The new administration sends Hurley into a death spiral.
John John Florence has walked from his contract with Hurley following a bloodletting of epic proportions.
In December Nike sold Hurley to Bluestar Alliance. The New York based brand management company has built an empire from snapping up brands, stripping them back, signing distribution deals to an extensive range of retailers or offloading them at a huge profit.
After Bluestar Alliance cut ties with founder Bob Hurley and fired staff who had helped grow the brand into what Bob called, "the most exciting, innovative and successful team ever in the history of surfing” their team riders were next.
Any marquee surfer with a current contract was rumoured to expect to take a 50% and up to 70% pay cut according to industry insiders. Those who had contracts up for renewal were told they should shop elsewhere.
Twenty-year vets, Michel Bourez and Rob Machado were axed. As were Carissa Moore and seventeen-year-old Hawaiian phenom Eli Hanneman. Go down the line and every Hurley team rider that either didn’t take a pay cut or have an iron-clad contract has been cast out.
Julian Wilson however is rumoured to be in negotiations with activewear brand Lululemon & Oakley.
Hurley’s swift transition from a globally recognised and respected surf brand that boasted a powerhouse team to an outfit run by a bunch of capitalist vultures has huge ramifications for budding pro surfers.
Florence signed a $30+ million eight-year deal in 2017 but with new management and a new culture emerging, must have seen the brand as he knew it implode in January this year. There is yet to be confirmation of exit terms or which companies are vying for his signature. However, details have emerged that he was offered $2 million to walk from the $12 million left on his contract that was set to expire in 2024.
Where John John lands will send a message to every other surfer vying for a contract in the future. If Florence decides to align himself with a non-endemic brand for big money then surfing will have elevated itself out of the surf industry and into mainstream money. It may unlock other brands looking to nab surf talent on their books.
If he chooses to remain within the salty surf industry he will be taking a hefty pay cut. Brands don’t have deep pockets like they used to. Even if the likes of Patagonia secured the Hawaiian’s signature it would be at a dramatically lower rate. But given Florence’s loyalty to brands he has an affinity with that may be enough to win him over.
Team rosters at the big three - Billabong, Quiksilver and Rip Curl are stacked. Ironically all three are owned by private equity groups, except Rip Curl, which was sold to Katmandu in 2019. US hedge fund Oaktree Capital Management controls Quiksilver through its Boardriders subsidiary and picked up Billabong in 2018. Meanwhile, Volcom is owned by Authentic Brands Group (ABG), a global owner of more than 50 brands including Nautica, Aeropostale, Tretorn, Airwalk and Vision Streetwear. While Vans is owned by the VF Group who has brands such as The North Face, Timberland and Dickies under their roof.
The once salty surf industry is now in the hands of some very different players.
Perhaps most interesting in all this sponsor talk and hyperbole is the trajectory and transition of Kanoa Igarashi. The 22-year-old is the most set up for the next wave of change to sweep through professional surfing when it comes to endorsements. Kanoa has picked up several non-surf related sponsors already.
He is one of the highest-paid surfers in the world having courted Visa, Dior and the Japanese government is even rumoured to be tipping into his hat since he pledged his allegiance to the land of the rising sun ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“The bulk of my pay comes from non-surf, Japanese companies,” said Kanoa in a recent interview. “I have a lot of sponsors like Visa and Dior, who are not getting stickers on my board but are major contributors to my career. If I wanted, I could have 15 Japanese companies that you've never heard of on my board, and I could be making a lot more money from that. But at the same time, I don't want to be that guy that has all these random companies—like a miso soup company or whatever—on my board. At the end of the day, I want to keep my surfboard core with companies like Quiksilver, Red Bull, and Oakley.”
The founding fathers of the surf brands are gone. Replaced by corporations with shareholders and CEOs on the fast track to making money off a broken formula. With Hurley effectively departed expect them to slide into the realm of forgotten surf brands like Hang Ten, Bad Boy, and Ocean Pacific that find themselves hung on the racks at K-Mart and Target.
If there are fewer slices of the pie to go around expect the career path of a sponsored pro surfer to be a thing of decades past. Pro surfers are going to have to get savvy if they want to put ink to paper and keep the dream alive.