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2 Largest Magazines for Surfers Battle Spiritedly for Big Wave of Readers

Jeff Rowe is a free-lance writer

Way up in Howard, S.D., Charles Leider must sometimes feel like a lonely guy.

It isn’t so much that the snows are deep and the nights are long, it’s that Leider is South Dakota’s only subscriber to Surfing magazine, the San Clemente-based journal of surf, sun and fun.

“We’re in all 50 states,” said Bob Mignogna, publisher of the magazine, who then revealed that North Dakota has 300% more subscribers than South Dakota.

Surfing’s attention to its far-flung readers is characteristic of the spirited fight it and its arch rival, San Juan Capistrano-based Surfer magazine, are engaged in for reader attention.

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The two publications are the giants of surfdom, far eclipsing other surfing publications in scope, finesse and revenue.

For its fiscal year ended Nov. 30, 1985, Surfing’s revenue totaled $2.8 million, the company said. For fiscal 1986, ad revenue is expected to be about $1.85 million, 40% higher than the year before and up from $462,000 in 1980.

Estimates $3.2-Million Gross

Surfer estimates it grossed $3.2 million in 1985, including about $2 million in ad revenue. Thus far in 1986, ad revenue is running about 25% ahead of last year, company officials said.

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“We outsell Surfing magazine,” said Steve Pezman, publisher of Surfer, whose business suit at the magazine’s offices consists of rubber thongs, casual pants and a pullover shirt.

About four miles south, a likewise casually clad Mignogna leans back in his chair and says no, Surfing is definitely “number one.”

In fact, neither magazine is audited, both claim circulation between 85,000 and 90,000 and both say they sell more magazines than their rival. And despite the vastly more sophisticated and businesslike approach to publishing than in their early days, both publishers tend to use terms like “cool” and “happening” when describing trends in the sport.

The magazines, born in the early 1960s, have traveled different roads and today have somewhat different approaches to their coverage of the sport, which by most indications is not only in its second major growth phase but also has become a beacon for the multibillion-dollar casual apparel industry.

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Surfing’s parent is closely held Western Empire Publications; Surfer is owned by For Better Living Inc., a maker of concrete and plastics products which is based across the street from the magazine’s offices.

Readers in Nepal, Norway

Not surprisingly, both magazines say Southern California is a readership stronghold, although both sell magazines around the globe.

“Nepal, Samoa, Angola, Norway--the surfer life style has a cult following,” said Pezman.

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The sport and the magazines it has spawned have changed radically since the sport first splashed to prominence in the 1960s. In the early days, the two magazines consisted mostly of black and white photos, ads for surfboards and swim trunks and occasional photos of women surfing. Today, the magazines are bursting with dazzling color pictures and fashion-setting clothing ads. And judging from Surfing’s now annual pictorial on women’s swimwear, today’s surfer boys are considerably more interested in surfer girls than their counterparts were in early days.

Although growth in the sport seemed to slump in the 1970s--Mignogna calls it surfing’s “dark age"--Surfer switched from six bimonthly issues to monthly publication in 1977 and Surfing made the transition a year later. Surfing has a staff of 18; Surfer has 10 staffers but support services are provided by the parent company. Both magazines use photographs from scores of photographers around the world who work on a free-lance basis.

“There is not a person on this staff who is not a hard-core surfer,” said David Gilovich, Surfing’s editor. Surfboards are propped against desks in both offices.

Difference in Demographics

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Partially by design and partially by tradition, the two magazines have staked out different ends of the surfer’s demographic scale.

Surfing has perhaps a more youthful tone and devotes considerable space to coverage of contests; Surfer’s slant is “maybe a little bit more mature,” said Pezman.

Recent articles in Surfer included stories on exotic places around the world to surf and the future of professional surfing.

Recent articles in Surfing included a piece on Australian surfing great Peter Drouyn’s trip to China to give surfing lessons. He thus became “the first to teach surfing in a Communist country,” the magazine observed.

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Pezman calls Surfing “a good magazine, but I think we are much better.”

Mignogna calls Surfer “a great magazine,” but pronounces Surfing “a better looking” publication.

The influence of the two surf magazines has grown far beyond their youthful readership to become a showcase for the latest in casual fashions. “The surf market is a seedbed for a much larger influence on clothing,” said Pezman, and surf magazines have become “ladders for their growth.”

‘Keystone to Advertising’

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Gotcha Sportwear Inc., for example, said its sales have risen from $100,000 in 1980, its first year, to about $30 million last year. The closely held Costa Mesa company makes and sells shirts, shorts, swim trunks, pants and jackets worldwide. Exposure of its products in Surfer and Surfing “is the keystone to our advertising and marketing,” said Drew Forbes, advertising manager. The majority of Gotcha’s consumer advertising budget is spent on Surfer and Surfing, Forbes said.

Beach Towne Inc., an El Toro-based maker of swim trunks, T-shirts, shorts and dresses, said its business has tripled since it expanded its product line and began advertising in Surfer and Surfing. “Visibility in both magazines is the single most important factor in (our) image,” said Paul Gillane, president of the eight-year-old concern.

As part of its recently published 186-page July edition, Surfing has a 21-page beach fashion special section, its first such supplement and an indicator of the strong ties between the casual apparel industry and surf magazines. Surfer publishes a sportswear annual called Surfer Style, which is principally aimed at wholesale buyers, retail shop owners and trade show audiences.

“There are times we don’t even realize how influential the sport is,” said Mignogna. And the sport’s popularity “has never been greater than now.”

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No one knows just how many surfers there are out there and estimates vary as widely as spring tides. Mignogna reckons there are “more than a million” surfers worldwide now, up from 20,000 in the mid-1960s. Pezman figures there are three or four times that many.

Both magazines estimate they reach most of those surfers because their pass-along rates of nine or ten readers per copy are far higher than the norm in the magazine industry.

As part of its goal to attract younger readers, Surfing magazine last year created Body Boarding, a magazine that focuses on the fast-growing sport particularly popular with young boys. The thinking at Surfing is that those young readers will graduate from body boards to surfboards and from Body Boarder magazine to Surfing magazine.

Meanwhile, Surfer’s parent company hopes that as older surfers begin sail boarding, they will begin reading Sail Boarder magazine, which chronicles that fast-growing sport.

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Typically, readers of surf magazines are young males.

With that readership in mind, Surfing magazine has looked beyond the surf fashion industry for advertising from makers of mainstream products such as beer and pickup trucks.

Beer?

“That’s for the upper end of the scale,” said Mignogna, referring to his magazine’s average subscriber age of 17.9 years. Indeed, the surfers in many surf magazine advertising photographs don’t appear ready for regular shaving.

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Pezman, while “not so moral that we stand on a pedestal and sing hymns,” says he wants to stick with “advertisers who really need us,” and thus keep Surfer’s advertising true to the surfing life style.

As with most enthusiast magazines, some of the most engaging prose is found in the letters to the editor. Here readers chastise, praise and cajole editors and chastise, praise and cajole each other. Recent letter writers to Surfing threatened to burn the magazine’s offices down and referred to a previous letter writer as a “jerk.” Another called beach thieves “greedy kooks” who would be “dead meat” if found.

Research the Market

Both magazines do considerable research to keep a grip on their market.

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Surfing, for example, has employed a researcher who trudged the beaches from Ventura to the Mexican border gathering marketing information from surfers. Steve Sakamoto of Long Beach, who provides detailed research on beach fashions chiefly to retailers and apparel makers, has considerable experience in surf-magazine work--he did special research for Surfer before undertaking such projects for Surfing.

So long as there are wind, waves and beach-style fashions, Surfing and Surfer seem likely to grow and prosper.

“We’re only touching the fringe,” said Mignogna, who talks of a “huge” potential for growth.

Pezman talks excitedly about Surfer’s latest venture--a Japanese language edition. “There are 500,000 surfers in Japan,” he says, clearly envisioning most of them thumbing through the pages of Surfer.

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