Surf Business

Last week Dane Reynolds did one of the most incredible turns ever pulled in front of the entire surf world during the Reef Hawaii Pro. The judges awarded him a 7.33 out of a possible 10 points. Dane’s low score in the Reef event is one of many situations that question the legitimacy of competitive surfing. There’s no wonder why Dane rarely competes even though he’s well known as one of the greatest surfers to ever live. After nearly two decades of proposals, the Olympic committee has refused to accept surfing as a sport that can be judged.

The recent Reef contest is part of a three event series called the Vans Triple Crown, which includes the Billabong Pipeline Masters. Reef is owned by Vanity Fair. VF also owns Vans, Lee, Wrangler, Lucy, North Face, and many other brands.

Reef and Vans are not unique in the fact that they are part of a conglomerate. Many roots and independent companies have been consolidated under stockholders. Volcom is owned by PPR, a French luxury retail group who oversees Gucci, Puma, and various other brands. Billabong bought Palmers Surf, Honolua Surf, Swell.com, Von Zipper, Kustom (footwear), Nixon, Xcel Wetsuits, Tigerlily brands, and Element. Quiksilver owns DC shoes. Nike subsidiaries include Hurley and Converse. Rip Curl and O’Neill remain private brands, but also control a large part of the market.

Clothing, footwear, and apparel are the major source of surf industry revenue, while core gear (products used for the act of surfing, e.g. wetsuits and surfboards), remain a very small part of sales.

Big businesses host surf contests to market their brands in order to make money. Although contests are entertaining for spectators, I doubt many surfers would enter if their sponsors didn’t mandate it or if prize purses didn’t exist. Competing in the lineup is a far cry from having fun for most surfers. It’s hard to have a spiritual experience in the water when there’s a parade on the beach, hooter sounding every 15 minutes, and pressure to out-surf an opponent.

I appreciate small independent businesses who contribute to communities and surfing in a soulful way. That said, I’m not completely against big business for a few reasons. Many powerful private and corporate brands do positive things for surfing. They provide high-paying jobs for thousands of surfers, give back to surfing through the advancement of surf technology, donate a percentage of profits to impoverished and compromised communities, and promote ecologically-friendly lifestyles. However, big businesses continue to outsource production and dedicate a large percentage of profits to CEO’s and wealthy stockholders which seems to be somewhat of a double standard.

There is no doubt that as the industry grows and surf companies continue to consolidate under corporate leadership, there will be an increase in offshoring to evade EPA regulations and labor laws. Most surfers would rather help local environmentally-conscious businesses exclusively, however, conglomerates and leading private businesses produce some of best and most affordable surf goods available. Therein lies the dilemma. Surfers can’t afford to pay premiums on local merchandise, there are not enough small businesses able to improve surf technology in todays struggling economy, and the majority of consumers are told what to buy through expensive big business marketing campaigns.

Recently sat next to a nice guy on an airplane who asked if I was a surfer. He was heading home to Texas, and had never surfed before but loved the surf image. He went on to brag about the great discount he got on a bunch of Quiksilver T-Shirts at a department store and asked where I shop for surf clothes. Told him I support small local businesses by purchasing and wearing their products and T-shirts because I like to see my money go back into the community. I went on to explain how big surf companies often times sell a lifestyle image that is a contradiction to the way they operate.

The surf industry is worth over $20 billion dollars, and the majority of product sales are brought in by a short list of companies. Lineups are getting more crowded everyday and big businesses are taking advantage of it. They can afford to pay for the fruition of ideas, adequate marketing, and the manipulation of editorial content, resulting in control over consumer impressions.

As surfing’s popularity continues to grow, I hope that ethical companies succeed through core product innovation and community support, and the majority of industry profits cycle back into our local lineups rather than stockholders offshore accounts.

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