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."