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Is Surfing a Sport? An Investigation

A former surfer tries to untangle the modern nature of surfing: a weird blend of legitimate sport and marketing strategies that don't fit a sport.
Photo by Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

So, is surfing a sport? Brah, I'm not sure. It's a question that has floated around in my head since high school. Back then, on weekends, I'd often strap my board to the top of a friend's car and drive, at absurd pre-dawn hours, from suburban Los Angeles to the beach. I can tell you, knowing how silly it must sound if you've never tried it, just how amazing surfing is, how connected to the Earth it makes you feel. It's magic. But is it a sport?


I have some hangups. They start with the World Championship Tour, surfing's most prestigious competition, which has started to look more like a strange fashion advertisement than an actual sporting event.

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There's a lot to like about the Tour. It's an opportunity to see some of the world's best surfers. And it's reasonably lucrative for both men and women, which is nice. The women's 2014 season just finished, and the champion, Stephanie Gilmore, won $292,500 in prize money. The men's season is longer—it has one event left—but the top surfer, Gabriel Medina, has already won $391,500. Now, in terms of gender equality, a $100,000 difference is a lot, but it's not NBA vs. WNBA money. And anyway, comparing single athletes might not be the best metric of gender-based pay. Next year's prize money breakdown is close by sports standards (although certainly not perfect): the men will compete for a total of $5,775,000, or $169,853 per athlete; the women will compete for $2,362,500, but with fewer athletes on tour the average is $138,970.

Those are all decent sums, but the clothing and apparel industry that banks on the surfing culture is far, far bigger than the actual professional surfing economy. Take a look at how the top-earning athletes make most of their money. It isn't the Tour. According to Stab Magazine, 2013's ninth-highest-paid surfer, Stephanie Gilmore, made $1.8 million in sponsorship money that year and just $48,700 from the Tour. Dane Reynolds, a guy who basically just travels around the world and gets photographed surfing, was the second highest-paid surfer. He made an estimated $3.8 million from sponsors and just $61,900 competing in 2013.


If the money doesn't seem lopsided to you, consider how the athletes are marketed. You could confuse the female athletes, those at the very top of the competitive circuit, with bikini models. Not because they're fit and blonde and (mostly) white, or because they're constantly in swimwear, which, for them, is business attire, but because that's how they're promoted. Check out this 2013 Roxy ad featuring Stephanie Gilmore:

The whole thing is shot in slo-mo. Most of the shots feature Gilmore in various stages of undress, and none of them show her surfing. This sort of thing is pretty common. (Here is a very similar video featuring this season's fourth ranked athlete, Sally Fitzgibbons.) Sponsors clearly feel these athletes are more lucrative when viewed as stereotypical "surfer chicks"—with a strong emphasis on chick—rather than professional athletes.

The men aren't promoted as sex symbols—or at least not exclusively. But open a surf magazine and tell me how many of those photos have to do with the Tour and how many have to do with the lifestyle, noncompetitive surfing, or just looking cool. Like the women, the industry predominantly promotes men as representatives of a specific subculture, a certain West Coast, macho stereotype, but not as competitive athletes.

But there are problems with the competition too. The competition itself couldn't be more subjective, based on judging preferences and wave choice, which basically comes down to opinion and luck. Surfing isn't the only competition bound to subjectivity. It's a problem with many action sports that began and continue to thrive as hobbies. But in a world where sports tend to be pretty black and white—there are no style points in tennis—surfing can be very grey.

What's especially weird though is that the people on the Tour aren't necessarily the world's best surfers. In tennis, the top ranked athletes are certainly the world's best. In surfing, it's debatable; they're clearly among the best, but if you're good enough, or visible enough, you don't have to compete to earn a living. There are plenty of so called free surfers out there who do just that. The competition is optional.

That's the big hangup for me. Why does the competition exist if the athletes don't need it to make money? Is pro surfing a truly competitive sport if some of the world's best don't even participate? Is the world champion the world champion? Athletes in other sports earn massive sums from endorsement deals, but rarely are those endorsements and the prize money so lopsided. Is the Tour just another way to monetize a fashionable subculture?

If you're a professional surfer, competing is optional. The fashion show, however, is not.