Business

How surfing became a global lifestyle industry

Jack O'Neill's first surf shop
Image caption The house that Jack built: O'Neill's first surfshop in 1952

Surfing once was a sport for beach bums. Today it is a global industry, with sales of $6.24bn in the United States alone. But after a credit crunch downturn, can this lifestyle industry continue its ride into the mainstream?

Amongst surfers, Jack O'Neill is a legend. And his place is pretty special too.

It isn't filled to the rafters with electronics or expensive art or other trappings adorning the home of a successful businessman. This isn't Jack's style. What's special about Jack's house is the view - a beach framed by a perfect surfing swell.

You wouldn't expect anything less from a man known for his love for the ocean and surfing.

Image caption Jack O'Neill: 88 years old and a surfing legend

"This was built on spec. We used to sleep right down here on the beach," says Jack O'Neill.

"We started out in San Francisco, and I would come down here with the family and we would sleep on the beach and surf, and if the weather got really bad we would get a motel, and there is a park out here, we have a tent, and we'd stay in the park."

"This is kind of a surfers' house. It has a trampoline back here, behind the drum, that goes down to the next floor, and the kids really like that."

"When I used to put my suit on in the morning and jump on the trampoline, and then go in the water, it would be nice and warm," says Jack.

'You're going out of business'

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.

"Surfing for me was a very important part of my life. I'd work downtown in San Francisco and I'd get all screwed-up, and I'd go out and I'd jump in the ocean and everything would be alright again."

"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'."

"Nobody is more surprised than I am about how this business has grown," Jack recalls.

Today, O'Neill is a global brand, not just for surfing, but skiing, kiting and other action sports.

Image caption Surfing has come a long way since 1952

Nobody got rich, at first

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.

"A huge part of it, starting in the early '60s, was silly and superfluous: people making money, or trying to, by trading on the fundamental cool of surfing. Malibu Barbie, surf-themed toenail polish, surfers in ads for Coke, Budweiser, Chevy. Same today, but a lot more of it," he says.

But today people all around the world are buying into the lifestyle, even in places nowhere near an ocean. Just take Quiksilver's flagship store in London's Regent Street; the closest good surf can arguably be found some 200 miles away in Cornwall.

Image caption Jack O'Neill is not your typical business leader

With echoes of O'Neill, Quiksilver was developed by a group of surfers who wanted to design a better piece of surfing gear - in this case better shorts.

They have been credited as developers of the first pair of 'technical' board shorts. Shorts that used snaps and Velcro instead of flies, and that had a yoke waist that was higher at the back than the front.

Trouble

Like O'Neill, Quiksilver has grown well beyond its original surf gear market. Quiksilver's logo shows a mountain-like wave, inspired by a Japanese woodblock print called The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In 1990 the company took two of these waves and combined them into a heart design, creating the Roxy brand, aimed at the growing young female market.

But this women's wear market is in trouble, says Clive Ripley, chief executive of BoardsportSource Magazine.

"There is a big crisis particularly in the UK, the market is there but big High Street chains now offer these products at much cheaper prices," says Mr Ripley.

Even worse, overall surf apparel is not doing as well as it used to.

Image caption You won't find this wave near your local surf store

"All the brands with large surf apparel businesses are suffering badly as youth fashion has turned away from beach, surf and baggy style to a urban skate and skinny style."

In the United States, the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) reports that independent surf shops are suffering. "The action sports retail landscape has definitely shifted," says SIMA president Dough Palladini. The business is moving into mall chains and other retails chains instead.

Mr Ripley, however, believes that there is still potential, underlined by French luxury goods group PPR buying US surf gear firm Volcom a few weeks ago.

"Boardsports brands are seen to have a special relationship within the youth market," says Mr Ripley. "The core surf market continues to grow steadily and should do for years to come."

Surfers view the industry as a "lifestyle... a culture and sport defined by passion, it's not a hobby, says Sima's executive director Sean Smith, and that will support the industry "even in a down economy."

Wetsuit sales, for example, are now at levels not seen since 2006.

And so established sports gear makers keep piling in. Nike recently launched The Chosen, a new global campaign featuring action sports like surfing.

Image caption Jack O'Neill is credited with developing the modern wetsuit

Commercialisation

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.

"Except for the growing crowds. That matters a lot. But riding a wave, that seems pretty impervious to the commercialization of the sport."

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