The last decade or so has seen some radical transformation in the business of surf and the culture at large. The boom of popularity has caused many of the supposed core brands to grow so big they have abandoned the hardcore surf culture to instead appease shareholders and bottom lines by cutting back on riders and event sponsorships. (Remember the Nike US Open…?) During this same time, we’ve seen the meteoric rise of social media with sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter becoming so intricately woven into our society that today’s generation can’t fathom functioning without it. But there is a plus side to this instant access and subsequent demand: small surfer-owned and -operated businesses of all sorts — shapers and artists, independent clothing labels and shops — now have the financial freedom to get their name and brand out to the masses, and on the cheap.
This transition has helped fill the void left behind when many aforementioned core brands went out to compete with Hollister and American Apparel in the strip malls of Iowa or other landlocked states. It has also created an entire cottage industry of small brands who want in on the scene and are willing to help out promising young riders and photographers in order to get much needed content in an effort to increase their brand awareness and credibility. And these are the companies run by surfer owner-operators who do it for love of the sport, not the bottom line. How does this affect surfers? When the going gets tough and there is very little return on their investment, they are much less likely cut bait and leave you in the lurch.
The opportunities for young surfers in particular have never been greater.
When I was a kid, there were only a handful of major brands who might support top tier talent; the best most kids could hope for was a local shop sponsorship, and that didn’t usually offer much more than a discount at the register and maybe a free board every now and then if you competed well. In all fairness, the shop didn’t get a whole lot of return out of this deal, either, aside from positive word of mouth and perhaps a pic of the young ripper (wearing their rashguard or something) to hang on the wall.
But today, social media has created an environment in which aspiring talent and small to mid-sized rands can arrive at mutually rewarding business arrangements. How? The enormous demand for content.
In the world of social media, content is king. Brands are constantly looking for fresh pics and videos to keep their followers engaged. Young surfers, and to a lesser but still notable extent photographers and artists, can fill this demand on the cheap (with readily available and accessible technology) and get sponsored without ever winning contests, or even be all that great. A well-timed and shot cutback looks great on Instagram. And those 500 likes are worth something. It doesn’t matter that you boned the layback and ate a close out. These snapshots are as valuable to the page owner as your first place finish in the local youth contest, especially if there were no images to show for it.
However, while opportunities abound, there are also some serious drawbacks to this newfound business model. But if you understand what is going to be expected of you and follow some simple rules, everyone involved can enjoy a fruitful and mutually rewarding relationship.
Rule 1: How to get sponsored.
Do not inundate a brand for sponsorships on their social media pages. It’s annoying and unprofessional. Any brand who has sponsorship opportunities also has a process. The best way to contact the potential sponsor is to send an email with a short bio along with any good pics or clips you have recently shot. Remember: content is king — so show them you not only know how to engage followers, but have what it takes. Share all your social media pages and make sure you know a little bit about the company. Don’t be a troll. Trolls don’t get sponsorships.
Also, know your talent level. Don’t harass a major company with pro riders. If you were good enough to make that team they would have found you. There are plenty of great opportunities with local brands that might b a better fit for a more modestly-talented kid.
Then surf! Every chance you get. (And skate on lay days.) Find your local youth organization and compete as often as you can. After all, the more you surf, the better you’ll get. And take every opportunity you can to travel and explore new breaks, challenging yourself whenever the conditions present themeelves.
Rule 2: How to act once you get a sponsorship.
Be loyal. Every kid who gets a taste of sponsorship and their two seconds of Insta-fame seems to also get delusions of grandeur. They think they are the next Kelly Slater and that Quik or Billabong are just a few social posts away. You might be good, and you hopefully will get better, but for now be grateful for the opportunities you have.
If you do get another opportunity to move on the bigger brands, you better be damn sure the next opportunity is legit and you damn straight need to exit the right way. Return anything of value thats returnable (even stickers… they cost money) and give a big “thank you” — it is the least you owe them. Also, trash talking your former sponsors or jumping to direct rivals is never a wise idea. While the surf community is big, it is also small — and people tend to have long memories. Everyone knows everyone, and we all talk, even when we don’t necessarily like each other. So if you get a bad reputation, you’re going to wind up sponsored by your mom.
Don’t forget that you are a representative of the brand. Censor yourself when necessary and appropriate — I like to tell young riders (and kids in general) to always wait 30 minutes before posting ANYTHING remotely controversial. If it still seems like a good idea, wait another hour. After that, think about it some more. It’s not that you’re not entitled to an opinion. You are. Only now, you’re valued as a commodity, and sponsors will constantly perform cost-benefit analysis on you. No one is going to be mad if you post your against Rhino Poachers (such as King Kelly), but unless you’re a poly-sci major, you should probably leave the political stuff off your profile page. Remember, at any given time, the United States is 48% one party and 52% the other, and that flip-flops every four to eight years. It’s cool to have a viewpoint. Keep having them! Merely compose yourself on social media as the professional you are going to be viewed as when sponsored.
Lastly, don’t ever get caught up in social media beefs. They’re stupid. No one wins.
Rule 3: If you are lucky enough to get a sponsorship of any size, don’t be shortsighted.
Don’t be so quick to abandon a small to mid-size brands for the promise of glory and fame at a larger company. Understand your talent level and remember the grass is always greener on the other side. If a local company is treating you like a rockstar, you may be very shocked when you’re the low man on the totem pole at a bigger brand. And after being spurred, the small brand is not going to want you back. The list of world-class surfers who have been unceremoniously dropped without doing anything wrong at big brands is long — Clay Marzo, Rob Machado… everyone except Slater at Quiksilver, really. You’re a commodity, not a family member, to a big corporation.
Have realistic expectations about what you want to get and what you have to offer. Always undersell and over-perform, never the reverse. If you are one of the few surfers who are going to make it to the next level and the big boys start knocking on your door and showing up at the beach, remember to handle any transition professionally. Thank your old sponsor personally and let them know what is happening before you make any public announcements. As well as being the right thing to do, it’s good business — when profits decline and market shares slip, you will be dispensable to a big company.
Rule 4: Don’t think your smarter or better than you are.
Again, everyone knows everyone, and we all talk. Once you get a bad reputation as a prima donna, you are probably on your way out of your five minutes of local stardom.
The only thing worse than a prima donna on the team is when the prima donna is a parent of the rider. Mom and dad, this is not your ticket to fame. If you want to help your kid, the best thing you can do is get them a good mentor and help them make good decisions. Don’t be demanding. Don’t be the obnoxious Little League parent — in this culture, you will be very unpopular. Surfing should always be fun. If you take the fun out of the sport for your kids, they’ll never forgive you.
Rule 5: Don’t be selling yourself to competing brands while sponsored.
It’s tacky and unprofessional. And it will come back to bite you. We don’t only use social media for our own promotion, we also use it to check in and follow you as well as other brands, especially competitors.
Everything you get from a small brand costs money. It’s a labor of love for most of us. We aren’t sponsoring riders or events because it’s profitable. We do it for the love of the sport and to help groom the next breed of rippers. If you don’t have a passion for the brand and what they’re doing, don’t waste their money and time. They’ll thank you for being honest, and some other deserving kid will get the opportunity, one they may actually appreciate.
Most likely, you will not become a pro surfer. If you’re lucky, you might get a few years post-school where a sponsor will help you travel and surf before settling into the the soul-crushing, bone-crunching reality of a nine-to-five job with little to no time to cruise the world searching for waves. Enjoy the ride and be grateful! Provide tons of content and be a good ambassador for the brand. You don’t have to be charging Teahupoo. You could be chilling with your friends wearing their T-shirt and a snap back, repping them in your backyard or on the beach. Consider it a part-time job and put some thought and effort into it. Know where the photographers hang out. Be nice to them — they will get you the shots you need. Learn how to make video edits and you can become more valuable than a rider with twice your skill. The rider who gets a brand likes and favorites is the most valuable. An amazing rider who provides no content is effectively useless.
There are ways to make a living in this industry — be it as a surf rep, shop manager, or maybe even an owner. Making friends and being loyal is how you best achieve a successful industry career. Be positive, to yourself and towards the people you meet along the way. Being a little prick will ensure you never get an opportunity. Remember it’s a community. You can either be part of it, or be on the outside looking in.
For more from Kris Kopsaftis, checkout at NJSurfShow.com.