Joey Buran, 1986. "They want to make sure that when that kid’s out surfing at Black’s Beach, there’s an eight-inch logo of their company on both sides of his board.”
The commercialization of surfing started out innocently enough. The way ex-world-champion surfer Mike Doyle recalls it, it began in the summer of 1966, with the Catalina Swimwear promo tour.
Before the mid-Sixties, Catalina Swimwear had always been the kind of company that specialized in selling yellow golf pants to the "I like Ike" crowd and Popsicle-colored muumuus to their wives. But times were changing, and Catalina was beginning to understand that the future of retailing was in catering to a huge new generation of baby-boom teenagers. With the encouragement of the DuPoint Corporation, which was looking for a way to market its new nylon clothing material, Catalina saw the new and explosive popularity of surfing as a way to hype its flashy new swimwear. They hired Mike Doyle, then the most popular surfer in the world, to go on a tour around the country promoting their new line of Bigwaverider swim trunks.
Almost every day for weeks, Doyle had found himself in a new town, surrounded by reporters and fans, many of whom had never even seen an ocean. One day, for the benefit of photographers from Cincinnati, Doyle wake-surfed behind a cabin cruiser on the Ohio River. Using the surf prowess he had perfected in the 20-foot waves off Hawaii's north shore, Doyle skillfully weaved in and out of sewage floating down the river.
Every day was a new adventure. There were promo men eager to take him home and set him up with their daughters, and there were wise old Jewish tailors wanting to counsel him on the ins and outs of the rag game. In New York, the mayor awarded him a key to the city. After a stop-off in Dallas, where he was awarded the key to that city, too, Doyle moved on to Houston, where, as part of the Catalina promotion, he was scheduled to surf the Gulf of Mexico, near Galveston.
A hardworking young fellow driving an El Camino with a console full of beer met Doyle at the Houston airport. Catalina had sent its Texas promo man a portfolio explaining precisely how Mike Doyle and surfing should be presented in the local clothing stores. That advice included giving out free copies of Surfer magazine, arranging media coverage, and creating "Surf's Up!" window displays in all the department stores.
As Doyle climbed into an El Camino, the promo man tossed the publicity packet behind the seat and handed him a beer. "Ever'body down here is real excited to see how you gonna handle our Texas surf," he drawled.
"Well," Doyle smiled, "I sure hope I don't let them down."
Between the airport and the Gulf Coast, they passed a half-dozen billboards announcing the arrival of "World Famous Surfer Mike Doyle!" On the radio there were advertisements every 20 minutes hawking the spectacle. And judging by the traffic outside Galveston, it appeared that half the teenagers, and all the reporters, in southern Texas would be there.
The Gulf waters were about the color of chocolate milk that day, but at least, Doyle thought, there was no floating sewage. More than a thousand cars had already lined the beach, and the organizers of the event were eager to begin. The only trouble was ... there weren't any waves.
Doyle stripped down to his flower-patterened Catalina Bigwaveriders ("Made with Dependable Dupont Nylon!") and began wading with his surfbaord about waist deep into the murky Gulf waters. All the reporters and photographers, and most of the spectators, waded out behind him, clothes and all.
"How you like it out there in the Gulf, kid?" one of the reporters asked.
"Boy, it's just great," Doyle said, trying to smile.
He waited for ten minutes or so, until a one-foot wind chop finally began rippling the surface of the water. Then, figuring it was now or never, he climbed onto the board and began knee-paddling into what he figured was the closest thing to a wave he'd see in the Gulf of Mexico. Just as he bent over, his Catalina Bigwaveriders ripped out from the crotch, through the seat, clear on around to the waistband. As he rose to his feet on the board, with his bare ass hanging out, the cameras began clicking all around him and the crowd of spectators parted to let the world-famous surfer pass.
Three years after Mike Doyle braved the Texas surf, he officially became the first professional surfer by accepting a $1000 check for winning the 1969 Duke Kahanamoku contest. In truth, perhaps a dozen surfers were already professionals. As Catalina Swimwear and several other clothing companies had proved, there was money to be made in surfing — or at least in the surfing image — and there was no use pretending competitive surfers were still amateurs. But the controversy over the commercialization of surfing has been going on ever since.
Years earlier, Mickey Dora, the eccentric prophet of Malibu, had foreseen this trend in surfing and had cursed it as a vile and greedy corruption of what the Hawaiians had called the Sport of Kings. But more practical souls in the surfing world welcomed the money that was flowing into the sport. Surfing, they argued, would never enjoy the mass TV audience of sports like baseball or race car driving or even tennis, because there were so few people in the country who live close enough to a beach to participate in the sport. Also, because surfing contests were held at public beaches, it was impossible to charge admission. So, except for the sponsorship of the clothing industry and a few surf-related companies like the wetsuit and surfboard manufacturers, the sport of surfing had a few sources for financial support.
There's probably no sport in the world that takes its image as seriously as surfing. In some ways, surfing is more of a lifestyle than a sport. Surfers have their own way of talking, their own sign language, their own beer, their own hairstyles, and, of course, they have their own clothes.
For some reason — maybe because of the spontaneous creativity that once existed in the surfer lifestyle — the California surfer look has become the style of casual dress for the entire country. In the early Sixties, when surfers who had been traveling on surf safaris in Mexico came home wearing rubber tire huaraches, college students all over the country started wearing huaraches too. When surfers started wearing flowered baggies, farm boys in Nebraska started wearing flowered baggies too. California surfers were wearing their hair long before the Beatles hit America, and in the Eighties, surfers were among the first to wear their hair short again. The rest of the country soon followed. Just about every male in the country between the ages of 12 and 50 wants to look and dress like a surfer. Or, as Action Sports magazine, the beachwear industry's stick, put it, "Today, not everyone participates in lifestyle sports, but a great many people want to look like they do."
The implications of this phenomenon haven't been lost on the surfwear companies, which grossed more than $1 billion in 1987. What's being worn on the beaches between Malibu and La Jolla this year can be converted into huge sales all across the country, and even the world next year — which means that just about anybody with a couple of sewing machines and an empty garage a few blocks from the beach has at least an outside shot at making money in the surfwear industry. Ocean Pacific and Gordon and Smith, two of the largest beachwear manufacturers to come out of San Diego, both started as garage companies. This year Gordon and Smith expect to have sales of about $20 million; the industry giant, Ocean Pacific (which is already out of fashion with California surfers but is still growing on the East Coast and in Europe), will have sales of more than $400 million. Meanwhile, smaller companies like 96 Degrees, Life's a Beach, Ipanema, and Epic Surfwear keep popping up every year, hoping for their shot at the big time.
"They'll give a big laminate [decal] for the surfer to put on his surfboard, and if that photo shows up in a magazine and the sponsor's logo can be seen, the surfer receives $150."
Most of the clothing companies in the men's beachwear market try to gain recognition in the surf community by sponsoring surf contests and surfers. Sharon Turner, the vice president of marketing at Gordon and Smith, a company that sponsors several pro and amateur surfers, says, "These kids are good at what they do. All the other kids look up to them. They're expecting your name, wearing your product. They're a real important part of the industry." (In the women's beachwear market, the surf image is less useful, and consequently the sponsoring of women surfers is much less common.)
In 1987, Gotcha Sportwear in Costa Mesa spent approximately $500,000 sponsoring surf contests and surfers who endorse its products. Ocean Pacific spent approximately $300,000. And Quiksilver, a Newport Beach surfwear company, recently signed top pro Tom Carroll to an exclusive five-year, $1 million contract to promote its clothing.
In north San Diego County, an area that has consistently turned out many of the best surfers in the world, there are scarcely any serious surfers who don't have some sort of sponsorship. There are ten- and eleven-year-old surfers who have already snagged a sponsor willing to give them free wax and T-shirts. Later on, by the time they're 13 or 14, many of the best surfers are getting free surfboards and wetsuits. By the time they're in high school, the most organized surfers keep computerized mailing lists of all the major clothing companies that sponsor surfers; after every contest, their resumes are updated on a word processor and their latest standing are mailed out to the sponsors. In September, when the Action Sports Trade Show is held in Long Beach and all the surfwear sponsors can be conveniently buttonholed in one place, the kids grab their portfolios, pile into somebody's surfmobile, and drive up the coast to go shopping for sponsors.
Chris Gage, 1 16-year-old freshman at San Dieguito High School, is one of the top amateur surfers in the area. He's kept a portfolio and a resume since he was 11. "The portfolio is news articles, pictures, and magazine clippings," he says. "I add about a page a month. The resume is just contest results." Gage was 14 when he signed on with his first clothing sponsor, Beach Towne. "The deal was, they'd give me about six items of clothes every two months, then they'd have somebody at the contests to make sure I had their logo on both sides of my board. And they asked that I wear their clothes all day during the contests."
Gage says he thinks Beach Towne and the other clothing manufacturers definitely get their money's worth from him and the other surfers they sponsor. "You're sort of a role model. You're wearing their clothes, and other people look up to you because you're a better surfer than them. They say, 'Whoa! What kind of shorts is he wearing?" And you have the company's logo on your board as well. Any picture you get in a magazine will have that logo flashing right there. So I definitely think it helps their business a lot."
Beach Town recently went out of business — part of its problem, surfers say, is that it was located in El Toro, a landlocked military town, where it was hard to project a beachy image. At any rate, Gage is shopping for a new sponsor now. "I'm thinking about Quiksilver," he says. "They're one of the best sponsors. I have a few friends who ride with them; maybe they can give me references."
Pat Daly, an 18-year-old surfer who graduated from San Dieguito High School, agrees that the sponsors get their money's worth. "The guys who are sponsored surf a minimum of twice a day. They're out in the water constantly. It's like they're billboards alongside the road. Just having the logos on the surfboards of the really good guys that people are gonna recognize on the beach is better than any other kind of publicity the companies could get. People are influenced by what the best surfers are using. They're apt to go out and buy that product."
Daly was in the ninth grade when he got his first sponsor, a local surfboard manufacturer. Now he's sponsored by Picante, a clothing company located in Oceanside. His contract this year as an amateur includes $800 worth of clothing and $1000 for travel and contest entry fees. He plans to turn pro in February, after which he'll be allowed to accept a salary from his sponsor.
Many of the youngest surfers find their first sponsorship at the local surf shop, where they get free boards, wax, T-shirts, hats, and so on. Eventually, though, they try to jump up to the big clothing sponsors who have the real money and prestige, Pat Daly explains how it works: "Sunset Surfboards [a surf shop in Encinitas] is a good example. A lot of young guys get on their surf team. They get on the A team, or the B team, and after a few years, when they get better known, the shop rep will say, 'Hey, the Billabong rep is in the area today. He's looking for a couple of surfers, and he'd like to talk to you.' Eventually, they get on the sponsor's team, instead of going through the surf shop."
This system of cooperating with the clothing manufacturers works well for the surf shops, who are eager to promote clothing sales. Surfboards and surf accessories account for only 13 percent of total sales in surf shops, while clothing and footwear account for 58 percent.
As for the surfers themselves, they become aware at a very early age that it's a competitive world, and unless they have truly dazzling surf talent, they will have to promote themselves and their sponsors to gain any recognition in the surf world.
Corky Carroll, a U.S. surfing champion in the Sixties who revived his waning surf stardom by doing a series of Lite beer commercials, recently wrote an advice column in Surfer magazine for young surfers looking for sponsorship. The article, titled "How to Succeed in Pro Surfing without Being in the Top Three," begins by saying, "Nobody cares who's the seventh, ninth, or seventeenth top surfer in the world — except maybe you and your mom. Only being at the very top is of any value to your career as a professional."
But Carroll goes on to say that young, unknown surfer can still get sponsorship if he's savvy to how the game is played. "Sponsors determine your potential value by deciding how much impact your involvement with their companies will have on the sales of their products.... By taking an active part of promotion of your sponsor's products, you increase your value to the company.... Don't miss a chance to get a plug in for your sponsor if you have the opportunity, create one.... Every time you make yourself and your sponsor's product visible, you increase your value."
Finally, in a more realistic tone, Carroll gave the youngsters a personal example of reality for almost all professional surfers: "One year I was the top surfer in the United States and making more money than anybody else, and six months later I was washing dishes at a Chart House in Idaho." (It's interesting to note that Carroll has recently started his own line of surfwear.)
According to Chris Ahrens, the editor of Breakout, a surf magazine with headquarters in Carlsbad, this trend toward sponsorship of young amateur surfers hasn't necessarily been good for surfing or surfers. "A lot of sponsors will pay what they call 'photo incentives,'" Ahrens says. "They'll give a big laminate [decal] for the surfer to put on his surfboard, and if that photo shows up in a magazine and the sponsor's logo can be seen, the surfer receives $150.... A lot of kids I know don't enjoy surfing anymore unless they're doing a photo session. The first thing they ask when they call the office [after the photo session] is, 'How'd they photos look?' And the second thing they ask is, 'Did my logos show?'"
It's getting to the point, Ahrens says, where sponsorship is more important to young surfers than surfing — or just about anything else. Before the organization of the National Student Surfing Association (NSSA), which has tried to emphasize the importance of academic achievement to young surfers, Ahrens says, "if a kid was 13 or 14, and pretty good, he was sponsored to a new surfboard, a clothing contract and people were telling him how wonderful he was and how he was going to make a lot of money as a pro. Consequently, a lot of kids didn't hang out at school anymore. They just sort of blew it off. They felt like they really didn't have to try in school anymore."
Ahrens believes some of the clothing sponsors entice young surfers into making unwise decisions about their futures. "There are some sponsors that will, if not encourage, then at least support young kids in dropping out of school to go on the pro tour.... Personally," Ahrens says, "I think some sponsors need to take a look at their ethics."
More often than not, a young surfers fantasies about sponsorship by a big clothing company, and his dreams of traveling around the world surfing the best spots, being to fade when he notices that surfers younger than he are starting to beat him at the local contests. He begins to realize that what he really needs is not another pair of free surf trunks from this year's garage company, but the hard cash to pay for his auto insurance.
In some rare cases, though, the young surfer really does become the hottest new phenom on the coast, and every surf sponsor in California is after him to wear its product. In those cases, the realization of the young surfers' dream could turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened to him.
One of the best examples is San Diego's David Eggers. By the time Eggers was 13, he was already beating professional surfers who were rated among the top ten in the world. By the time he was 14, almost everybody was calling him the greatest amateur surfer ever to come out of California. His picture was in all the surf magazines, he was doing interviews, wearing free clothes to school, and being told he was destined to follow in the footsteps of Tommy Curren, the top pro surfer in the world.
When Eggers was 16, he was offered a contract by Gotcha Sportswear in Costa Mesa to go on the world surfing tour. Besides free travel around the world, the contract was said to have included a salary of $24,000 a year, plus photo incentives. Eggers' grades in school had been lagging anyway, so he accepted the contract and dropped out of school.
Within a matter of months, though, it was obvious that something was wrong with Eggers. He was by far the youngest surfer on the tour, and it's likely that the older surfers who saw him as a threat to their livelihood treated him coldly. It's also likely he was exposed to a lifestyle of drugs and partying that was far too heady for a 16-year-old kid. Eggers started showing up late for contests and missing his heats. He was difficult to get along with. Twice he missed important photo sessions that Gotcha had set up with Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine. Before long he dropped out of the pro circuit, quit his sponsors, sold all his surfboards, and went back to San Diego.
Some people say Eggers had an "attitude" problem, others say it was worse than that. His mother, Patty Eggers, a beautician in San Diego, says, "The sponsors just bled him to death. They put up the money, and then they wanted a return for it. Since he was seven, David said [a pro surfing career] was what he wanted, and he got it. But I'll tell you, I would never want one of my kid to go through that again."
Mike Cruikshank, a pro surfer who is now the surf team representative for Gotcha, says, "I don't know what David's problem is, to tell you the truth. I know he was partying a lot. I think his life just started getting too out of control for him to handle. I think he was put on a pedestal at too young an age, and he decided he could do anything he wanted and he was too bitchin.' He was making a lot of money, and he was doing things most kids his age just dream about."
Today, at 18, Eggers is living with friends in La Jolla and hanging out at the beach. His mother says he still gets calls from a modeling agency in New York that wants to pay him $350 an hour to model for them. "He won't even return their calls. You'd think after having seen so much of the world, he would be so mature. He'll be 19 soon, and he doesn't have a driver's license — he doesn't even want to drive. His father has disowned him, which hasn't helped, and his older brother says he thinks David has some pretty serious emotional problems. He used to be such a jewel of a kid."
The case of David Eggers has raised some serious questions about the ethics of clothing manufacturers who sponsor young surfers. When asked if Gotcha has a policy for dealing with young surfers, Cruikshank said, "No ... yeah, we do. We don't encourage picking up high school dropouts.... If guys are getting bad school grades, I call them up and tell them I won't send them any gear until their report card improves. But if you have a guy on your team who is as good as Curren and who maybe didn't want to go to school, well, you'd have to ride with him a little bit because of how talented he is."
When Joey Buran was 11 years old, he saw the classic surf film Endless Summer and like thousands of other kids across the country, was instantly seduced by the dream of becoming a world-traveling beach bum chasing a never-ending fantasy of sun, women, and adventure. The only hitch was, Joey Buran's parents lived in Quantico, Virginia, a place more renowned for turning out Marines than famous surfers.
So, in 1972, when Joey's father, who was in the Marines, transferred to Camp Pendleton, Joey finally thought he saw his life's dream opening up in front of him. He got a surfboard for his 12th birthday, and within a year he was entering small surf contests up and down the coast. Within three years Buran was the number-one junior amateur surfer in California. When he turned pro in 1978, he had been the number-one amateur in California for three consecutive years.
Joey Buran’s nickname while he was a professional surfer was “The California Kid.” It was perfect for him. Young, blond, blue-eyed, and athletic, he was the epitome of the California image and the perfect representative for clothing manufacturers trying to capitalize on that image. He was also superbly talented. He went on to become the seventh-rated surfer in the world and the winner of the Pipeline Masters, perhaps the most coveted contest in surfing.
But according to Buran, his success in surfing was unsatisfying. "In 1983 I had a room full of trophies, I had been on the cover of all the surf magazines. I was the California kid. I had everything I'd ever set out to get, yet inside I was totally empty. I was addicted to pot — totally entrapped by it. I was prone to depression and really thinking a lot about suicide. I went from trying to be the world champion to being 25 years old and not knowing what in the world I was going to do with my life. Pro surfing had been my whole life."
The solution for Buran's dilemma turned out to be a religious one. Today, at 27, he's the assistant pastor at Calvary Chapel in Vista. He lectures at local high schools on drug abuse and has become both an outspoken advocate, as well as critic, of the surfing industry.
"No one's ever accused the surf industry of being ethical," he says. "I spent ten years in that industry. It's very cutthroat. There's all kinds of new gimmicks every year. There's a lot of companies out to make a quick buck, and with the exception of a few companies, they could care less about the individual surfer."
Buran still looks very much like the Califorina Kid. Tanned and blond, dressed in shorts and a Body Glove tank top, he sits behind his desk in a windowless room of the church. “A surf company’s like any other company… If they give you something, they want to make sure they get exactly that much back in your services, or more. Otherwise, it's just a waste of their money. If they give a kid going to Torrey Pines High $300 a year in clothes, they want to see him wearing those clothes five days a week, being seen by other kids wearing their product. They want to make sure that when that kid’s out surfing at Black’s Beach, there’s an eight-inch logo of their company on both sides of his board.”
But just what is it about the surfing image that clothing companies are so eager to get a piece of? What is it they're trying to buy from these kids?
Buran shrugs. "People have a fascination with being a beach bum," he says. "You got the girls, the bikinis, the sun, the travel. People work for 40 years of their lives, just so they can spend the last 20 at the beach."
Buran doesn't necessarily believe that sponsorship of young surfers is a bad idea. Like many other people, he accepts the idea that surfing needs the support of companies that have become successful by marketing the surf image. But he bitterly criticizes the way the surf industry has presented the fantasy of surf stardom to young kids as a desirable and achievable goal. There are fewer than a dozen surfers in the world who are in a position to make a real living at surfing. But at 13 or 14 years old, the typical surfer doesn't understand that his chance of becoming a famous surfer is far less than, say, winning the state lottery.
"Kids just don't have a realistic perspective," Buran says. "The odds are astronomically against them making it as a pro. I think the magazines have to take some of the blame for that. They hype and glamorize pro surfing to be something incredible that will fulfill your life if you reach it: 'Chicks!' 'Parties!' 'Be a hero!' 'Make the cover of our magazine!'"
The surf magazines glorify the pros for an obvious reason. In 1987, Surfing magazine earned approximately $2.5 million in advertising revenue from the surfwear companies that sponsor the pros. Winner make heroes, and heroes are marketable.
It also annoys Buran, and other critics of the surf industry, that so many of the heroes of professional surfing don't make very good role models for the younger surfer. "Of the top 30 pros in the world," Buran says, "at least ten of those guys are drug users. I know that for a fact. But I'm also confident that the top five surfers are drug free. The guys who are winning contests are clean. There's no way you can be the best in the world if you have a drug problem. No way."
The problem of drug use — most often cocaine — in surfing is even worse on the longboard circuit, which is mostly made up of nostalgic old-timers trying to relive the glory of their youths, when they too were pursuing the illusive goal of surf stardom. "There are some guys on that longboard circuit who are known drug dealers," Buran says. "And it's always covered up. They've been arrested, and nobody ever says anything about it. In a way, I fell sorrow and compassion for those guys because I know the emptiness they have. But in another way, it makes me sick."
Young surfers today seem to have mixed feelings about the direction the sport of surfing has taken. The talk about nostalgia and the golden era of surfing in the mid-Sixties means little to them. It all happened before they were born, and the only surfers talking about it now are fat old has-beens. Survival in competitive surfing today means learning to play the sponsorship game. As San Dieguito High student Chris Gage says, "It's good for surfing because it brings more money to the sport. But on the other hand, it gives surfing kind of a bad name because it makes surfing seem so commercial." Gage is more level-headed than most 16-year-olds — he's already decided it would be foolish to gamble too much on a career as a pro. "A surfer only has a highlight for about three or four years. After that, you start downhill. If you don't have a diploma behind you and your sponsors aren't paying you anymore, how you gonna get a job?"
Pat Daly, who graduated from San Dieguito High and will be turning pro in February, is slightly more cynical. "I think surfing's still a young sport, but it's already grown to the point where it's commercial. Companies are realizing they can use the average surfer to make money for themselves. The heads of companies go up to these little guys in the menehunes division and offer them stuff. It's inevitable, I guess. There's nothing to be said about it. It's money, really. It's all money."