More than 280 miles from the nearest ocean, Mike Parsons spins around as a gutless right-hander rises up before him. Nearby, more than eight lifeguards — red rescue tubes in hand — stand ready to save one of the most famous big-wave surfers in the world as he drops into a two-foot dribbler. The sun reflecting off the 400-foot-high hotel bathes the entire scene in an artificial golden glow as instructions from central command are beamed into the earpieces of the half-dozen suit-wearing security guards standing poolside.
It’s just another surreal day in Las Vegas.
But the announcement that brought Parsons, Pat O’Connell, Jeff Deffenbaugh, Jodie Nelson, and a handful of observers from the surf industry to the 1.6-million-gallon Mandalay Bay wave pool in Sin City was no mirage. On February 26, Foster’s used the made-for-media Las Vegas event to announce a multiyear commitment to American pro surfing that will include sponsorship of twenty contests this year. In effect, Foster’s has become the umbrella sponsor of ASP North America.
“This is the most important sponsorship opportunity in the history of American surfing,” says Peter Townend, president of Surfing America and a Primedia publisher. “Not only will this relationship strengthen the tour administratively, it’s a breakthrough for the athletes since the majority of Foster’s funding goes straight to increasing the surfer’s prize money.”
Townend was instrumental in closing the deal, which will infuse more than 300,000 dollars of direct support into American surfing, as well as opening up the possibility that surfing could benefit from the multimillion-dollar promotional budgets of Foster’s regional bottlers.
Townend says that not since the days of the Bud Tour has American surfing attracted a sponsorship deal of this magnitude. “This is a huge opportunity for surfing as a sport to raise its profile again. Foster’s has committed a lot of backend money to promote the tour — including great signage promoting the tour at bars and at retail stores, and also some surfing versions of the ‘Foster’s: Australian For Beer’ TV campaign.”
According to Foster’s Marketing Director Jim Mullahy, “If you look at surfing and what it represents to consumers and then compare it to the ‘Foster’s: Australian For Beer’ campaign, I think you’ll see what a great fit it is.”
Mullahy noted that in a recent poll Australia was one of the top dream-travel destinations for Americans. “Ninety percent of Australians live within 60 miles of the coast,” says Mullahy, “and surfing and the surfing lifestyle play an important role in defining the character of Australians.”
Townend says that in many ways Foster’s is like a surf company. “They are currently ranked sixth in the import-beer market, which constitutes ten percent of the entire beer market, much like surf-apparel industry probably constitutes less than that in the overall apparel market. They’ve developed a core beer strategy, and surfing is a big part of their overall marketing plan. Because of their strategy this is a perfect fit for us.”
This sentiment is echoed by Foster’s General Manager Michael Johnson: “It’s a natural fit for the Foster’s brand. It captures the beach lifestyle straight from the beaches of Australia. We plan on establishing a long-term association with the ASP to maintain a deep involvement with the surf lifestyle in North America.”
According to Mullahy, “We view this as a long-term partnership that will help increase the sales of Foster’s across the United States.”
Townend says Surfing America will provide support funding for the existing events and backend promotional support in exchange for Foster’s signage at the events. “This will raise the profile of these events,” says Townend, “making them more valuable to the independent event promoters. The promoters should also have an easier time securing title sponsorships to their events because of the added exposure that Fooster’s support will bring.”
Townend says he expects Foster’s commitment to American surfing to increase — perhaps dramatically — if the surf industry can prove its worth to the Foster’s brand. “If we prove that surfing can sell beer, I believe we will see an increased commitment from Foster’s — maybe faster than we think.
“But we should remember what happened with the beach volleyball tour and Miller Brewing Company back in the day of the Miller Light AVP tour,” continues Townend. “A bunch of athletes took the money and ran with no consideration for why Miller Light was sponsoring their tour. The same executives who were involved with that debacle are now the heads of the Foster’s brand. They’re not going to let that happen again, and the surfing industry should also make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
To keep things on track, Billabong Odyssey mastermind Bill Sharp has been hired to be brand manager of the Foster’s Tour. “His job will be to manage what happens on the tour and generate media coverage — but not do it in a standard way,” says Scott Daley, a Surfing America committee member and Body Glove’s V.P. of marketing.
“I think they’re testing us,” says Townend, “and if we deliver, we’ll be rewarded.” — Sean O’Brien
Men’s and Women’s 2002 Foster Pro Surfing Tour Schedule
March 15¿17: Billabong Pro, Costa Rica
March 22¿24: Billabong Pro, Panama
April 23¿27: Foster’s Pro, Lower Trestles, California
May 23¿26: PSTA, Imperial Beach, California
May 24¿27: Local Motion Surf Into Summer, O’ahu
May 29¿June 2: PSTA, Oceanside, California
June 13¿16: PSTA, San Clemente, California
July 11¿14: PSTA, Huntington Beach, California
July 27¿August 4: U.S. Open Of Surfing, Huntington Beach, California
August 14¿18: ASP North America, Newport Beach, California
August 21¿25: East Coast Surfing Championships, Virginia Beach, Virginia
August 28¿September 1: National Kidney Foundation, Florida
September 5¿8: Heritage Rip Curl Memorial Pro, Sea Isle City, New Jersey
September 5¿14: WCT Event, Trestles, California
September 11¿15: Unsound Surf Shop, Long Beach, New York
October 5¿6: Mexican Surf Fiesta, San Miguel, Mexico
October 10¿13: PSTA, Morro Rock, California
October 23¿27: O’Neill Cold Water Classic, Santa Cruz, California
October 30¿November 3: Hansen/Machado Surf Classic, Cardiff-By-The-Sea, California
November 6¿10: PSTA National Championships, Ventura, California