Amateur Surfing Is Dead: How can we give it new life?

Amateur surfing in the United States is in deep trouble: teenage competitors pulling in huge contracts and driving luxury cars, the absence of a clear step-by-step process to prepare tomorrow’s surfers for the rigors of life on the ASP pro tour, an acronym stew of organizations corporate sponsors find confusing, the U.S. amateur team’s woeful sixth place at the World Surfing Games. These are just a few of the symptoms.

Who’s to blame? The amateur organizations? The youth-enthralled surf media promising fame to young surfers? The companies that use twelve-year-old amateurs in their ads? Or can we pin the blame on basketball superstar Michael Jordan?

That’s right, one theory is that Michael Jordan and the Dream Team killed amateur surfing in America. The college basketball stars representing America at the Olympics kept losing, and Michael Jordan and his pro cohorts had to bail the U.S. out. The amateur sports movement was never the same.

“There’s no longer a difference between amateur and pro,” says Pierre Camoin, operations manager for the International Surfing Association (ISA), the sanctioning body for the World Surfing Games. “We follow Olympic rules,” Camoin says, referring to the lack of distinction between amateur and pro.

Amateur surfing is hurting and nearly dead. What are the solutions?

Meet The Players

Four major organizations are involved with amateur surfing in the United States, and all have suggestions about how to right the current situation.

The United States Surfing Federation has 10,000 members and includes at least five different amateur organizations, including the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA). The ESA is the largest and oldest stand-alone organization, with 6,000 members, 26 offices, and three regions stretching from Maine to Florida.

The National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA), with its 2,000 current members, has been the launch pad for many U.S. pro surfers and runs more than 80 surf contests nationwide.

The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) represents the interests of America’s surf industry and includes 200 manufacturers and distributors of surf-related product.

Finally, the International Surfing Association (ISA) is the governing body of the World Surfing Games (formerly the World Amateur Surfing Championships) and is lobbying the International Olympic Committee for the inclusion of surfing as an Olympic event.

Too Much Pressure, Not Enough School

In 1977, if a top West Coast amateur wanted a pro career, they started with regional Western Surfing Association contests. A high ratings finish meant they surfed in the Western Regionals and U.S. Surfing Championships, and a high placing in the Championships and team trials gave the surfer a spot on the World Team. Back then, doing well in the finals of the World Contest was more than the pinnacle of an amateur career–that’s what defined it.

Surfers knew where they stood in the competitive hierarchy and had a clear idea of what their next step was. That’s not the case today.

Ask Joey Buran. In 1977 he was working his way up the ladder. Back then, amateur surfers didn’t have travel funds or own luxury cars–things that concern Buran about today’s crop of amateur surfers.

“How does it help a junior in high school to worry about 50,000 dollars when he should be worrying about school?” asks Buran, who is one of the USSF’s new U.S. National Team coaches along with former pros and current surf-industry players Mike Lambresi and Mike Parsons.

What’s Buran’s solution? Involve the industry, associations, and competitors. Persuade them to limit what amateurs receive from sponsors, restrict pro-am event earnings, and monitor the use of amateurs in advertising.

Randy Meistrell is part owner of Body Glove, which has been a sponsor of the NSSA for ten years. Up until the 90s, every U.S. champ wore Body Glove suits at one time or another because the company sponsored the national team.

Body Glove wants to see more support for younger talent earlier, but Meistrell is adamant about making surfers prove themselves through their school grades. “Companies should be looking at report cards,” he says, pointing out that he doesn’t want to see hot surfers ending up working at gas stations because they neglected their schoolwork.

“Everybody has to do their part,” says Lambresi, who blames the negativity within the surf industry for the current state of amateur surfing.

Marketing is 99 percent of the business, he says, but instead of focusing on the bad, the industry needs to learn from past mistakes. To him the United States Surfing Federation is the governing body, but on a worldwide basis he sees the Olympic governing body as setting the rules–and consequently loopholes–amateur surfing is using.

“Kids are coming into the pro ranks with a lot of money, and they’re being pushed–pushed to the point of not enjoying it,” says Lambresi. “Kids have got to be kids.” The pressures of sponsorship can drive young amateurs to hate surfing in a couple of years.

Is Surfing America The Answer?

Peter Townend was the U.S. amateur surfing team coach when Tom Curren and Scott Farnsworth won their respective world amateur titles–a definite high-water mark for U.S. amateur surfing.

The ex-patriot Australian watched as his American team won in his hometown of Coolangatta in 1982. “I took a pile of shit from my countrymen,” laughs Townend. “The headline of the local newspaper was ‘Townend A Turncoat.'”

When the Americans won, the Australians created the Surfing Australia association to promote the sport on a cohesive nationwide level. Today, it’s partially credited with Australian dominance on the pro tour and the recent win at the World Surfing Games in Portugal.

Townend, president of SIMA and marketing director for Rusty, saw the success of the Australian program and sought to duplicate it here in the U.S. The result was the launch of Surfing America in 1997.

Townend says the industry isn’t to blame for the poor results of the U.S. team at the Worlds. The previous year in Huntington Beach, Taylor Knox won the overall title and Bobby Martinez was the top junior and one of the most successful surfers in NSSA history–both should have been in Portugal when the Americans placed sixth. Were they expected to put themselves through the USSF trials?

He makes the point that although the industry didn’t pick the team, the industry could’ve given the team money–but they still would have lost with the surfers who competed. “If the seppos Americans want to be the best in the world, they the associations all need to get on the same page,” says Townend. Amateur competitors need a “road map,” with the primary goal being a high-placed finish at the World Surfing Games.

To do that, Townend says the organizations should rethink their aims. He says “amateur” is an irrelevant term today, the rules are dated, and the “old hard-liners don’t see the forest through the trees–and they ought to be looking.”

What About The Ads?

Kathy Phillips, executive director of the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA), says surf companies have been using the ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-old ESA amateurs in magazine ads to sell product with nothing coming back to the ESA–the ESA is giving exposure away.

In the past, if a company wanted to use an amateur in advertisements it paid fees to the amateur organization the competitor surfed in. The NSSA was first to lift this payment stipulation, and the USSF doesn’t start enforcing it again until July.

The lax enforcement of this rule has forced the ESA to send out warnings to competitors to look out for themselves and the possible ramifications this type of sponsorship may create.

“As the world’s largest am
ateur surfing organization, I believe the ESA occupies a unique position to influence perceptions of what amateur athletes should be,” says Phillips. “I personally believe that professionalism is distinct from amateurism, and that however much the difference may blur, it’s important for us to attempt to maintain that distinction.”

The NSSA Does It Their Way

NSSA Executive Director Janice Aragon says surfing has changed drastically since she was World Amateur Champion in 1984.

The NSSA parted ways with the USSF (the designated federation responsible for the World Games Team and Trials) due to a question of fairness. For Aragon and the NSSA to send their surfers to the USSF trials again, she says a separate, nonpartisan entity would have to structure the trials and selection process.

She believes that with the NSSA involved, the industry would be more responsive to sponsorship opportunities and encourage their professionals to get involved. Until then, the organization’s main focus is building champs at the NSSA Nationals.

Aragon says there aren’t too many other sports like surfing, where athletes become professionals right out of high school. That’s why keeping kids in school is important to the NSSA, and any competitor who wants to surf in the College, High School, or extremely competitive Open Nationals must have at least a 2.0 grade-point average.

While Aragon says there are some surfers who are handling the pressures of the “new” amateur surfing, there are also plenty of spoiled kids. They can’t handle success because there have no aspirations left. Easy money gives them nothing to work for, she says.

Aragon doesn’t know how much young surfers are making from their sponsors; she says the amateur organizations currently have no way to police this practice when it occurs. For amateur surfing to really succeed, she says companies need to unilaterally agree not to pay kids under the table.

With all the junior pro-am events surfacing, Aragon isn’t sure how much longer it will be before the NSSA starts offering prize money. NSSA rules had the limit on amateur earnings at 16,000 dollars a year–a rule the association erroneously believed was still in the ISA rulebook.

Since the NSSA follows ISA rules, that organization may embrace several rule changes next year that have been contrary to amateur sports until now–like contest prize money. In response to questions about more professionals entering the NSSA Explorers Non-Student Division, Aragon says, “Bring it on.”

The USSF Rebounds

“The USSF would love nothing more than to see the NSSA send representatives to the U.S. Championships and World Games Trials,” says USSF Competition Director Paul West.

After a gradual deterioration of the enforcement of it rules, the USSF will go back to a strict definition of the amateur code in July. “We have a responsibility to our 10,000 members because it’s what they wanted,” says West.

The USSF plans to create an amateur-only national team with trials to be held during the U.S. Championships in July. They also plan on continuing to lobby the ISA to return the World Games to amateur-event status.

“The World Games was a pinnacle taken away from amateurs all over the world,” says West. Until then, he says it’s the USSF’s responsibility to pick the best Dream Team of surf professionals it can to enter the World Games.


As ESA Director Kathy Phillips puts it, the parallels of the surfing and basketball worlds are obvious and undeniable: “You simply substitute Kelly Slater for Michael Jordan and Quiksilver for Nike.”

Like basketball, money is making many of the decisions in amateur surfing. Young amateurs are far less expensive to sponsor than professionals, and amateur surfing is suffering as a result.

For the U.S. surf industry to reach its true potential, the questions surrounding amateur surfing can’t be ignored. Either we return to a truly amateur system or we move forward together with a new outlook and approach. But if we keep standing still, we’re just a target in the middle of the road.