At age 17, when she had just qualified for the World Tour, Coco Ho turned down a sponsorship from a major energy drink brand. For a time, she was sponsored by Gatorade, but they quickly bailed on the action sports world, leaving her without a drink sponsor. Only now, eight years later, does Ho have a beverage logo to stick on her whips: Villager coconut water.
Like Ho, all 26 athlete-owners of the new brand either walked away from contracts with other beverage companies to sign with Villager, or have abstained from inking deals. Until now. So why would a young athlete pass up a lucrative sponsor in a fickle industry?
“I never rode for an energy drink simply because I don’t drink them,” says Ho. “It would be false advertising.”
For similar reasons, Alana Blanchard, Jack Freestone and Laura Enever walked out on relationships with Rockstar, as did Nate Tyler with Monster Energy, snowboarder Pat Moore with Red Bull and skater Paul Rodriguez with Mountain Dew. Among the other owners are surfers Taj Burrow, Mason Ho, the Gudauskas trio, Keith Malloy and Taylor Knox, as well as top skateboarders, snowboarders and photographer Atiba Jefferson.
Energy drink sponsorships dangled in many of their faces for years. Yet, despite their marketing ubiquity — the ever-present post-heat hat and can, for example — the drinks themselves are rarely the choice of elite surfers, let alone average ones.
“Those guys, when they win contests they fill the energy drink can up with water and sit there and pound it for the cameras,” says Keith Malloy. “Personally, I would never endorse anything I don’t like or use or think is a good product.”
To hear it from Ryan Kingman, president of the new San Clemente-based company, Villager’s aim is not to take on energy drinks, only to offer a healthy, organic product in which its owner-endorsers believe. But these pro athletes are speaking out against energy drinks at a time when the caffeinated companies have been slammed for marketing to kids, allegedly causing health problems and even dozens of deaths. Not only that, but coconut water’s growth is going full-tilt, apparently only constrained by the current global supply of coconuts. So, will coconut water take the Monsters, the Rockstars and the Red Bulls by their fizzy horns?
No doubt, like Ho and Malloy, surfers at comp sites and lineups the world over stash coconut water in their locker, car or bag, and drink it straight, in smoothies, every which way. And though its healthful properties may be embellished, coconut water is good for hydration. It’s mostly water with a good supply of electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, some amino acids and some sugar. To be an ideal recovery drink, it would need more protein. (One nutritionist suggests that drinking plain water and eating a banana are pretty much equivalent to drinking coconut water.)
At the moment, coconut water sales are about the size of the horns on the energy drink bull. Last year, energy drink revenue in the U.S. was around $10 billion, while U.S. coconut water revenue didn’t quite reach $800 million. At its current rate of stratospheric growth, coconut water will reach $2 billion in the U.S. by 2019.
Remarkably, bad press doesn’t seem to have had any negative impact on energy drinks’ appeal. Even with the rising tide of coconut, energy drinks are still on a path of global expansion which will keep sales far above that of coconut water in coming years.
It’s impossible to say whether the outspoken actions of Villager’s athletes and the huge popularity of coconut water among boardriders will have a more profound impact within the surf-skate-snow industry. A Red Bull spokesman said the company “doesn’t comment on competitors or our marketing strategy.”
Ho and Malloy don’t fault surfers for feeding their families and paying mortgages with energy drink dollars. And Ho respects energy drink makers for backing athletes in an industry that lots of mainstream companies have abandoned.
“I give them credit for representing action sports and supporting so many surfers,” Ho says. “But I think for something healthy, beneficial and replenishing to come to the action sports world will be eye-opening. There’s going to be a shift.”