Bobby Martinez's Rebel Cry

Can the enfant terrible's harsh words and crisp moves reform the corporatized surf scene dominated by Orange County's action-sports industry?

This was the world Martinez was taking on. As he explains it, "There are people I can't stand. The reason why I don't like [them] is because they'll smile to your face and talk shit behind your back."

To Martinez, OC's corporate culture was anathema to the sport. The corporate dominance of Quiksilver, Oakley and their fellow titans is such that in November 2010, the Nielsen Sports Group, which ran the surfing industry's annual Action Sports Retail (ASR) trade show, suspended it because the mom-and-pop participants hawking surf goods had been pushed out.

Andy Tompkins, formerly Nielsen's vice president, says the industry's target market is the anti-establishment ages of 12 to 18. That demographic might seem a perfect fit for Martinez, but, Tompkins explains, a board of directors at a big firm that backs surfing might care more about family values. It can be safer to go "with the Kelly Slater types who haven't had many issues—or at least not publicly."

Surfing into the future
Associated Press
Surfing into the future
Martinez: Straight outta Santa Barbara
Ted Soqui
Martinez: Straight outta Santa Barbara

"You were who they wanted to put out in the world," says Martinez's friend Pascal Stansfield, who started his Malibu company Freedom Artists in 2007 in reaction to surfing's corporatization. Surfers are "not just a product," he says. "The more you embrace individual character, the more marketable [you are] to everybody who buys clothes."

Says Martinez, "[Sponsors] want you to do dumb shit you would never do because they're paying you. . . . They say, 'It's a family' and you should go and support them. But at the end of the day, they will cut you in a heartbeat, quicker than they signed you."

"The real power of the control of the surfing industry . . . will always rest in the hands of the manufacturers," adds Paskowitz.

Asked how pervasive the influence of surf companies is within the sport, Erik Joule, former vice president of merchandising and design at Quiksilver, now with Levi Strauss & Co., says, "Huge—they have the dollars."

Forget the four-tier model in U.S. major-league sports—an overseeing body, owners, players and outside sponsors who pay to advertise their brand—contests that make up the World Tour are not financed by "owners," but rather by sponsors. The advertisers also directly influence the sport by sitting on the ASP's board, as do the surfers.

The ASP is "not toothless," says Scott Hulet, who edits the San Clemente-based The Surfer's Journal, which as a subscriber-based magazine is not as impacted by advertisers as are Surfer, Surfing, TransWorld Surf and other major surf-lifestyle publications. "But the events themselves around the world are under the ownership and direction of the surf-clothing companies and wetsuit manufacturers who also sponsor the athletes in those events. . . . That seems like a relationship fraught with hazard. By the same token, anything that allows a talented, young, world-class surfer the ability to fly around the world and basically play in the water is a win for that surfer."

But surfing itself doesn't draw a huge mainstream audience. The spots with the best waves—the ones that create a spectacle of danger, athleticism and grace—are often located far from the world's media capitals. The smaller waves near big cities rarely guarantee the same excitement or quality of surfing, so Quiksilver's Long Beach, New York, locale was designed to turn on thousands of new fans.

The One World Ranking and the new mid-season tour rotation were meant to showcase younger surfers and bring more hype to an art that's about man-upon-wave, not the traditional sports conflict the advertisers flock to, that of man-vs.-man. For many surfers, it's a deeply metaphysical act that connects man to water.

"Had it not been for these Orange County apparel companies, there really wouldn't be professional surfers," says Taylor. "So it's kind of a Catch-22. . . . They own the tour; they rule it. On the other hand, if it weren't for them, there would really be no tour."

But Garcia, the Tour's mercurial 2000 Champion, knows the danger of having surfers sit on a board across the table from the companies that sponsor them and pay their mortgages. He was sponsored by Billabong when he was younger, but during his later tenure as a surfers' rep on the ASP board, he, like Martinez, did not have a big-five sponsor. Instead, No Fear, a company owned by his friends, sprang to back Garcia's name. The surfer was thus free to voice criticisms that others on the board were reluctant to express.

"At one time, there was a lot of criticism of professional surfing," says Jim Evans, an art director who began his career with classic illustrations for Surfer and Surfing. But those days are gone. "Professional surfers are supposed to keep their mouths shut and be cool athletes."

* * *

On Nov. 2, on a San Francisco beach, the ASP crowned its 2011 champion: Kelly Slater.

Slater, 39, had accomplished a staggering feat for any sport, finishing at the top for 11 full years. It was huge news. The press releases went out, Quiksilver ran its congratulatory ad for its No. 1 surfer, and the blogosphere celebrated.

The thing was, Slater hadn't yet clinched it. The ASP had made a mistake: Slater needed to win one more heat.

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