Sponsors might be drying up, but our appetite for giant waves will never rest.
Despite dwindling sponsorship dollars available big wave surfing still holds our attention. Last week’s WSL big wave tow event at Nazaré all but confirmed we are still moths to the flame.
Last Friday at the Byron Film Festival’s surf film screening a bunch of films played embodied the surfing lifestyle. However, one clearly stood out from the pack as it dived into the psyche of a slab hunting big wave addict. Russell Bierke’s Flow State sees the quiet 22-year-old from Ulladulla on the New South Wales South Coast confidently expose his talent as he draws technical lines and approaches some of the heaviest waves on the planet.
The film got me thinking that big wave surfers are truly underappreciated. In sponsorship terms, they are also extremely undervalued. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a Red Bull sticker on your board or a marquee sponsor footing your salary, making a crust in the big wave surfing arena is a hobby, not a career.
What’s most bittersweet for a fella like Russ is that he qualified for the Big Wave World Tour before the WSL cancelled the Tour in 2019. After huge performances at Jaws and charging swells around the globe, he was due to be the youngest competitor on Tour and stand alongside Jamie Mitchell as the only Aussies represented.
But then the WSL announced a “reimagined” the BWT with two stops: Jaws (The Big Wave Championship) and Nazaré (A specialty tow event). Not much of a Tour and not enough prize money or incentive to make a career of it.
The Big Wave World Tour had been stripping back events year on year since 2015 when seven potential stops were introduced and only three ran. In 2016 all six events ran, a high-water mark for the Tour with Greg Long claiming his second Big Wave World Title. In 2017, the Tour was down to four events, and in 2018 there were only three. The legitimacy of a world title in such circumstances has always been debated.
The WSL’s 2019 “reimagined” vision also outlined their intent to mine for big wave surf content. The WSL unveiled “Strike Missions”: Where the WSL would send their content creators to wherever that purple blob lands, intent on capturing those viral moments that defy imagination.
That ultimately drew a line in the sand for the self-promotors and humble average joes out there in big wave surfing. If you had a savvy social media presence or a well-executed Vlog or Youtube channel you could capitalise on the exposure promised from a death-defying ride. You still need to pay your way there to chase the swell and hope a full camera crew will be there to witness it or BYO.
Pro surfing on the surface may look like the land of opportunity with equal pay for both men and women on the CT, but the pay gap for big wave surfing has never been so great. With sponsors having abandoned events in recent years, and a two-stop tour, few big wave surfers even manage to court legitimate sponsorship. There aren’t many big wave surfers who have an unlimited bank account at their disposal. And there are few young guys like Russ trying to make a name for themselves on the scene.
But it’s arguably the big wave surfers who are the most interesting.
The behind the scenes lives they live, the preparation they go through, mindset and sacrifices they make could be made into an HBO drama mini-series. Despite what they put on the line each time they hit the ocean and stare death straight in the eye. You’re not going to get a cookie-cutter post-heat interview that you hear on the CT from Ross Clarke-Jones after he’s survived a flogging at Nazaré.
The sad fact is that the larger than life characters that make big wave surfing are becoming extinct, exist in the shadows, or worse still are choosing to walk away from it altogether. But when the charts display those magenta colours many will still feel that call of the wild. Cameras or not there is always someone who will be watching.