Three’s Company

21 01 2010

For the greater part of three decades three surf companies have dominated professional surfing in terms of event sponsorship money and world titles. Nugable takes a closer look at the situation.

Most sports have Nike and Reebok. Surfing has Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl. Since 1982 only four surfers have won the ASP World Championship without one of the Big 3’s stickers on their board (Barton Lynch/Instinct, Derek Ho/Gotcha, Martin Potter/Gotcha and CJ Hobgood/Globe). Since 1990 it has essentially happened twice.

It leads one to wonder if there’s a conspiracy and whether or not a surfer not sponsored by Rip Curl, Quiksilver or Billabong will ever win a world title again?

“I think the answer is yes,” says veteran Australian journalist Tim Baker. “I don’t think there is a conspiracy. Have a look at event winners over the past few years and there is not a high incidence of surfers winning their own sponsor’s events. It happens here or there, Parko at J-Bay, Mick (Fanning) in Portugal, but not enough to suggest a conspiracy, and there was nothing contentious about those wins. It would be a bit too obvious anyway and I think ASP head judge Perry Hatchett is a man of enormous integrity.”

The last time a surfer not sponsored by the Big 3 won the title was in 2001 when Florida’s CJ Hobgood took home the crown in a season cut short by the tragedy and uncertainty of the events surrounding 9/11.

“I was the last one to do it, but mine doesn’t count,” said former ASP world champion CJ Hobgood. “Look at any sport…golf, tennis, etc.  I mean when was the last time a world number one in golf or tennis wasn’t sponsored by Nike or maybe Adidas? (When) you have the most money it’s pretty easy to get the best athletes.”

Looking back, 2002 was the turning point for the ASP when the majority of the events (8/12) main sponsors were one of the Big 3. Since then the Big 3 have essentially controlled the ASP’s World Championship Tour. In 2010 they account for 8 of the 10 events.

An oligarchy is a form of power that effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals. It can be argued that the ASP operates as a corporate oligarchy. Behind the scenes there are always people who complain about surfers getting “pushed” in heats.

Transworld Surf editor-in-chief Chris Cote suggests there is a morsel of truth to that argument. “I don’t think it happens often, but I think the judges, just like the media, get caught up in the hype and push the ‘it’ guys through sometimes.”

Let’s face it, today there are only a handful of surfers with a realistic chance at a title—Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Bede Durbidge and Taj Burrow. All except Durbidge ride for the Big 3. The current number-three in the world was recently picked up by Fox when his primary sponsor, Mada, went belly up.

There is no question the large surf companies do a fantastic job of signing, finding and nurturing talent. Just look at the junior’s scene today. Owen Wright, a 2010 WCT rookie, is a Rip Curl Team rider, as is 16-year-old Brazilian phenom Gabriel Medina.

“The big companies have the resources to get the best guys,” says Cote. “It used to be kids would come up riding for smaller companies, and then get snatched by the bigger companies. Now you see big companies like Target and Nike snatching up kids from the biggest surf companies.”

A perfect example is the recent signing of 9-time NSSA national champ Kolohe Andino by Nike. He bolsters an already impressive lineup of young Nike surfers that includes Dusty Payne, Nat Young, Kai Barger and Michel Bourez. Yesterday, Target also signed the up-and-coming San Clemente teenager. He joins Carissa Moore on team Target and more surfers will surely follow.

Baker suggests subtler forces may also play a role. “Yes, these companies do a good job of picking up the cream of the talent pool, but they also do a really good job of marketing those guys and showcasing their surfing in video and photos, so that we all get a slightly elevated view of their prowess compared to their less-well sponsored peers. If, say, Tom Whittaker was sponsored by one of the Big 3 he would be a lot more visible and we would all be more firmly convinced of how hard he rips. I think this even unconsciously can rub off on the judges at times and get the high-profile guys through tight heats. But I think all concerned know if it became a case of obvious bias pro surfing would quickly lose whatever legitimacy it has.”

If you aspire to be a world champ someday, just to be safe, you’d better make sure you sign on the dotted line with one of these three companies. Or at least until Nike and Target take over.


This Post May Contain Adult Themes, Drug References and Sex

19 01 2010

Tim Baker wants you to help him find the Flow. Pic: Peter Eastway/Surfing World

Veteran Australian surf journalist Tim Baker is writing a novel and he wants you to be a part of it. According to Tim, he’ll be posting his “great unfinished novel” in short installments and he wants the public to help him with comments and suggestions.  

“Hopefully, you might feel compelled to follow, comment or even pass it on to others. I kinda like the idea of having a bit of a conversation about it as I go, like you would about your favourite soap opera. I mean, I have a pretty clear idea where it is going but I’ll take your ideas/suggestions/criticisms onboard as I go.”  

The first installment or chapter of  Flow  chronicles the adventures of  “Camel,” a fictitious head of a major surfwear company who, interestingly enough, likes to “swill huge quantities of piss, take drugs, frequent strip clubs, hire hookers, (and) wallow in this decadent haze into the wee hours.”  

Like any good novelist, it appears Tim has loosely based the story on elements of the truth and his own experiences writing about the surf industry for more than 25 years. But I’m fairly certain the old disclaimer that states “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” applies.  

Take a look for yourself and tell him what you think.

Tim Baker Interview

13 10 2009
I was (Lewis) Samuels before Samuels was Samuels. Surf journalist Tim Baker on assignment in the Mentawais.

"I was (Lewis) Samuels before Samuels was Samuels." Veteran Surf journalist Tim Baker on assignment for Surfing Magazine in the Mentawais.

Tim Baker is a 44-year-old veteran Australian journalist who has been covering surfing for more than two decades. He formerly worked as an editor for Tracks and Australia’s Surfing Life. Now, he’s a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Surfer, Surfing and the Surfer’s Journal. He has also written several books including the soon-to-be-released Surf For Your Life, a Mick Fanning biography. He begrudgingly agreed to answer a few questions for Nugable.

You have written several books about professional surfers, but surfers have a stigma of not being big readers. Is it hard to convince publishers books about surfers will sell?
It was initially, but surf books have done well here over the past few years. Occy is officially a “National Bestseller” which I think means over 30,000 sales, not bad for a smallish market like Oz. The Michael Peterson book by Sean Doherty did similar numbers I think. Rabbit’s bio is up there too, still being reprinted and still selling 13 years after its release. My 2007 book, High Surf, was one of the biggest selling books at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, which is a pretty high brow crowd, so we are holding our own. Surfing is much bigger news here that in the U.S., much more mainstream. That said, I have a surf novel in the works and new fiction seems to scare the shit out of publishers and they don’t want to know about it. Sigh.

You have finished the Mick Fanning book? When does it come out and could the timing be any better with Fanning in middle of a world title race?
Mick’s book, Surf For Your Life, (Ebury Press) comes out at the end of the month and yeah, his current roll is pretty nicely timed. I didn’t really expect this to be a world title year for Mick and, honestly, one of the things that interested me about him was that he seemed to have seen through the whole pro surfing circus and had other priorities in life – he said to me in a quiet aside in Fiji in 2007, “There’s got to be more to life than surf contests,” and it was that statement that triggered my interest more than anything. But he is just so good, and has mastered the “game” of pro surfing to such an extent that he can still excel while putting energy into other areas of life. Kind of like Kelly has done in the past, which I find pretty impressive.

What was the most extraordinary thing you learned about Mick Fanning during the course of writing the book?
Maybe just how tough they did it as a family when he was young…the contrast between the hard life his father has lived, basically orphaned as a child, emigrating to Australia, driving an earth mover all his working life, very working class, and then Mick’s parents splitting and his mum bringing up five kids on her own. Then losing one of them in a car accident…Mick’s next oldest brother Sean. And just how Mick has dealt with all this. Used it all as positive energy to drive him on. His story is really all about how what doesn’t kill you actually can make you stronger. There’s a lot of discussion these days about how we make kids “resilient” to the pressures of life, and Mick’s a pretty good case study. That and the fact that he once busted Paul Fisher masturbating on a boat in the Mentawais and has the photo to prove it. And once walked into a bar in Brazil in a g-string to make his mates laugh, only to find a slightly bemused bartender picking up glasses and explaining that his mates had just left. People seem to think Mick is this serious contest robot but there is a wild spirit lurking just below the surface.

You were one of the few journalists who wrote substantive articles about the so-called rebel tour and the ASP’s response to the situation. The American surf media seems to be dropping the ball. Are they?
I think there are some interesting American surf writers – Nathan Myers is good. I actually like Lewis Samuels’ stuff when he is being thoughtful and reflective rather than just nasty, but there does seem to be a bit of a lack of hard news reporting. Myself and a couple of other surf journos in Australia have come from mainstream newspaper backgrounds so you have that kind of news sense bred into you I think. Surf mags often don’t seem sure how to handle real news, but I think it is becoming more important in the age of the ‘net and a virtually 24-hour news cycle.

What are your thoughts about the recent changes the ASP announced this week in Spain?
I think the single ratings thing is the biggest single change in surfing for a long time and I’m not sure people really get how sweeping it is. It makes the ratings completely fluid and dynamic and those guys struggling at the bottom end of the WCT are going to slide down that slippery pole pretty quick and new young guys can come up and claim a spot fast. If it was in place this year, a kid like Owen Wright would already be up there in the WCT ratings, and a guy like Marlon Lipke would be back in the minor leagues already. I think it’s admirable that the surfers voted for it and reducing numbers on tour, because it means less job security for them but a better deal for fans I think. Prize money increases are long overdue. Forty-eight guys competing at Chopes for $40,000 first place, when they are risking their lives, is pretty lame.

It seems the surf media has trouble separating itself from the surfers and being objective. One commenter here even suggested you are “just a fan with access.” Does being close with the surfers cloud the journalistic judgment?
I find this pretty amusing because I have spent most of my working life making enemies of pro surfers…nearly got into plenty of fights with them, been accused of all kinds of nasty, subversive views. Man, I was Samuels before Samuels was Samuels. In 25 years of surf writing I have probably made 5 friends in the pro surfing world. Most of my close friends don’t even surf. I spend very little time actually interacting with the whole pro surfing establishment, don’t go to the parties, or on the trips, or bro-down with the crowd. I’d estimate less than 10% of my work is about pro surfing. I’ve more commonly been accused of being an enemy of the system and a cynic and I do think pro surfing is largely a farce. I like to run my own race. But journalistic objectivity is a bit of a myth I reckon–we are humans, with emotions and biases. Why pretend otherwise? I used to spend a lot of time slagging people off and it just makes everyone miserable. Now I choose to write about issues and people that impress me and I’m a much happier person for it. Thich Nhat Hahn, the Zen Buddhist monk says, “Ask not what’s wrong. Ask what’s not wrong.” I like that.

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