The story of how surfing went from a sport for beach bums to a $6 billion industry is nothing short of a fairy tale. Just ask Jack O’Neill, surfing legend and founder of the surf wear brand O’Neill. Commercialism has played a huge role in pushing surfing up the multimillion-dollar ranks, but this has its downside too. The lineups are more crowded and local surf shops are suffering as mall stores start carrying surf wear brands.
Helen Soteriou of BBC News sat down with O’Neill and Matt Warshaw—a surfer, historian, and writer—to talk about how surfing went from a sport for beach bums to a $6 billion industry.
“Surfer, writer, and historian Matt Warshaw explains the importance of the pioneers such as O’Neill to the industry: ‘They founded it. O’Neill, surf film maker and publisher John Severson [founder of Surfer Magazine], board makers Dale Velzy and Hobie Alter, people like that.
Surfers who more than anything wanted to figure out how to make a living working non-regular hours, so they could surf whenever the waves were good. That was always the driving force. Nobody got rich, at least not at first,’ he says.
But the industry took off and Matt Warshaw has seen it grow over the years.
At 88 years old and with some health problems, Jack cannot surf anymore. But it was his love of surfing and wanting to surf for longer that led him to build his first wetsuit and open the very first surf shop back in 1952.
‘All I wanted to do was surf, and when I opened that shop in my garage, I thought I would have a few guys there to sell suits and have guys to surf with. One of the guys up there told me: ’O’Neill, you are going to sell the five guys on the beach and you are going to be out of business.’ “
Fast forward to 2012 and we know that O’Neill didn’t go out of business. In fact, it’s expanded well beyond those wetsuits Jack first introduced.
“Hardcore surfers like Matt Warshaw, however, scoff at some of the gear flooding the market.
‘Most of the stuff is useless, or at least optional,’ says Mr Warshaw. ‘As you say, board, wetsuit, trunks, wax, leash. Hell, all that stuff isn’t really required. Nude bodysurfing. That’s how most Polynesians rode waves.’
And he and fellow surfers believe that there is another downside to all this interest in surfing, namely that there are a lot more people in the water than there used to be.
‘I liked the sport better when it was smaller and more secret. But that’s just when I’m sitting here thinking about it. In the water, it doesn’t matter.’ ” You can read the full interview here.
I’m sure all of us would agree that we’d love to have a less crowded line-up, but then again none of us wants to be the one who was next in line when they said “no more surfers.”
Full Disclosure: Surfing News Daily is a Financial Supporter of Matt Warshaw's Project, "The Encyclopedia of Surfing online."