So you want to be a pro surfer? Join the club. Who wouldn’t want to travel to a different exotic destination every month and get paid to hang out on the beach until it’s your turn to paddle out? The girls are in bikinis and the dudes have no shirts. The wine flows in Europe. The beer is plentiful in Australia, and Hawaii is green with tropical goodness. Okay, so there’s a bit more to being a professional surfer than partying and traveling.
For one, the travel is relentless if you are on the WORLD SURF LEAGUE (WSL), you will find yourself grappling with passports, baggage claims, and taxis all the while trying to get quickly ensconced into the local wave in a few days before the competition begins. The lineup is crowed and the greed for waves, photos, and the like can be draining and pull you away from the reason you started surfing in the first place. Add to that the fact that your sponsors are pressuring you to win under threat of termination, and your place on tour depends on your point total at the end of the season; therefore, the pressure can be oppressive.
But let’s be real. To a guy who wakes up at 6 in the morning every day and slouches in to his menial day job three hundred days a year, this sounds great. The only real problem is that there really isn’t any money in pro surfing. Sure, there are a precious smidgen of surfers at the top of the WSL who are making cash in the high six seven figures. But these guys (and I say guys in this case because there is a disproportionate pay difference between male and female surfers) are the exception. Kelly Slater might be the only surfer who is making a million on sponsorship alone, while a few others like Joel Parkinson or Taj Burrow who rely on a combination of endorsements, and prize money. Most of the top 34 surfers on the ASP are making upwards of $300,000 annually, but everything depends on how well you perform and careers can be short with very little room for long term employment in the industry for those lacking skills.
Still sounds like good cash right? However, think about how many millions and millions of surfers are out there, and only a couple dozen of them are making real money. The bottom line: the mid-level guys and girls making their way to and from WSL events are not putting much in the bank after they factor in travel and related expenses. In fact, many surfers report ending the season in the red, owing money.
Most pro surfers piece their incomes together from several sources. First, competing in contests can result in solid prize money. Total prize money for an average professional surf contest on the ASP Tour ranges from $425,000 to $500,000, a win at one of those events is usually around $40,000. The pay-outs decline precipitously the farther down the ladder you finish. Another source of revenue for pro surfers is through sponsorships. Usually, top-tier surfers sign multi-year contracts upwards of a million dollars but they often depend on a surfer’s professional ranking. In addition to sponsorships, pro surfers can also endorse surfboard models and signature lines of shoes or clothes. Most notably, Dane Reynolds’ Dumpster Diver surfboard model made up a significant share of 2010’s total surfboard sales, so he presumably made a lot of money outside of the competitive scene.
So, as a top-tier successful professional surfer on the WSL, you may make upwards of a $500,000, but that is all contingent upon competition results, travel expenses, product and endorsements. Factor in that one injury could throw you into financial free fall while the career of a professional surfer is notoriously short. So in summation, it seems that unless you are Kanoa Igarashi or Jack Robinson, the idea of making enough cash to live out your days comfortably on surf money is a crap shoot. There are guys and girls out there who are pulling off the experience of a lifetime: getting paid enough to fund trips to exotic locales getting their shots in the mag, but the chances are that money is very tight and that jet-setting life is rife with hustling sponsors for cash, sleeping on couches, and hoping your next injury isn’t too bad (because you don’t have health insurance). If that still sounds good, go for it, but maybe take a few college classes along the way.