Modern surfing and commerce have been forever intertwined.
Tom “Pohaku” Stone is gently resting his feet on a 4000 year old piece of Koa wood that in the not too distant future he will hand carve into on his signature 8’3” Kiko’o traditional guns. The native Hawaiian, 1970s professional surfer, original member of Black Shorts and current professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Center for Hawaiian Studies has been giving me a rapid fire history lesson in surfing.
Talking about his days learning to surf with his dad and the Duke at Waikiki he says, “You know it was Alexander Hume Ford, a leading member of the white oligarchy, who decided that we needed to maintain and perpetuate surfing purely as a means to increase tourism in Hawaii. He sold the sport of surfing as the sport of kings. So commercialisation in the sport of surfing started pretty early, way back at the start of the 20th Century.”
Six months later, and around 100 years on from Ford’s efforts, I was watching the latest incarnation of surfing and commercialisation, Samsung’s Every Day is Day One advertisement. The inertia.com said, gushingly, “Samsung Mobile, a non-surf company, (has) made the best surf commercial.’’ My brother-in-law, MD of one of London biggest advertising agencies and a complete non-surfer however described it as, “dull, generic, rubbish.” Opinion and arseholes, every ones got em, as the saying goes.
In between those two junctures it’s a simple fact that modern surfing and commercialisation have always walked hand- in-hand. The Samsung ad (and its launch on New York’s Today Show) is not a new concept, just the latest. Back in 1910 California developer M. Henry Huntington hired Georges Freeth, a famous Hawaiian surfer from Waikiki, to give surf demonstrations. Showing a man walking on the sea, Huntington hoped to showcase the coastal lifestyle to sell real-estate properties at what is now Huntington Beach.
About 50 years layer, not far from Huntington Hobie Alter set up the first big surfboard manufacturing business with an initial investment of $12,000. "People laughed at me for setting up a surf shop," Alter said. "They said that once I'd sold a surfboard to each of the 250 surfers on the coast, I'd be out of business. But the orders just kept coming.”
The remarkable stat there is that at one time there was only 250 surfers in the whole of California. Its a common refrain that commercialisation, the selling of the idea of surfing to people that might not have come across it otherwise, is said to be the driving force behind increased crowds. A prime example is Hollywood’s cashing in the 1960s, that started with the Gidget movies and which is largely held responsible for the massive spike in surfers in the States throughout that decade. In his Encyclopedia of Surfing piece on Miki Dora, Matt Warshaw wrote, “Malibu–“my perfect wave,” site of “my cherished days,” as Dora put it in a rare noncombative moment of reflection–had been the first place to fall. In response, he became a scammer and a thief.”
Of course commercialisation can’t be held entirely responsible for increasing crowds. The passion and joy that surfing provides is the main driver behind that. And in any case, who are we as surfers to feel disgruntled that another person should experience surfing's joys for the very first time?
The very presence of commercialisation however also brings an important and much needed counterbalance. Surfing’s key counter culture wedge, an ongoing constant (from Pat Curren to Dora through to Morning of the Earth to Rasta) has always fought to bring forward some of the key issues that capitalism neglects - concepts like social justice, environmentalism and community.
Sure the power of commercial forces are often too strong and surfers have always strived to make a living working non-regular hours, so they could surf as much as possible. This was the driving force for the group of entrepreneurs in the early 1970s that founded the likes of Billabong, Quiksilver, Rip Curl et all. They probably didn’t expect to make so much money out of the core of surfing, but they sure as hell did and along the way made it possible for professional surfing and professional surfers to exist.
It is perhaps their financial troubles of these core surfing businesses in the last decade that has opened for the likes of Samsung and Red Bull to fill. As Chas Smith prophesised back in Surfing back in 2010, “But the core has become a follower. All fear and anger based. All fat and pale. The fear is that if surfing becomes commercialized/homogenized it loses the one thing the fat and pale hold on to. That they are special. The anger is that they were left behind. No athletic success. No work in the space that inspires them. No money from doing what they love. No innovation.”
To that end I recently watched Red Bull’s three Ripple Effects documentaries on the big screen. Written by Tim Baker, each were brilliant. Great historical surf stories (the Witzig Brothers, Coolangatta, Bob Hurley) directed with great style and told in a frantic, humorous, super contemporary way. I did at one stage think however that they only existed in order to sell a caffeinated sugary drink. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m just saying it’s not a new thing. And in any case, does it really matter? As Matt Warshaw says, “Riding a wave, that seems pretty impervious to the commercialisation of the sport."