Reef Heazlewood and the realities of trying to qualify without a major sponsor.
The surf industry teat is one hard udder to suckle these days. Take Reef Heazlewood, for example. Kid comes off winning the Australasian Junior Series in 2017 straight into a pretty mean showing by any young surfer’s measure, banking a handful of solid results on his way to nearly qualifying in his first year on the QS. Along the way he wins the US Open trials at Huntington, keeps his Instagram loaded with shining examples of his talent, and damn near blows the collective surf world’s mind with a couple of airs at Rocky Point that are almost stratospheric by nature.
But it’s not enough. Come year’s end, Billabong, his major sponsor since he was ten, opt not to renew his contract. It’s a part of larger cuts across the brand and surf industry in general, but still, it’s got to feel like a kick in the nuts, right?
Well, yeah and no according to Reef, who, with the maturity of someone far better adjusted than most nineteen-year-olds, is endeavouring to see the upsides and opportunities in what could otherwise be perceived as a pretty shitty hand.
‘It’s cool to come out of a sponsorship where it was such a long one and go “Alright, what does actually define me?”’ says Reef. ‘It’s not who sponsors me. They do help, but it doesn’t define me.’
It’s an admirable attitude to have, to look beyond the sense of security a major sponsor provides and see that who you are as an individual is much bigger than that, but what about the reality of pursuing your dreams without someone backing you financially? Surely that’s got to add pressure to the already challenging task of chasing the Dream Tour’s scrappier, less accommodating cousin around the world for ten months?
‘It is a little difficult,’ admits Reef. ‘I’ve got a really good seeding into this year, so I’m going to use it wisely and make sure I’m going to the bigger events and capitalising on those points I can try and get. But I’m really hoping I get some results and some points and prize money too, to go towards the rest of the year.’
Apart from planning the majority of 2019’s initial attack around the Aussie leg of the QS to keep costs low, Reef has picked up some work coaching groms around his home on the Sunny Coast. Day jobs were once avoided like the plague by all but the most desperate of pro surfers, but nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear of shredders like Reef doing what they can to save enough to give the QS a decent shot.
The other thing that may be working in his favour is the fact that it’s happened to him now, at nineteen, instead of a few years down the track. Not only because his surfing, his profile and his results are all on the rise, which can only look good to any brands wanting to get behind him, but because he’s essentially facing the music early on, and it’s going to make him a stronger, wiser, more resilient competitor if he gets past it.
‘If you go through those challenges sooner, you’re going to get through them sooner. It’s making me work harder, it’s making me want it more. There are guys on tour who didn’t have sponsors for ages and they made it. I want to be one of those guys who can still make it.’
Maybe that’s the upside not just to Reef’s situation, but to this whole cutthroat, cost-consolidating era the surf industry is currently going through? The fact that the surfers who are going to make it on tour are the surfers who really, really want it, not just the ones who want it while there are stickers on their boards and the going is easy.
Reef Heazlewood sounds like he wants it. Now let’s see if he can make it happen.