A Case Study–Santa Cruz, California
By Neal Kearney
*NOTE. THE MEAT OF THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN, YET UNPUBLISHED, IN JUNE 2017 FOR A CERTAIN AMERICAN SURF WHO MAG WHO SHALL GO UNNAMED. THE SURF INDUSTRY SUCKS SOMETIMES! OH WELL…HERE IT IS, I HOPE YOU ENJOY!
It’s hard to make it as pro surfer these days. Even for the world’s best surfers , the cushy, umbrella-sponsorship deals of the past are hard to come by. Last year, you may have noticed that the back half of the World Surf League’s World Tour had rippers like Josh Kerr shredding without a main sponsor. If guys like Kerrzy are in trouble, that means “regional pros” are going extinct.
If top level guys are scraping for support, how does a local legend or talented, up-and- coming surfer (commonly referred to as “Regional Pros”), expect even a piddly crumb from the withering pie that is the surf industry? The pro surfer explosion in Santa Cruz, California, which blossomed in the ’90’s, and fizzled out by the end of the first decade of the twenty fist century. This shift illustrates how difficult it is for up-and-comers to remain relevant and marketable in a hemorrhaging surf industry where a good looking, yet mediocre Instagram surf star is guaranteed more exposure than a tech-inept, shy, introverted, yet phenomenally superb surfer.
The catalyst for the explosion of media attention directed to Santa Cruz can be attributed to many factors, but in the beginning, much of the credit goes to ace photographer and filmmaker Tony Roberts, who pushed the surf media to recognize just how much insane surfing was going on in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Robert’s unique, in-your-face action shots began peppering all of the major US surf mags, including Surfing and Surfer magazine, and helped put the national spotlight Santa Cruz’s stacked talent pool.
It got to the point that Santa Cruz was so saturated with talent that practically every hot surfer had sponsors and contracts; along with free gear, respect and prestige. Many of these surfers went on to become “international pro surfers”: Adam Replogle, Chris Gallagher, Jason “Ratboy” Collins, Shawn “Barney” Barron, Pete Mel, Anthony Ruffo, etc. This crew could travel the world and get paid to huck huge airs and rush giant tubes, fine-tuning their acts with unbridled, point-break power surfing at home.
TR was the man in Santa Cruz during the late ’80’s/early ’90’s, pumping out classic images and even full-length movies, but when he left for Central America in mid 90’s, there was a need for someone to take the control of SC freight train. Ripping skateboarder and surfer Dave Nelson learned a lot from Roberts and could keep the ball rolling, especially Roberts knack for up close fish eye action and skate influenced angles.
“TR was by far my biggest inspiration. I studied what he did daily and we used to shoot and skate and surf every day. He was always experimenting with different lenses and angles. He taught me a lot!” remembers Nelson.
Enter Transworld Surf, established in 1999, and sadly decapitated in 2013 due to the strangulation of print media. Nelson scored countless covers and spreads with his unique angles and inventive use of multiple flashes, film gel, and speed blur effects. He also introduced a new crew of “regional pros” to the masses. These centrally located hot-shots usually stuck relatively close to home during their careers, following Nelson, aka “Nelly”, into a number of local,”studio-esque” surf breaks. Guys like Homer Henard, Matt Rockhold, Bud Freitas, and Austin Smith-Ford were among the local pro’s who worked extensively with Nelson.
Chris Cote, TWS’s editor basically ran the ship, and gave “regional pros” from SC a lot of love, mainly due to Nelson’s wealth of insane photography.
“Regional pros are surfers who absolutely rip their local breaks, AKA, ‘Hometown Heroes’. Locally respected and widely known by ‘traveling pros’ as the guy or girl to either get in contact with when they are rolling through their town, or, watch to out for when competing in their town. Regional pros a lot of times just choose to stay in their hometown a lot of times, not that they don’t have the talent to travel and compete, but for one reason or another, they are content with just being “the guy” in their respective area,” explains Cote.
From 2000-2010, or thereabouts, regional pros in Santa Cruz could make a chunk of chain just cruising with Nelly, scouring the coast for big pits and ramps. They were memorable days for the humble photographer, and he soaked up every minute of it.
“Every day was a mission. An adventure. Some days we went North, but usually we went South. The spots were sharky as Hell. The locals were always watching. I was always ready to go, from dawn to dusk, which some surfers loved, and some hated (laughs)”.
This enabled regional pro’s such as Bud Freitas and Austin Smith-Ford to concentrate on their surfing at home; to the point that no one could touch them- their talent was next level. Cote was more than willing to give love to these under the radar pro’s.
“Young kids like Matt “Ratt” [Schrodetz] and Noi [Kaulukukui} were fucking on fire, absolutely ripping. It was easy to fill magazines with Santa Cruz surfers cause they all surfed so good and Nelly was right there to capture it going down.”
Unfortunately, the era of the regional pro, especially in Santa Cruz, was quietly burned to ashes due to the ’08 financial crisis and struggles of the surf industry. Companies had to take a hard look at what surfers would be best to promote their brand, and now, there are only a handful of regional pros who get financial help, let alone free gear.
Matthew Myers of Santa Cruz, now residing in Costa Mesa, works for Rip Curl. His job includes tending to the needs of high profile team riders while building a solid youth presence. A former regional pro himself, Myers has valuable insight into the woes of the surf economy. A common theme he’s noticed is more money is going to the top, world tour, elite athletes, some of which are gunning for world titles. Companies see the biggest, more recognized athletes as a greater asset as they possess the ability to reach a larger audience, which results in a greater return on investment.
“There’s not a ton of regional pro’s in America getting paid anymore,” Myers admits.
“For example, we have a surfer in Santa Cruz who is getting a pay check; definitely not enough to get paid comfortably but he gets to travel the world and have some incredible experiences on Rip Curl’s dime. He’s stayed extremely active, charismatic, has a lot of fun with other people, and is an amazing surfer to boot. To be relevant you must be really outgoing and marketable, and be attractive to the brand to want to use you in either their marketing including social media and websites.”
The regional pro is now an endangered species across the globe, especially in Santa Cruz. For better or for worse, these extremely talented surfers and photographers have been forced to adapt. They’ve returned from their day jobs; running business, cutting hair, working construction, and everything in between. The ripple effect from companies clamping down on their funds has altered the landscape of professional surfing dramatically. Will this stop surf fans from visiting their favorite surf websites or WSL broadcasts? Not a chance. Life is constantly changing, and although regional pros may be a thing of the past, the talent will continue to shine when the waves come up.