Both Dino Andino and Bob McKnight acknowledge that seventy-athlete rosters stretch company resources thin, which reaffirms the appeal of a brand like Target, who has offered to send Kolohe and his friends (not teammates or fellow pros) on surf trips for no other purpose than to enjoy themselves. “It’s just about him having fun with his buddies,” says Dino. “They don’t really need anything in return, they just want to support him and his development, and I think they realize that him having fun is a major part of that.”
Troy Michels, Team Lead at Target’s Lifestyle Marketing concurs. “There’s no big hidden agenda,” says Michels. “It’s just about differentiation for us and a unique way to extend our brand and to grow with people who are the right partners. Really, we’re just here to listen to them. It’s more, ‘Hey guys, how can we help you progress?’ We’re all ears. They dictate how we do this. We’re not telling them what to do. We’re listening.”
Target seems to be applying an improvisational model that they first developed nine years ago with Olympic Champion and Rolling Stone cover boy, Shaun White. White, a highly marketable snowboarding virtuoso from Carlsbad, California, catapulted snowboarding on a path quite analogous to the one we find surfing on today. The snowboarding community, which, like the surf community is inherently protective and wary of insincere entrants, initially expressed skepticism. Nine years later, White’s endorsements with Red Bull and Target may have lengthened lift lines a few feet, but they’ve also progressed the sport of snowboarding to unthinkable levels.
“I would almost say that snowboarding would not have grown to the level it is at today if it were not for the Olympics,” says Nike 6.0 Global Brand Manager, Zach Boon. “Gold medals and Rolling Stone covers are something that was probably as unimaginable to snowboarders as double corks and secret training spots. The surf industry really stands to gain from a diversity of ideas and practices.”
And White’s evolution with Target, according to Michels, was a largely autonomous one. The directives came not from above, but from within. “What we’ve done with Shaun has been Shaun’s idea,” says Michels. “It’s been what Shaun’s wanted to do. We’re not coming in with Carissa and Kolohe and saying, ‘Hey, in a few years we want to do clothing lines with you. That’s not our thing. With Shaun, it was his idea to do a clothing line. He wanted to do it. How can we say no when someone’s passionate about their experience growing up with a brand, and how it’s made their life better?”
The answer stands rhetorically. And White’s progression with snowboarding mirrors Nike’s integration into the culture of skateboarding – possibly the only group historically more averse to corporate influence than surfers.
“As far as a Nike brand playing specifically in the surf industry, it is really something that the Nike SB crew helped create a presence for,” says Boon. “Their dedication to do what is right for skateboarding has been largely accepted and appreciated. That sentiment, both internally and externally, has opened the door for Nike in more action sports.”
Propaganda aside, after assembling an unrivaled youth team and backing high-profile events like the Lowers Pro and U.S. Open of Surfing, Nike’s actions certainly seem to align with their intentions, and McKnight, who is quick to criticize newcomers uninterested in investing in the culture of surfing, applauds the efforts of Nike 6.0 and others like them who have demonstrated a commitment to the lifestyle.
“They’re sponsoring athletes, events, they have training centers, and they’re a sports company, and now they’ve chosen to support surfing and skateboarding, so I greatly admire them,” says McKnight, who’s company netted 1.98 billion and according to Forbes.com earned him in 1.8 million dollars in 2009. “I think they’re doing it the right way, and they’re writing big checks, and I think it scares a lot of us, but hey, we’ve challenged the non-endemics, that if they’re going to come, at least do it correctly. And they are.”
And McKnight never thought it would get to this point. “My initial goals for Quiksilver were just to make boardshorts, go to the beach, keep surfing, have fun, and hopefully make a career out of it – maybe, but I had a whole other backup plan. Never, ever, ever in my wildest dreams did I think it would become what it became. In some ways we still see ourselves like that even though we’re two billion in sales, and we’re public, and we operate in 90 countries, and have offices all over the world and with 800 retail stores and all that other shit…We still pride ourselves on being a little, nimble boardshort company, and that’s why we put every ounce of energy into our boardshorts. Every great company has something that’s their banner product. For us, it’s boardshorts.”
Those little boardshorts with a mountain and a wave – the polyethylene cotton, Velcro-banded Birdwell knock-offs that stopped a few inches short of the thigh and were designed to withstand a bad wipeout at Sunset Beach – catalyzed the birth of something bigger than anyone could have anticipated: a 7.2 billion dollar + industry. And like its constituents, the industry has taken its time growing up. Fifty years later, we’re just beginning to understand the consequences of that metamorphosis. And we’re reconciling the ramifications of our fractured landscape. In remote locales beyond the surf industry’s reach, surf culture ambles along much the way it did in the beginning. Just surfers. Just waves. Alternatively, in industry epicenters surf culture has (d)evolved into something nearly unrecognizable. The companies that have simultaneously progressed and profited from the sport/lifestyle have also transformed it into a micro-economy. And, to an extent, that’s okay. Things must evolve. Without it, greatness of Kelly Slater’s magnitude might not exist, and it surely would not attract widespread respect and recognition from the world at large. But economies, like the budgets, workers, and athletes they sustain, desire growth. Growing pains, if you will.
So when I ask Carissa Moore, arguably the best young female surfer in the world, what advice she might be able to give surf brands to retain their athletes, knowing that bigger companies are approaching surf culture with wide eyes, deep pockets, and seemingly genuine intentions, and she, politely as ever, starts a sentence. Stops. Starts another sentence. Then stops. Then starts one last sentence, earnestly attempting to answer the question before laughing and offering a trademark-polite deferral: “I might have to think about that one for a little while.”
I completely understand.