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?

Bobby Martinez's Rebel Cry

Bobby Martinez warned them.

He had won his first heat in the Quiksilver Pro New York 2011 on Long Island’s Long Beach when Todd Kline, Quiksilver’s global-sports-marketing manager, pulled him over for an interview for the company’s webcast.

“The ASP and you guys aren’t going to want this interview,” he told Kline, referring to the Association of Surfing Professionals, the sanctioning body of surfing’s World Tour. Though he’d put on his sponsor-logo hat, his personal emblems—the glorious tats that unfurl across his back—were hidden by the long-sleeved, colored jersey surfers wear so judges can identify them on the water.

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

But Kline waved the words off. When the mic went live, the surfer let loose for one minute and seven seconds. By the time Martinez was done, F-bombs littered the sand as though they were trash on the beach after Memorial Day.

Seen live on the net and on huge screens at New York’s Long Beach, the 29-year-old Martinez hammered the ASP, the World Tour and his competitors, starting slow but gaining momentum as he leaned toward the camera, his board next to him. “I don’t want to be a part of this dumb, fucking, wannabe-tennis tour,” he let them know. “Fucking surfing’s going down the drain thanks to these people.”

Martinez had a case to argue: The tour's recent adoption of a rolling world-ranking system, similar to the one used in competitive tennis, meant the tour's top 34 surfers could be outranked by competitors who had never surfed against them. "Come on now. That's bullshit," he scowled. To many, his ferocity was unintelligible.

Quiksilver's Kline froze. His mouth gaped open.

The ASP didn't hesitate to react. Martinez had been jabbing it with fucks on Twitter for months. Even before the interview turned into a global blow-up with thousands of downloads, its Rules and Disciplinary Committee disqualified him and suspended him from the World Tour.

Bobby Martinez, a rare Latino surfing superstar from a working-class background, had risen to the top tier of professional surfers and was now too rebellious for what had once been a rebel sport.

Even two months later, there's an edge to ASP spokesman's Dave Prodan's voice when he discusses Martinez's suspension. "Bobby made it abundantly clear that he was . . . not happy with being on tour. And I don't think there's much of a reason to give him a second chance or a third chance or a fourth chance."

Since he was 20, Martinez has skirmished with surf-industry powers in Orange County and Australia. With his stylish, effortless surfing, he nailed huge wins as a rookie and was once seen as a possible successor to Florida's Kelly Slater, who has won more World Tours than Lance Armstrong has Tours de France. But he also defied sponsors, took public his complaints with competitive surfing's hierarchy and called BS on competitors he didn't respect because they wouldn't speak up.

Though he beat Slater long before the New York contest, there were plenty in the industry who saw him as petulant, stubborn—unhire-able. But to discover the story behind the controversial interview is to find another Martinez: hardwired to speak the truth, but also, "honestly, one of the most humble guys I've ever met," says Tarik Khashoggi, a lifelong friend.

"He's not about the money with it; he's about the surfing," says his current sponsor, Bobby Vaughn, who co-founded the Von Dutch brand and now runs the edgy New York clothing firm FTW.

But surfing is money. Begun as surfer-to-surfer small businesses, it's now part of the $50 billion-per-year active lifestyle market that includes skateboarding, motocross and snowboarding, with its nexus point here in Orange County. The surf/skate industry had $7.22 billion in U.S. sales in 2008 and is dominated by companies that sponsor surfers and pay for a key industry-marketing vehicle, the World Tour. That tour has always struggled to grow its audience, though, and this new ratings system—the radical reworking of the World Tour that Martinez pilloried—was conceived as a solution and a way to showcase new faces.

Quiksilver had hoped to increase surfing's profile by hosting a major contest in an unlikely locale just miles from Manhattan, the media capital of the world. Instead, viewers were treated to Martinez spitting on his sport.

But within two months, the ASP would have its own self-inflicted, epic fail on its hands by crowning a champion before the real scores were in.  And some would see Martinez as a truth sayer. On Dec. 27, 2011, the ASP abandoned the most controversial aspect of its new rules—the one Martinez had vehemently railed against.

"Unfortunately for pro surfing, there are very few people like Bobby who are willing to speak out," says Sunny Garcia, surfing's 2000 World Champion, who splits his time between Hawaii and San Clemente. "Bobby said it so the rest of the world could finally hear what a lot of surfers actually think."

* * *

“From surfing, I bought this place," Martinez says quietly. It's two months after the blow-up in New York, and he has pulled up his truck behind a modest duplex in Santa Barbara—the house where his parents live.

Martinez is giving a tour of the neighborhood where he grew up. It's the one writers always want for their color commentary that glibly treats the streets of his youth like an anthropological safari: the block in gang territory where someone was shot, the relative's house where Martinez got his first tattoo with a jerry-rigged tattoo gun. Martinez left the tour in part to spend more time in the Santa Barbara barrio where family lives, but it bothers him when surfing publications push this angle, as if where he grew up defines him more than his surfing.

Straight-up, Bobby Martinez is a surfer. At 6 years old, when he rode a wave standing on a boogie board at a public beach in Santa Barbara, his course was set. At 12, he won his first national championship as an amateur, the first of seven as he broke National Scholastic Surfing Association records. At 13, he traveled to war-torn El Salvador for a photo shoot—just him, another kid and the photographer. He earned a $30,000 sponsorship deal by the time he was in seventh grade. In ninth, he left school because he traveled that much. His style looked effortless. There was a buzz; he was the next great thing.

People thought he would rapidly transcend pro surfing's farm tour—the Qualifying Series—and make the elite group of contests, the World Championship Tour, which crowns the top surfer annually. Instead, a career-threatening injury stopped him from competing the first year. From 2003 to 2005, he was almost always on the road, living out of a "board bag" while trying to crack surfing's top tier.

After three years, Martinez—who was by then footing the bill for much of his global travel due to sponsor problems—started to lose his confidence. "Al told him, 'You can do this; you're close,'" says Travis Lee, who works for Channel Island Surfboards, the home of legendary surfboard shaper Al Merrick. "He stuck with it and qualified" for the tour.

His first year on the tour in 2006 was a dream. First event: third place. Second event, a win. He took down Slater himself, to win another. That year, he won at Teahupoo, Tahiti, the tour's defining wave—a barreling tube over a razor-sharp reef, an entirely different beast from Rincon, Santa Barbara's generous, rolling wave where he made his name. Martinez ended the year fifth in the rankings—to many, an astounding ascent. He was 2006's Rookie of the Year.

"When he won at Teahupoo . . . he calls me from an airport," says Bryan Taylor, his manager. "We spoke about business. Finally, I said, 'Is the contest over?' And he said, 'Yes, it ended this morning.' And we went back to talking about business, and I assumed he must not have done well. Finally, I said, 'By the way, did you do okay?' And there's hesitation, and he said, 'I guess; I won.' I said, 'You won! Why didn't you tell me 20 minutes ago?'"

On the tour, Martinez often kept to himself and was not part of surfing's infamous party scene. Off the tour, he cherished time with friends and family. He lived quietly with his wife and worked out at a struggling, neighborhood boxing gym.

Though unassuming by nature, Martinez had tried at 16 to buy a Mercedes. When the dealer refused to take seriously a Mexican kid acting as if he could afford a luxury car, he bought a BMW instead. But those days ended when he gave up the BMW for a white Prius.

In Martinez's first four years on the tour, he always ranked in the world's top 10. Yet by 2009, even though beverage company Monster Energy provided him with a lucrative contract, he was surfing without the logistical help of a major clothing sponsor—something unheard-of on tour.

Martinez had gotten in a beef with his sponsor Reef. It was not his first dispute with a sponsor. They had begun during his first full year trying to qualify with the sunglasses-and-apparel manufacturer Oakley, headquartered in Foothill Ranch. Twice, when he was injured and unable to compete in Australia and Brazil, the brand asked him to attend contests to support the other surfers it sponsored—"your team riders" is how he says Oakley put it. He would honor Oakley's other requests, Martinez says, but explained that although he was on Oakley's team, the other surfers were his competition, and thus refused to go.

"He was never a very good puppet . . . which some of these [pro surfers] quite frankly have to be," says Taylor, who has represented Martinez since 1987. "He doesn't go for peer pressure."

Taylor says a meeting about Martinez's contract in 2008 ended the surfer's relationship with Reef. As he remembers it, Reef's then-vice-president of marketing, Kevin Flanagan, questioned Martinez's desire to travel the tour while in contract negotiations over his salary. "Are you really a surfer? Or do you just want to sit at home and play with your dogs?" Taylor remembers Flanagan asking Martinez.

"Bobby would never look at that company in the same way again," says Taylor. "It questioned his heart and his ethic: 'Do you really want to be a surfer, or do you just want to make more money?' Bobby really hungered for the world title."

When Martinez thought Flanagan went back on a promise to increase his salary in 2008, he walked away from negotiations. He went on to win Teahupoo again in 2009 and finished eighth in the world. O'Neill signed him for 2010. But soon, he was taking on the ASP itself, a worldwide organization based in Australia with regional offices in Huntington Beach.

In late 2009, the ASP set into motion changes to fend off a competing tour and to make surfing more exciting in their minds. Instead of two separate tours, all surfers would fall under a One World Ranking, with the top 34 qualified for the contests that decide the champion. But now, anyone falling out of the 34 would be cut mid-season, not annually.

Martinez believed the changes, which borrowed from professional tennis, were a terrible fit for surfing, a sport far different from tennis' controlled environment. The location schedule for the tour favors certain styles of surfers during the first half of the year, others during the second. He gives an analogy: What if a tennis player who played well on hard courts was disqualified from the U.S. Open in September because he or she failed on the French Open's clay courts in May? And he remembered how his first year felt on the Dream Tour. Everyone deserved a whole year to savor.

He took up his grievance with Brodie Carr, the ASP's CEO, who agreed with him, but nothing came of it. The union, World Professional Surfers, claimed surfers voted for the changes. Martinez found the claim absurd since no official poll was taken. World-title contenders now had to surf the lower qualifying events to stay in the top 34. And with the ASP changing points values for all events, many were confused about which events to surf.

In 2010, Martinez dropped to 20th in the world. Among other reasons, friends say, the traveling hurt his focus. Last year, just before the ASP hit Brazil for the Billabong Rio Pro, Martinez's grandfather died. If he surfed, he'd miss the funeral. "I had to tell him, 'If you don't go to this, you will not have a chance to re-qualify,'" says Lee. Martinez beat Slater, came in fifth and got a tattoo in honor of his grandfather.

But last June, when, Martinez says, he got notification that after Quiksilver's New York contest, the first group of top surfers would hit their mid-season mark and be culled under the new rules, he'd had enough. "Every surfer I talked to didn't know how the point system worked," he says. Martinez, who uses "FUCK" like an English teacher uses a preposition, went on a Twitter rant.

Over the summer, Tim English at Monster Energy says he received a call from the surfer, who was just coming off the tour. "If you don't believe in this tour anymore and you're not happy, then you shouldn't be on tour," English remembers telling him. "He was just, 'Oh, man, you have no idea how good that makes me feel.' I think he was really relieved that he hadn't upset anyone."

Martinez had also reached out to fellow surfer Garcia.

"His heart wasn't in it," says Garcia. "I talked to him for a long time: 'Are you sure this is a decision you want to make? It will be really sad not to see you on tour because I believe you can win.' He was just like, 'Man, I don't know how you did it for so long. . . . I don't feel like I have a voice.'"

He had already pulled out of South Africa, and then Teahupoo. In August, he announced he was retiring. And in September, he told the World Tour what he thought of them on a beach on Long Island.

"Sorry if I offended anyone," he said to English, "but I don't regret it for one minute."

* * *

The online bulletin boards lit up. "A has-been who has sealed his own fate," came the word on Stab.

"Bitter Beaner Bobbie does it again," "frucus" felt free to unload.

If the haters were having a go at Martinez on bulletin boards, industry observers noted the financially lethal aspects of what he had done. But Martinez also drew respect, not only from the teenage demographic that thrived on his fuck-off attitude, but also from observers in the surf world.

"I think the sport needs more Bobby Martinezes," explains Barry K Haun, curator and creative director of the Surfing Heritage Foundation in Costa Mesa. "I'm not saying that everything he says is right, [but] without the Bobbies, you can end up with a very homogenized sport."

If Hawaii's North Shore is surfing's mythic Mecca, Orange County is its Wall Street, a fiercely provincial big-money world in which professional incest is unavoidable. "I ran a company called Black Flys for years off Monrovia [Avenue in Costa Mesa], which is right down the street from Hurley, which is right down the street from Quiksilver, which is right down the street from Billabong, which is right down the street from O'Neill," says Jonathan Paskowitz, president of Lightning Bolt USA. "It's this big, nepotistic group of industry individuals who all hang out together and work together."

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."

"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.

"Mark," posting on Surfline.com, noticed the ASP had its calculations wrong. Slater did the math himself and passed the word along. Four days later, Slater won the heat he needed and was re-crowned.

But the ASP's reputation took a serious ding. As "whoisjob" (pro surfer Jamie O'Brien) tweeted, "WHAT IS THE ASP???? Its [sic] a SANCTIONING body for a WORLD TITLE."

Within two days, the organization announced it had accepted the resignation of CEO Carr. But the controversy wouldn't die. The ASP had screwed up its most basic mission just as its complex One World ranking system was in its first full year.

"It's the first time in surfing history [the ASP] ever fucked up on the points," says Martinez.

ASP's Prodan says the mistake was not from the new, computer-driven system, but rather "human error." Officials there claim the complex tie-breaker formula was the problem.

But at ESPN's Action Sports website, contributor Peter "Joli" Wilson questioned that, noting that if human error affected the world-title decision, "you have to think, what other results and ratings might be skewed?" Room for error was plentiful given that the One World Ranking involves changing the point values that can be won at all ASP-sanctioned events and required a complex weighting system.

Even Quiksilver jabbed the ASP. It asked Martinez for an interview set at a Santa Barbara-area tennis court after the fiasco. There, he delivered a powerful serve—and some choice words. He lightheartedly suggested that surfers who'd qualified to try for the world title should check the math because their chance might have come and gone during the previous mid-season cycle.

"Honestly, after New York, people were like, 'Oh, man, he's crazy,'" pro surfer Strider Wasilewski says of Martinez. "But now, after you see what happened in San Francisco, people are like, 'Maybe he's not so crazy.'"

Wasilewski is widely liked and works in the industry, and his approach to criticism is softer than Martinez's, but he also questions the results of ASP's changes.

"They did it to evolve the sport as a business, so that more people would stay interested and they could sell the package—but it didn't work," Wasilewski tells the Weekly in early November. "They still don't have a blanket sponsor for the tour. They don't have a TV deal; the companies are all funding their own webcasts—so there's no continuity. There's no webcaster or sportscaster or surfcaster, whatever you want to call it, that becomes a glue and people get familiar.

"They have not put together a package of any sort for anybody to actually become interested," he concludes.

By mid-November 2011, the ASP was considering backing off the change that Martinez found so egregious: the mid-season cutoff. Surfers are also pushing a return to the two-tier system—made up of a title race and qualifying tour, says Renato Hickel, the ASP's World Tour Manager.

Hickel has a warm Brazilian personality, and it's easy to take him at his word when he claims that calling Martinez in New York to ban him from the tour was difficult. "I know Bobby, and I'm really fond of him," he says. Although the press and gossip were painting Martinez as having lost it, Hickel saw a different man. "We met later in the hotel, and he gave me a hug and we exchanged a couple of jokes."

But ask Hickel which individual surfers are pushing the ASP to return to the old system, and Hickel buttons up. "Surfers who attended the Board Meeting were representing the 'surfers' as a whole, so it is best to address [them] as 'the surfers' or 'the majority of the surfers on tour,'" he says in a follow-up message.

With ASP refusing to name the board representatives who spoke out, surfing had lost the guy who was always unafraid to speak on the record.

"Maybe the way [Bobby] said it wasn't extremely diplomatic—it could have been done in King James version of etiquette, the rules of Canterbury or whatever, or, like, the way you see the House of Lords do it on C-SPAN: 'Good gentlemen, I object; this is bullshit, as we say,'" says Lightning Bolt's Paskowitz, thinking it over in his setup in Venice, miles from the money in Orange County. "Maybe, yes, semantics could have been different—but the guy's point is valid."

In fact, on Dec. 27, 2011, the ASP and the surfers' union announced they were dropping the mid-season cutoff for the 2012 title race. They cited scheduling complexities as having made the system unmanageable. The essence of their decision reflected Martinez's point of view: A mid-season rotation doesn't work in competitive surfing. Martinez just didn't say it that way on a beach in New York.

What Bobby Martinez did was "no different than a John McEnroe outburst, you know—get over it. That's the one analogy that I used," says Monster's Tim English. "After I put it in that context, everybody was like, 'Oh, yeah—why is everyone making such a big deal out of it?'"

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