Image: Shibata
Jason Shibata of Hawaii catches air off a wave during the U.S. Open of Surfing championship in Huntington Beach, Calif. last month. This year's event attracted over 250,000 spectators.
By
CNBC
updated 8/29/2003 6:40:42 AM ET 2003-08-29T10:40:42

Surfing today is not only a sport with more than 1.5 million participants; it’s an increasingly popular lifestyle and a $4.3 billion business reaching around the globe.

IT’S NOT A NEW SPORT — it began in Hawaii more than 1,500 years ago — but people of all ages are now just starting to catch the wave — whether you’re near the beach, or not.

Part of the attraction is surfing’s mystique: Athletic but low key, embracing a laid-back lifestyle of fun and sun.

It first flowed into the mainstream in the 1960s with “Gidget” on TV and “The Endless Summer” at the movies.

Earlier this summer, a quarter of a million people watched the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, Calif.

But compared to many other sports, surfing has not reached the big leagues. Winners of the U.S. Open of tennis split a $17 million dollar prize, the top surfers divvy up a mere $175,000.

In recent years, the sport sank to a new low in the U.S. — after thriving since the 1970s — because international locales like Brazil, and Tahiti attracted the top athletes and attention with bigger waves.

“Australia and all these exotic places they all have their special characteristics, and that’s what makes it all so great,” said pro surfer Rochelle Ballard.

But the 44th U.S. Open of Surfing might represent a commercial sea change for surfing, as it attracted big-name sponsors like Honda and Philips Electronics.

“Our goal is to reach that 14-24 year-old male demographic and communicate to them the products that we have and the benefits we have and really do it with a targeted approach,” said Mark McCully, director of brand communication at Philips.

For companies like O’Neill — which invented the first wetsuit in 1959 to make surfing more comfortable in cooler waters, and now makes all kinds of clothes, it’s a perfect fit.

“What Nike is to jocks, O’Neill is to surfing,” said Kelly Gibson, president of O’Neill Clothing. “We sell to the masses of America as well and we sell the dream or the lifestyle.”

How much has the surfer lifestyle invaded popular culture? Well, at the Quiksilver store in Manhattan’s Times Square, you won’t find a single wetsuit or surfboard for sale, but the cash registers keep ringing - the surfing-clothes retailer had revenues of more than $700 million last year.

At Ron Jon’s Surf Shop, which caters to both surfers and wannabes, sales are up 10% this year. While the company annually sells 3,500 surfboards averaging $500 a pop, they sell more than 300,000 T-shirts.

Another recent trend is that women are now the fastest growing segment in surf retail and on the beach, with the number of girls and women surfing every day 280 percent in the past four years, according to market research firm Board Trac. “Women are not ornaments on the beach anymore, they are athletes and participants in the sport of surfing,” said Ed Moriarty, Ron Jon’s president.

And surfing is making big waves in pop culture with last summer’s surfer-girl movie “Blue Crush,” bringing in $40 million. And “Step Into Liquid” just opened nationwide, showing that anyone can surf almost anywhere.

It’s directed by Dana Brown, son of Bruce Brown who made the cult classic “The Endless Summer.”

“My movie I hope just opens people’s eyes a little bit so they just kind of go, ‘that’s what its like,’” Brown said. “It’s about people that have a passion.”

Passionate as they come, Kelly Slater is as close to being the Michael Jordan of surfing there is, but there isn’t anyone who’s really a household name. Critics Claim There’s Not Enough Exposure.

“In the last 10 years there are twice as many people in the water,” O’Neill’s Gibson said. “The job that we’re not doing as well is having the masses see surfing on TV and in the print media.

If the tide turns, retailers and surfers may share their secret — that surfing is a lot like life. “When you get on a wave you can do anything you want to and it’s what you decide to do on that wave that makes the ride so special,” Ballard said.

© 2012 CNBC, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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