Big changes at Hurley and a shaky industry illustrate the murky future of the surf biz

By Jake Howard

Last week, surfwear brand Hurley laid off more than 60 employees. At the start of the year, it was made public that Hurley would also be making drastic cuts in its roster of sponsored athletes and would not be renewing some contracts. It was seismic news in an already shaky surf industry.

In October 2019, it was announced that Bluestar Alliance had acquired Hurley from sportswear giant Nike for an undisclosed amount. Bluestar is a New York-based licensing company with zero surf roots, so it was only a matter of time before cuts and restructuring came. And here we are.

“The Hurley brand was built on the idea of the golden rule—treating employees, vendors, retailers, athletes, artists and musicians as we would like to be treated,” Hurley founder Bob Hurley told the digital trade publication ShopEatSurf when the Hurley news broke. Hurley has not been involved with the company since 2015.

“Our fundamental principles were inspiration, inclusion, innovation, positivity and diversity. . . .  As a result, the community felt inspired, empowered, passionate and willing to do amazing things, thereby changing the game,” continued Hurley.

The troubles at Hurley have come at the same time as Rip Curl was sold to New Zealand-based outdoor retailer Kathmandu. And with both Quiksilver and Billabong under the same Boardriders ownership, it’s hard to tell what’s actually happening there. Adding a little more fuel to the fire, Los Angeles-based action sports retailer Active Ride Shop is being auctioned off as part of its bankruptcy proceedings.

These surf industry developments fall into the category of “local news” here in San Clemente and Dana Point for a variety of reasons.

First, Hurley is based just up the road in Costa Mesa, and a number of employees—and now former employees—live in the area. It’s always hard knowing that friends and neighbors are going through tough times. Hopefully, this is but a speed bump and bigger and better things are on the horizon for everyone.

Parents of young, aspiring surfers in the San Clemente and Dana Point area should take heed. The overall poor health of the surf industry should temper expectations about chasing careers as pro surfers.

To be frank, pro surfing is not a viable career path for more than 99% of the surfers in the world. And this isn’t just a personal opinion; this sentiment comes from a number of surfers, managers, team managers and other industry types.

That’s not to say “pro surfing” is going away, but the game is changing. Keep chasing waves, but also chase an education and plan for the future.

As with every dark cloud, there is a silver lining. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen giant surf brands swirl the drain. Look no further than Gotcha and Ocean Pacific and Body Glove. Nobody was bigger in the ’80s. Now, where are they? Either gone or withering in a licensing graveyard.

But as those brands lost relevance and faded, exciting new brands were born. The bigger brands get, and the more their corporate overlords make decisions in the boardroom and not on the beach, the harder time they have struggling with that “core” surf culture.

And once you’ve lost the core, you’ve lost everything.

“The market for surfwear has turned out to be merely window-dressing by surfing’s actual participants, who represent just a tiny percentage of the global market,” wrote Phil Jarratt in his 2009 book Salts and Suits, which details the history of the surf industry.

“The real market, analysts and cool hunters alike now agree, is that vast and growing tribe of urban dreamers who aspire to an action lifestyle, whether they actually lead one or not,” Jarratt continued.

Like an old tree falling in the woods, when these giant surf brands lose relevance, clout and market share, it lets the sun shine down on new, emerging brands and allows them to begin to spread their branches. They will be the ones to reshape the surf industry and the sport in their own likeness.

We see it year after year, generation after generation, and maybe right now the surf biz is just shedding its skin. There are more surfers in the water than ever before. The sport is enjoying worldwide popularity and acceptance.

For the first time ever, surfers will compete at the Olympic Games this summer. There’s no shortage of opportunities out there, it’s just how to take advantage of them that’s the issue at the moment.

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