Most of my friends are, or once were, professional surfers. I was born and raised in Santa Cruz, Calif. and given that I’m a part of this tight-knit community, it’s highly uncomfortable and difficult for me to write about the harsh realities that I see some of these surfers facing today. That being said, I’ll continue on as honestly as possible—because pro surfing isn’t always the glamorous career it can seem and can be a road to nowhere for some.
The definition of “pro surfer” will vary depending on whom you ask. Some people will tell you that Nat Young is the only pro surfer in Santa Cruz because he is the only one who competes in the World Surf League (WSL).
To gain clarity on the definition, I rode my bike to Pete Mel’s surf shop, Freeline . Mel won the Mavericks competition in 2013 and is one of the most celebrated surfers to ever come out of Santa Cruz. “A pro surfer is someone who gets paid to create value for a brand by surfing and getting media attention,” he told me.
Right now, I am one of the few surfers in Santa Cruz who still enjoys a small salary from my main sponsor, Patagonia. If my friends were to be brutally honest, they would tell me that dozens of unsponsored guys in town surf circles around me. They would tell me that I have never been paid for my surfing, and that, in reality, I get paid to create video content that aligns with my sponsor’s brand. Thankfully, my friends are too polite to tell me any of this, so I’ll go on introducing myself as a pro surfer, although it is unclear sometimes why I really get paid.
Young’s job is clearer: win the heat. The athleticism and grit that it takes to compete in the WSL are freakish attributes that very few surfers from our town have ever possessed. Unlike a free-surfer who tends to have a more wanderlust schedule, chasing swells wherever they go, Young’s year is mapped out in advance as he moves from competition to competition. This also allows Young to gain income from both competition prize money as well as sponsorship endorsements. Free-surfers rely strictly on sponsors.
I’d say that about 90 percent of pros to ever come out of Santa Cruz, including Mel, were primarily paid as free-surfers. Not unlike a professional model, a free-surfer gets paid to promote the products their sponsors are trying to sell. They do this by garnering media attention while sporting their logos.
The simple truth is that whether you are Young, Mel, or a grom who gets paid $300 per month, a pro surfer is a commodity. The moment the athlete is no longer seen as someone who moves product, they will no longer be paid to surf. The reasons a pro might get dropped by their sponsor can range from image to age, to Instagram
“How much money were you making at the peak of your career?” I asked Mel. I shift in my seat and quickly follow up with, “you don’t need to answer that if you don’t want to.”
“It’s OK,” he responded. “I was making about $150,000 per year … and someone like Flea was probably making a lot more than that at the time.”
It’s been at least 10 years since the industry began shifting funds away from the local pro to invest more in the top guys. Santa Cruz used to have dozens of athletes who made good money to surf. Some of them included Jason “Ratboy” Collins, Darryl “Flea” Virostko, Shawn “Barney” Barron, Adam Replogle, Ken “Skindog” Collins, Josh Mulcoy, Anthony Ruffo, Bud Freitas, and Mel. Today, I can count everyone who gets a paycheck on one hand.
“To be a pro today you need to be a professional marketer,” Mel continued. “When I was coming up it was a lot more simple. I made sure to show up at the right surf spots and work with the right photographers and filmers. That’s still true for guys today, but they have to be a lot more creative.”
This creativity can take shape in the form of a YouTube series, a clever Instagram campaign, or having an irreplaceable ‘personal brand.’ A good example of this originality is Mark Healey – a big wave surfer, professional spear-fisherman, and Hollywood stuntman.
Then again, you could make this argument for any model, athlete, writer, or content producer today—they all need to be more creative than the generation prior. So, what makes the industry of professional surfing even more isolating for its participants?
The first harsh reality that pro surfers face once their careers wind down is that very few of them are college educated. Unlike basketball and football, there is no organizational structure that encourages surfers to develop their minds in conjunction with building their careers as professional athletes. This lack of education leaves a lot of pros excluded from certain tables once their athletic careers come to a close.
The good news for today’s surfers is that they have more computing power in their pockets than NASA did in 1969. Given the amount of travel time pros have, they can pursue a DIY education with virtual tools. WSL pro surfer Conner Coffin, for example, took college courses online while qualifying for the tour.
The second harsh reality that I see pro surfers struggle with after the spotlight fades is the identity crisis. Introducing yourself as a pro surfer can be a difficult habit to let go of, especially if it’s been getting you free yoga classes and Tinder dates for the last 10 years.
Even when the writing is on the wall, it’s common for a pro to clutch to the false dream that one day they will “make it.” This isn’t entirely their fault. As former pro surfer, Bud Freitas told me, “Team managers fill your head with false promises and tell you that you’re going to be the next big thing.” As a result, many pro surfers miss opportunities that could allow them to gain valuable skills applicable beyond the world of surfing.
Our society values glamour and prestige to an absurd degree. It’s an ego blow for anyone in any career to feel like they’re moving backward, but it’s especially jarring for a professional athlete who gets dropped by their sponsor and has no backup plan.
It can be a shocking life adjustment when a pro surfer who travels to exotic locations for nine months a year wakes up one day and realizes that they’re an unemployed 35-year-old with little work experience. And downright frightening when it becomes obvious that something you’ve worked your whole life for leads to absolutely nowhere.