Surfers, those guys you see with bleached-out hair, sun-kissed skin, no shoes and perhaps a little zinc slathered across the bridge of their noses, may not look like a million bucks, but their way of life is actually worth a good chunk of change.
How much is surf culture worth? About $6.3 billion, in the U.S. alone.
Within the last decade, the number of people who surf at least once a week has grown by 50% to an estimated 2.6 million, according to Fortune. A 2012 report showed that those who surf worldwide grew from 26 million in 2001 to 35 million in 2011.
Fortune estimates that by 2017 the global surf industry — including surfing gear and lifestyle clothing — could generate more than $13 billion.
The expansion of surf culture has created big profits for brands, but for people like Cathy Young surfing is priceless.
“I call the ocean my church,” Young, president of Wahine Kai Women’s Surf Club in Huntington Beach, told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s where I go for my religion. That is where I am one with the universe. I can feel God’s love in the ocean.”
Young and the rest of the Wahine Kai — or "women of the sea" — call the north side of the Huntington Beach Pier home. For 34 years she has been paddling out into the lineup to catch waves, connect with her God and other surfers.
But for one week out of the year, just across the pilings at Huntington Beach, the passion of surfers and the profitability of the sport intersect at the U.S. Open. The event kicked off Monday and continues through the weekend. The Open features the biggest names in international surfing, competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes.
The finals are being held Saturday and Sunday.
According to estimates by the city, the Open brings in about $21 million in revenue and about 500,000 fans to the beach over the week.
Those numbers are not lost on brands such as Vans, which took over sponsorship of the event a year ago from Nike and Hurley, or Fiat, which in its second year at the Open created a splash with several cars on display next to a large tent about a hundred yards from the high-tide line.
It is a sporting, and cultural, event that everyone wants to be in on.
Jason Stoicevich, head of Fiat in North America, sees the car company as a good fit for the U.S. Open and, by extension, Southern California. The region is “Toyota Tacoma after Toyota Tacoma,” he told The Times. “I felt like there needs to be another option for that community.”
On Wednesday, Fiat’s display on the beach was filled with surfer kids playing cornhole, grabbing their free Jones Soda samples and hopping into the brand’s latest model and a concept car, created in partnership with Vans. None of the kids in the cars looked old enough to drive, let alone buy, a car, but that didn’t bother Stoicevich.
“It’s about us being able to establish our brand at a very young age with people,” he said.
Brands like Fiat, iON Cameras and Paul Mitchell, which may not bring to mind surf culture, have discovered that the tanned, young and cool athletes who take part in surfing and the U.S. Open provide a great backdrop for what they are trying to sell. And Huntington Beach surfers aren’t necessarily opposed to the brands appropriating their culture.
“They’ve got a lot of money so they helped pumped up the U.S Open,” Rick “Rockin Fig” Fignetti told The Times while sitting in his shop on Main Street surrounded by his own line of surfboards.
Fignetti knows a thing or two about the growth of the Open. He was the voice of the event for 19 years. This year he wasn’t asked to return, but he isn’t bitter toward Vans for choosing a new announcer.
Sponsors like Vans and Nike made the U.S. Open “really big,” he said. Nike’s sponsorship made it “probably the biggest contest we’ve seen.” And strong brand presence, Fignetti said, meant the contest drew big-name surfers.
Fignetti shared his memories of Kelly Slater pulling a 15-foot barrel and Andy Irons pulling “big ol’ floaters on 10-foot closeouts.”
Although Fignetti is no longer emcee of the event, he hasn’t lost his popularity there.
Walking down Main Street with him is like walking around with a rock star. Every few feet, someone yells out, “Hey Fig!” “How are the waves, Fig?” “Miss you, Fig!” Several Huntington Beach police officers stopped to shake his hand and say how much they missed his booming voice over the loudspeakers on the beach.
Fignetti has been surfing competitively for the better part of 30 years and has more than 500 surf trophies. He has a lot of love for the surfing lifestyle and community, both old and new, especially such locals as Courtney Conlogue, who despite an injury is still ranked in the top 10 of female surfers, according to the ASP.
Conlogue, just shy of 22 years old, knows the importance of good branding and isn’t afraid of what she calls “the non-endemic” brands entering surf culture. In her eyes, the more the merrier.
“I’ve been with Swatch for three years now, and they are so just so pro-athlete,” Conlogue told The Times as she spoke with fans and signed autographs on the sand under the Huntington Beach Pier. “What it is, is it’s just cross-pollinating and it’s helping the industry.”
Young, the head of the women’s surf club, was a little less enthusiastic. “I think when companies come down here … that aren’t naturally a part of the surf culture, I think they’re just coming down here to take advantage of 100,000 people at the beach.”
It seems Young, as well as Conlogue and Fignetti, recognize the allure of the surfing lifestyle and that folks around the world want to be a part of it, waves or no waves.
“Living at the beach, it’s probably one of the coolest things,” Fignetti said. “You get to see the end to the concrete. You get to see the ocean.
"We are fortunate enough to be able to go surfing and stuff. Some people, landlocked inland, they don't get that feel, but they want to have that cool vibe like everybody at the beach has by wearing all the clothes and stuff. I’ve got nothing against them.”