Why The Unsponsored Guy Is Surfing’s New Superstar

And the cult followings that made them.

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Being. Paid. To. Surf. The concept is still as ludicrous as it sounds, especially so when it’s not you who’s being paid. But what a bunch of jerks, really. Sticker boys with monster trucks full of cash being paid to catch two waves out of every set, fading blokes who’ve been surfing this place all their lives and who’ve just crawled out of a coalmine after a 12-hour shift ripping coal out with their bare hands. Sticker boys: corpos, microchipped, soulless, doing it for the money, ruining surfing for everyone the lot of ’em. Wankers.

When the surf industry was flying like Neville Bartos back in the early millennium, the bastards were everywhere. They’d run down the beach and you couldn’t even see their board for all the stickers on it. Surf sponsor, board sponsor, wax sponsor, undie sponsor, lawnmowing sponsor, fried chicken sponsor. And did you know their contract actually tells them where each sticker has to go? And do you know they actually paid a guy to put the stickers on for them? Wankers.

But fast forward to today and the greatest surfer of all time has a white board, whole surf teams are getting dumped by email, and when you open the real estate guide and think that bloke in the bad suit looks familiar then it’s probably because he once made the quarters at Figueira da Foz in 1996. The asteroid that hit the surf industry also created a mass extinction event of pro surfers. And you know what? As hard as it is to believe, we’re now actually starting to feel sorry for them. In this cynically crazed and contrarian world the unsponsored guy is the new surfing superstar.

Actually, being unsponsored right now might be the best thing to ever happen to your surfing career. Whole online campaigns are being run to get previously sponsored guys sponsored again. Entire surfing events are being run exclusively for unsponsored guys. You can’t turn on the Internet without being hit with some hard luck story from someone who used to be the luckiest person in the world until surf companies stopped sending them their free money and gave it to a 12-year-old instead.

Laurie Towner is the World Champ of unsponsored surfers. When the music stopped at Billabong contract time last year there was no chair – and no sticker – for the big guy. He and good mate, Wade Goodall became the poster boys for the unstickered generation, largely because a) they rip, and b) they’re a pair of effing legends. Suddenly people were screaming, “Can you believe these guys can’t get a sponsor?”…  people who didn’t even know who they were back when they were sponsored.

While their fans raged there was little animosity from the boys themselves – no online venting, no birds to the surf industry – they accepted it for what it was and started on the next chapter of their lives. It was a credit to them. Like anything good in the world they saw being paid to go surfing for what it is, a privilege, not a right. Even better, they’d seen the writing on the wall a year early and used their last year of a surfing paycheque to go mad, towing each other into the waves of their lives at Shipsterns and Chopes. Their whole last year on contract was like muck-up day at school. At the end of it they went back to their hometowns and their freshly-hatched grommets and back to a new life.

Believe it or not being a sponsored surfer is still a job, and if you ask anyone who leaves a long-term job anywhere, doing anything, what the first day of their new life feels like and they’ll give you one word – liberating. Despite the one minor drawback – nobody’s paying you – the world’s your oyster. You’re suddenly your own boss again, you wake up at 4am with a head full of ideas, and there’s no better motivator in the world than a young family and no regular paycheque. And for the unsponsored surfer today, you also pick up the kind of online cult following you could never have got when you were stickered up.

At the end of the day Laurie realised that being paid to surf is a dream, but you gotta wake up some day to reality and the reality you wake up to might not be all that bad after all. He’s back in Angourie, his little grom is doing surf checks with him, the snapper are on the chew, he’s been swinging a hammer in between swells, he’s done stunt work for the big pictures and absolutely nailed 20-foot Cloudbreak last week. Seems like he’s landed all right on them big feet of his.

Sean Doherty