves and his “Weird Waves” series is one example. Koa Rothman’s “This Is Livin’” vlog is another. Quiksilver and Vans eat that shit up because it's unique and it garners attention that their brand would otherwise not receive.
So whether it's finding new waves or bringing people together at your local surf shop to watch your latest clip and hang, figure out what you're good at, do some research to learn which brand your skills align with, and go after them. Show some initiative, because if you're not doing backflips at 15-years-old like Eli Hanneman or foiling across oceans like Kai Lenny, you're probably not as interesting nor do you surf as well as your parents told you.
Go out there and add some value to someone's life.