Senior Editor
Staff
Surfing: it's a business.

The conflict that underlies the entire “surf industry” paradigm is how to make the money the brands expect, but still keep finicky readers happy.


The Inertia

Surf magazines have been entertaining us for more than 50 years. But things are changing in the magazine biz. The unrelenting march of the Internet is putting the whole industry on its back, feet flailing, with its pants around its ankles. What was once a monthly or quarterly venture has evolved into a struggle to produce daily content that will keep readers fired up. Advertiser dollars – which keep those wonderfully polished pages churning off the presses – are being funneled into different venues, and the publishers are struggling to keep ahead of things. Sure, there will always be subscriptions, but they sit in the back seat of the money mobile. It’s a new world, and the explorers don’t have a map.

In 1959, John Severson released his little book of surf pictures entitled The Surfer. That first group of pages was published as an advertorial vehicle for Severson’s movie, Surf Fever. The public ate it up, and Severson unintentionally started the ball rolling that would eventually turn into the behemoth that we know today. As Sam George put it in Club of the Waves, “before John Severson, there was no ‘surf media’, no ‘surf industry’, and no ‘surf culture’ – at least not in the way we understand it today.”

As surf culture grew, so did the realization that there was a shitload of money to be made. The subsequent commercialization of surfing is responsible for the existence of the surf media, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Sponsor’s dollars bring us armchair reports of flawless surf strikes, and that can be as important to our culture as actually going out and surfing. After all the dream of surfing is what makes us go out and surf. But sponsor dollars also have an agenda, and if magazines want to refute that agenda in any way, the system suddenly goes haywire.

Just how much advertisers control the content of a magazine is disputable and dependent on the publication. Chris Cote, the former editor of the now defunct TransWorld SURF, has firsthand experience in the dealings with advertisers. “Any magazine guy that says that advertisers don’t affect their edit is full of shit. Advertising influence is always thought of as a bad thing, but there are a lot of good things that come out of the ad/edit relationship,” he says. “[Advertisers] pay for a lot of the trips that the magazines feature, they hold the events we cover, they buy ads, they sponsor the best surfers in the world—so yeah, they hold a lot of the cards.”

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Cote also believes that magazines have a responsibility not only to present readers what they want, but also to represent athletes and companies in a favorable light. “If we were the only magazine in the world, we could say whatever we wanted. We could say ‘these trunks make your dick look small’ or ‘this surfer kills baby harp seals’, and the advertisers would have to stay because we’d be the only game in town. I’m not saying we’re pussies about it, but if we make a statement about something, it should have validity, and not be malicious for no reason.”

Although it’s impossible to lump every surf magazine into the same category, the broad function of all surf media is to bring a culture loved by millions into an arena that is accessible by all who want access. “Surf media’s main role is to inspire people to surf,” Cote says. “We do have the obligation to inform our readers when big stories happen, but for the most part, we’re about showing the world’s best surf photos, introducing the world to the best surfers, and hopefully growing the sport of surfing through our message.”

But has “surf culture” grown too large to be addressed as a single group?  “Like any niche or specialty media outlet, the surf media should be an accurate reflection of the subculture,” says Surfline.com editor Marcus Sanders. “Obviously, surfers run the gamut, so a media outlet needs to decide if they’re going try to be all things to all surfers or just appeal to one niche within the subculture – ie, groovy guys, old guys, girls, longboarders, hardcore shortboarders, gnarly travelers, etc. Once that’s established, the media outlet should speak to their audience – inform them, entertain them, give them a platform where they feel represented.”

And within that range, there is huge opportunity for businesses to capitalize. The simplest part of their business plan is to make people buy things. Often, the best way to do that is to set trends. “[The media] should be a reflection of the culture, but also be on the forefront of it,” says Sanders. “I’d imagine where someone surfs and their immediate surf circle – as well as respected locals – will have way more effect on most people than a magazine, but mags and sites will always occupy a leading role in style, new technologies, and creating heroes.”

The conflict that underlies the entire industry paradigm is how to make the money the brands expect, but still keep finicky readers happy. “Mostly, brands want the audience that a media outlet brings. If that media outlet becomes nothing more than a branding exercise, the audience will sniff that out and go elsewhere – so both the brand and the media outlet lose,” states Sanders. “Surf media should ideally be for the reader. The media outlet delivers the audience, which is built up by trust, to the advertiser.” And with the plethora of material available from ever-expanding outlets, it’s easier now than ever for a reader to switch loyalties. We’re a fickle bunch.

Paradoxically, as the number of grassroots media outlets grow on the Internet, the industry is consolidating itself.  “With the internet, there are all kinds of grassroots surf media these days,” says Sanders. “It doesn’t cost much, and distribution is free. At the same time, the industry is galvanizing into a few main, giant companies rather than a bunch of medium sized ones.”

So as the industry grows, so too does its influence. Magazines, websites, and televised surfing contests all add immeasurably to the culture and increase both the accessibility of waves and awareness of surfing. While it’s easy to blame surf media for over-crowding and the general ruination of our sport, like it or not, surfing wouldn’t be what it is today without it. Guys like John Severson are hailed as innovators, while the industry he started is sometimes hailed as surfing’s downfall. And after all, it is a business.

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