Surfing Ability v Marketability: Surfing’s Conundrum

I recently heard a question that many others have been pondering:
“When did marketability become more than surfing ability?” It got me thinking…

Surfing sponsors have always sponsored the people they believe will best represent their brand.  For some, it’s about pushing the envelope, for others about appealing to the “everyman.” In most instances in men’s surfing, companies have let surfers’ abilities lead the decision toward potential sponsorship with lifestyle and attitude following.

Women’s surfing, however, has largely been about style over substance. Over the years there has been a litany of high ranking surfers without a major sponsor. Pauline Menczer, for example, spent most of her 20+ competitive years sponsorless, even after winning the 1993 world title.

No stickers on the nose of Silvana’s board… Pic: Chris Grant/Jetty Girl

This year is no different with, amongst others, Silvana Lima, Dimity Stoyle and current longboarding World Champion Chelsea Williams all without major sponsors.

So why is that?  Chelsea believes it could be her lack of media savvy but tour veteran Keala Kennelly believes that the surfing industry and brands are stuck in the “sex sells” way of marketing things when it comes to women.  It’s hard to argue with that. Flip through any surfing magazine or website, and the vast majority of shots of women aren’t of them surfing, they’re T&A shots. The women most likely to get sponsored are often chosen for their image over their surfing ability.

It’s easy to argue that this is the way it’s always been, that if it was really an issue, the surfers themselves should do something about it (because yes, if you’re lucky enough to be offered sponsorship, you should totally turn it away. Otherwise it’s your fault the stereotypes are perpetuated!). But this ongoing sexism in the industry is flying in the face of the facts.

Sponsorless world champ Chelsea Williams. Pic: Andy Carruthers/Narrowpath

In Australia alone there are an estimated 810 000 women who surf. Internationally, women are the fastest growing demographic in the action sports industry. While these two facts alone can be easy to overlook and women still comprise only a fraction of surfers internationally, other figures are harder to ignore. According to Businessweek, in 2013 women accounted for a whopping 80% of expenditure of a market that is expected to reach US$13 billion by 2017. They spent not just on women’s products, but men’s apparel and hardware too. So while there may be more men in the water, women are by far the bigger spenders.  Women are the market.

Although the industry may believe that sex sells, we know that sex sells nothing but sex.  It certainly doesn’t sell surfing to women. It’s time for companies to move into the twenty-first century, to invest in our female surfers and recognize that this misdirected marketing is not only doing a disservice to their brand, but to the industry.  If surfing companies want to not just survive, but thrive, they’ll need to embrace the reality of the market and realize that for men and women alike surfing ability = marketability.  Not surprisingly, what sells surfing… is surfing.


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