Bobby Martinez warned them.
The day he was banned from surfing's World Tour for causing "damage" to the sport's image, he was back east on Long Island's Long Beach. Although he'd put his sponsor-logo hat on, his personal emblems — the glorious tats that unfurl across his back — were hidden by the long-sleeve, colored jersey surfers wear so judges can identify them on the water.
Martinez had won his first heat in the Quiksilver Pro New York 2011, when Todd Kline, one of the sponsor's marketers, pulled him over for an interview for the company's webcast.
"The ASP and you guys aren't going to want this interview," Martinez told Kline, referring to the Association of Surfing Professionals, the sanctioning body of the World Tour.
But Kline waved the words off. When the mic went live, the surfer let loose. By the time Martinez was done, one minute and seven seconds later, F-bombs littered the sand like trash on the beach after Memorial Day.
Seen live on the Internet and on huge screens at Long Beach, Martinez hammered the Association of Surfing Professionals, the World Tour and his competitors, starting slowly but gaining momentum as he leaned toward the camera, his board next to him. "I don't want to be a part of this dumb fucking wannabe tennis tour," he let them know.
"Fucking surfing's going down the drain, thanks to these people," he concluded.
Martinez had a case to argue: the tour's recent adoption of a rolling world ranking system, similar to tennis, which, he said, meant the tour's top 34 surfers could be outranked by competitors who had never surfed against them. "Come on, now. That's bullshit," he scowled. To many, Martinez's ferocity was unintelligible.
Quiksilver's Kline froze. His mouth gaped.
The ASP didn't hesitate to react. Martinez had been jabbing it with "fucks" on Twitter for months. Even before the interview turned into a global blowup with thousands of downloads, the ASP Rules and Disciplinary Committee disqualified him and suspended him from the World Tour.
Bobby Martinez, a rare Latino surfing superstar from a working-class background, who had risen to the top tier of professional surfers on Earth, was too rebel for what had once been a rebel sport.
Even two months later, there's an edge to ASP spokesman Dave Prodan's voice when he discusses Martinez's suspension. "Bobby made it abundantly clear that he was ... not happy with being on tour. And I don't think there's much of a reason to give him a second chance or a third chance or a fourth chance," he says.
Since he turned 20, Martinez, now 29, has skirmished with surf industry powers in Orange County and Australia. With his stylish, effortless surfing, he nailed huge wins as a rookie, and was once seen as a possible successor to Florida's Kelly Slater, winner of more World Tours than Lance Armstrong has Tour de France victories. But Martinez also defied sponsors, took his complaints with competitive surfing's hierarchy public and called B.S. on competitors he didn't respect because they wouldn't speak up.
Although he beat even Slater, long before New York there were plenty in the surf industry who saw him as petulant, stubborn — unhirable.
But to discover the story behind the controversial interview is to find another Martinez: Hardwired to speak the truth but also, "honestly, one of the most humble guys I've ever met," says Tarik Khashoggi, a lifelong friend.
"He's always so polite," says Allen Sarlo, the only Malibu surfer ever to surf the World Tour.
"People got this misconception of him that he's ungrateful ... but he is so grateful," says pro surfer Pascal Stansfield, a friend of Martinez's.
"He's not about the money with it, he's about the surfing," says his current sponsor, Bobby Vaughn, who co-founded the Von Dutch brand and now runs edgy New York clothing firm FTW.
But surfing is money.
Begun as surfer-to-surfer small businesses, the industry now is part of the active-lifestyle market, which includes skateboarding, motocross and snowboarding. The surf/skate industry had $7.22 billion in U.S. sales in 2008. It is dominated by the "big five" companies, which sponsor surfers and pay for a key industry marketing vehicle, the World Tour. But that tour has always struggled to grow its audience.
The new ratings system — the radical reworking of the World Tour that Martinez pilloried — was conceived as a solution and a way to showcase new faces.
And in Long Beach, Huntington Beach–based Quiksilver had hoped to increase surfing's profile by hosting a major contest in an unlikely locale just miles from Manhattan, the media capital of the world. Instead, viewers were treated to Martinez spitting on his sport.
But within two months, the ASP would have its own self-inflicted, epic fail on its hands by mistakenly crowning a champion before he actually won. And some would see Martinez as a truth sayer. Then, on Dec. 27, the ASP abandoned the most controversial aspect of its new rules — the one Martinez had vehemently railed against.
"Unfortunately for pro surfing, there are very few people like Bobby, who are willing to speak out," says Sunny Garcia, surfing's 2000 World Champion, who splits time between Hawaii and San Clemente. "Bobby said it so the rest of the world could finally hear what a lot of surfers actually think."
"From surfing, I bought this place," Martinez says quietly. It's two months after the blowup in New York and he has pulled his truck up behind a modest duplex in Santa Barbara — the house where his parents live.
Martinez is giving a tour of the neighborhood where he grew up. It's the tour writers always want for their color commentary, which glibly treats the gang-territory streets of his youth like a tourist destination: the block where someone was shot, the relative's house where he got his first tattoo with a jury-rigged tattoo gun. Martinez left the surfing tour in part to spend more time with family who live here in Santa Barbara's working-class Latino enclave, but it bothers him when surfing publications push this angle, as if where he grew up defines him more than his surfing.
Straight up, Bobby Martinez is a surfer.
At 6 years of age, when he rode a wave standing on a Boogie Board at a public beach in Santa Barbara, his course was set.
At 12, he won his first national championship as an amateur. It was the first of seven, many of which broke National Scholastic Surfing Association records.
At 13, he traveled to war-torn El Salvador for a photo shoot — just him, another kid and the photographer. He earned a $30,000 sponsorship deal in seventh grade. In ninth grade, he was traveling so much that he left school.
When he was 15, girls razzed Pascal Stansfield, who was older than Martinez, for hanging out with "a kid" at Malibu, home of the famed California wave. "You don't understand," Stansfield responded. "That's Bobby Martinez. He's the man."
His style looked effortless. There was a buzz. Martinez was the next great thing.
People thought he would rapidly transcend pro surfing's farm tour — the Qualifying Series — and make the elite group of contests, the World Championship Tour, which crowns the top surfer annually.
Instead, a career-threatening injury stopped him from competing the first year. From 2003 to 2005, Martinez was almost always on the road, living out of a "board bag," trying to crack surfing's top tier.
"You spend more time in airports and cars almost than you actually do when you're surfing," Stansfield says.
"You can be in some of the most amazing places in the world, but you just lost and you just want to go home," says Qualifying Series veteran Venice surfer Justin Swartz.
After three years, Martinez — who was by then footing the bill for much of his global travel due to sponsor problems — started to lose his confidence. "Al told him, 'You can do this, you're close,' " says Travis Lee, who works for Channel Island Surfboards, the home of legendary surfboard shaper Al Merrick. "He stuck with it and qualified" for the tour.
His first year on the tour in 2006 was a dream. First event, third place. Second event, a win. He took down Kelly Slater himself to win another.
That year he won at Teahupoo, Tahiti, the tour's defining wave. A barreling tube over a razor-sharp reef, it's an entirely different beast from Rincon, Santa Barbara's generous rolling wave where he made his name. It put everyone on notice.
He ended the year fifth in the rankings — to many, an astounding ascent. He was the 2006 Rookie of the Year.
Everything was different, but Martinez was still the same.
"When he won at Teahupoo ... he calls me from an airport," says Bryan Taylor, his manager. "We spoke about business. Finally I said, 'Is the contest over?' And he said, 'Yes, it ended this morning.' And we went back to talking about business and I assumed he must not have done well. Finally I said, 'By the way, did you do OK?' And there's hesitation and he said, 'I guess, I won.' I said, 'You won! Why didn't you tell me 20 minutes ago?' "
On the tour, Martinez often kept to himself and was not part of the event and party scene. He never liked to travel, cherishing his time at home with family and friends. He lived quietly with his wife and worked out at a struggling neighborhood boxing gym. Though unassuming by nature, at 16 he had tried to buy a Mercedes. When the dealer refused to take seriously a Mexican kid acting as if he could afford a luxury car, he bought a BMW instead. But those days ended. He gave up the BMW for a white Prius.
In Martinez's first four years on the tour, he always ranked in the world's top 10. Yet by 2009, even though beverage company Monster Energy provided him with a lucrative contract, he was surfing without the logistical help of a major clothing sponsor — something unheard of on the tour.
Martinez had gotten in a beef with his sponsor, Reef.
It was not his first dispute with a sponsor. They had begun, during his first full year trying to qualify, with sunglass and apparel manufacturer Oakley, which is headquartered in Orange County. The Martinez who ran solo was the same Martinez who would not bow when he disagreed with his bosses.
Twice, when he was injured and unable to compete in Australia and Brazil, the brand asked him to attend contests to support the other surfers it sponsored — "your team riders," is how he says Oakley put it. Martinez says he would honor Oakley's other requests but explained that, although he was on Oakley's team, the other surfers were his competition. Sunny Garcia says the reality of competitive surfing is "Nobody's wishing nobody good luck. In order for you to be in the top, all your friends, they have to lose. If your back's turned, everybody's talking shit about you."
Martinez refused to go.
"He was never a very good puppet ... which some of these [pro surfers] quite frankly have to be," says Martinez's manager, Taylor, who has represented him since 1987. "He doesn't go for peer pressure. ... And, being from Santa Barbara and not Orange County set him a bit apart. He never drank that Orange County Kool-Aid that people drink down there. He was always his own person even at a very young age."
Taylor says a meeting about Martinez's contract in 2008 ended the surfer's relationship with Reef. As he remembers it, Reef's then vice president of marketing, Kevin Flanagan, questioned Martinez's desire to travel the tour while in negotiations over his salary.
Taylor remembers Flanagan asking Martinez: "Are you really a surfer? Or do you just want to sit at home and play with your dogs?"
"Bobby would never look at that company in the same way again," Taylor says, because Flanagan was doubting Martinez's integrity. "It questioned his heart and his ethic. 'Do you really want to be a surfer or do you just want to make more money?' Bobby really hungered for the world title."
In 2008, when Martinez thought Flanagan went back on a promise to increase his salary, he walked away from negotiations.
Martinez went on to win Teahupoo again in 2009 and finished eighth in the world. O'Neill signed him for 2010.
But soon, Martinez was taking on the ASP itself, a worldwide organization based in Australia, with regional offices in Huntington Beach.
In late 2009, the ASP set in motion changes to fend off a competing tour and to make surfing more exciting. Instead of two separate tours, all surfers would fall under a One World Ranking, with the top 32, plus two wild cards, qualified for the contests that decide the champion. But now, anyone falling out of the top 34 would be cut midseason, not annually.
Martinez believed the changes, which were borrowed from professional tennis, were a terrible fit for surfing, a sport far different from tennis' controlled environment. The location schedule for the tour favors certain styles of surfers during the first half of the year, others during the second. He gives an analogy to the
Weekly: What if a tennis player who played well on hard courts was disqualified from the U.S. Open in September because he'd failed on the French Open's clay courts in May?
And Martinez remembered how his first year felt on the Dream Tour. Everyone deserved a whole year to savor.
He took up his grievance with Brodie Carr, the ASP's CEO, who agreed with him, but nothing came of it.
World Professional Surfers, the union for professionals, said that surfers voted for the changes. Martinez found the claim absurd, since no official poll had been taken.
World title contenders now had to surf the lower qualifying events to stay in the top 34. And with the ASP changing points values for all events, many were confused about which events to surf.
Then, in 2010, Martinez dropped to 20th in the world. Among other reasons, friends say, the traveling had finally hurt his focus.
This year, just before the ASP hit Brazil for the Billabong Rio Pro, Martinez's grandfather died. If he surfed, he'd miss the funeral. "I had to tell him, 'If you don't go to this, you will not have a chance to requalify,' " Lee says. They talked extensively. Martinez got on a plane.
He beat Slater, came in fifth and got a tattoo in honor of his grandfather.
But last June, Martinez says, he got notification that after Quiksilver's New York contest, the first group of top surfers would hit their midyear mark and be culled under the new rules. He'd had enough. "Every surfer I talked to didn't know how the point system worked," he says.
Martinez, who uses "fuck" the way an English teacher uses prepositions, launched a Twitter attack whose message was "FUK" competitive surfing. People thought he was going Charlie Sheen.
Over the summer, he called Tim English at Monster Energy in Corona — his sponsor since 2005. He was coming off the tour.
English remembers saying, " 'If you don't believe in this tour anymore and you're not happy, then you shouldn't be on tour.' He was just, 'Oh man, you have no idea how good that makes me feel.' I think he was really relieved that he hadn't upset anyone."
Martinez also had reached out to Garcia.
"His heart wasn't in it, " Garcia says. "I talked to him for a long time. [He drops into his mentoring voice.] 'Are you sure this is a decision you want to make? It will be really sad not to see you on tour because I believe you can win.' He was just, like, 'Man, I don't know how you did it for so long. ... I don't feel like I have a voice.' "
Martinez had already pulled out of South Africa; now he pulled out of Teahupoo.
In August, he announced he was retiring. And in September, he told the World Tour what he thought of it on a beach on Long Island.
"Sorry if I offended anyone," he said to English, "but I don't regret it for one minute."
The online bulletin boards lit up. Nice, nice peeps.
"A has-been who has sealed his own fate," came the word on Stab magazine.
"[N]ever worked a day in their life [...] comes from a minority, where victim culture and blaming everyone else for there [sic] problems is standard in the majority," "Pseudonym" pitched in.
"You can take a dude out of the Pit, but you can't take the Pit out of the dude," allangibbons60 posted on Surfer magazine's site.
"Bitter Beaner Bobbie does it again," "frucus" felt free to unload.
If the haters were having a go at Martinez on bulletin boards, industry observers noted the financially lethal aspects of what he had done. "Sad," "a meltdown," basically a career ender.
But Martinez also drew respect. Not just from the teenage demographic that thrived on his fuck-off attitude but from observers in the surf world. Tetsuhiko Endo, surf editor for TheInertia.com, slammed ASP: "The only real crime is talking stink about la famiglia and not moving enough merch to stay in the circle of untouchables."
"I think that the sport needs more Bobby Martinezes," opines Barry K. Haun, curator and creative director of the Surfing Heritage Foundation in Costa Mesa. "I'm not saying that everything he says is right," but "without the Bobbys, you can end up with a very homogenized sport."
If Hawaii's North Shore is surfing's mythic Mecca — big waves, and the realm of the late Eddie Aikau, last seen in 1978 paddling his board in open ocean on a rescue mission to save his fellow crew from a capsized canoe — surfing's money engine is behind the Orange Curtain.
Outsiders might associate Orange County with plastic surgery, South Coast Plaza, expensive divorces and Lakers who sequester themselves in Newport Beach cribs larger than museums. But as Jonathan Paskowitz, president of Lightning Bolt USA, describes the O.C., "I ran a company called Black Flys for years" on Monrovia Avenue in Costa Mesa, "which is right down the street from Hurley, which is right down the street from Quiksilver, which is right down the street from Billabong, which is right down the street from O'Neill."
Paskowitz, who chose Venice for the American relaunch of the legendary 1970s Lightning Bolt, a lifestyle brand co-founded by iconic Pipeline surfer Gerry Lopez, says: "It's this big, nepotistic group of industry individuals that all hang out together and work together."
This was the world Martinez was taking on.
"You don't see people speaking out in surfing — and survive it," says Malibu local Jim Evans.
As Martinez explains it, "There are people I can't stand. The reason why I don't like these people is because they'll smile in your face and they talk shit behind your back."
To Martinez, Orange County's corporate culture was anathema. But it's also where nature has carved out Southern California's best surf breaks, sprinkled from Huntington Beach to San Onofre. Those waves began to draw surfers in the 1930s. After World War II, surfing benefited from the SoCal aerospace industry, which pioneered materials that turned the early wooden planks into controllable, rideable pieces of fiberglass and polyurethane foam.
Today, a handful of Orange County–based surf companies dominate the surf industry's market share.
Quiksilver owns the Roxy and DC Shoe labels; Nike, based in Oregon, owns Orange County firms Nike 6.0 and Hurley; and multinational French holding company PPR — headed by François-Henri Pinault and owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent — owns Volcom lifestyle wear.
By November 2010, the hold of a few companies was so tight that the Nielsen Sports Group, which ran the surfing industry's trade show, suspended the event because the mom-and-pop participants hawking surf goods had been pushed out.
Former Nielsen executive Andy Tompkins says the industry's target market is the anti-establishment ages of 12-18. That demographic might seem a perfect fit for Martinez, but Tompkins explains that a board of directors at a big firm that backs surfing might care more about family values. It can be safer to go "with the Kelly Slater types that haven't had many issues — or at least not publicly."
"You were who they wanted to put out in the world," says Martinez's friend Stansfield, who started his Malibu company Freedom Artists in 2007 in reaction to the corporatization, which was ironic, given that the industry hawked freedom. Surfers are "not just a product," he says. "The more you embrace individual character, the more marketable you are to everybody who buy clothes."
"They want you to do dumb shit you would never do because they're paying you. ... They say 'It's a family' and you should go and support them. But at the end of the day they will cut you in a heartbeat, quicker than they signed you," Martinez says.
"The real power of the control of the surfing industry — I don't know if there's another way of putting it — but it will always rest in the hands of the manufacturers," says Jonathan Paskowitz.
Asked how pervasive is the influence of surf companies within the sport, Erik Joule, former vice president of merchandising and design at Quiksilver, who's now with Levi Strauss & Co., says simply: "Huge. They have the dollars."
These same firms pay for the World Tour and underwrite the talent.
Forget the four-tier model in U.S. major league sports, made up of an overseeing body, owners, players and outside sponsors who pay to advertise their brands. Contests that make up the World Tour are not financed by "owners" but by sponsors. In 2011, Billabong, Rip Curl, Volcom and Hurley ran events. The advertisers also directly influence the sport by sitting on ASP's board, as do the surfers.
The ASP is "not toothless," says Scott Hulet, who edits San Clemente–based The Surfer's Journal, which, as a heavily subscriber-based magazine, is not as affected by the advertisers as Surfer, Surfing and TransWorld Surf. "But the events themselves around the world are under the ownership and direction of the surf-clothing companies and wet suit manufacturers, who also sponsor the athletes in those events.
"I don't know if that's unique in the world of sports, but it's worth noting. That seems like a relationship fraught with hazard. By the same token, anything that allows a talented young world-class surfer the ability to fly around the world and basically play in the water is a win for that surfer."
Mark Richards, owner of San Fernando Valley's Val Surf shop, agrees. He gives "full credit" to the big five for growing the industry and putting money into the sport — versus the slew of corporations from telecom to fashion houses that appropriate surf culture and its imagery to sell products.
But surfing itself doesn't draw that huge, mainstream audience. The spots with the best waves, the ones that create a spectacle of danger, athleticism and grace, often are located far from the world's media capitals. The smaller waves near big cities rarely guarantee the same excitement or quality of surfing, so Quiksilver's Long Beach locale was designed to turn on thousands of new fans.
The One World Ranking and the new midyear tour rotation were intended to showcase younger surfers and bring more hype to an art that's about man-upon-wave, not the traditional sports conflict that the advertisers flock to, of man-versus-man. For many surfers, it's a deeply metaphysical act that connects man to water — not exactly a stadium sport.
"When you're dealing with a sport that just by its inherent nature is not telegenic," like the drama of football or basketball, Taylor says, "had it not been for these Orange County apparel companies, there really wouldn't be professional surfers. ... So it's kind of a Catch-22, maybe say, well, they own the tour, they rule it — on the other hand, if it wasn't for them, there would really be no tour."
But Garcia, the World Tour's mercurial 2000 champion, knows the danger of having surfers sit on a board across the table from the companies that sponsor them and pay their mortgages. Garcia was sponsored by Billabong when he was younger, but during his later tenure as a surfers' representative on the ASP board, he, like Martinez, did not have a big-five sponsor. Instead, No Fear, a company owned by his friends, sprang to back Garcia's name. Garcia thus was free to voice criticisms that others on the board were reluctant to express.
"At one time there was a lot of criticism of professional surfing," says Malibu local Evans, an art director who began his career with classic illustrations for Surfer and Surfing. But those days are gone. "Professional surfers are supposed to keep their mouths shut and be cool athletes."
On Wednesday, Nov. 2, on a San Francisco beach, the ASP crowned its 2011 champion: Kelly Slater.
Slater, 39, had accomplished a staggering feat for any sport, finishing at the top for 11 years. Slater's win was huge news. The press releases went out, Quiksilver ran its congratulatory ad for its No. 1 surfer, the blogosphere celebrated.
The thing was, Slater hadn't yet clinched it. The ASP had made a mistake. He needed to win one more heat.
It was "Mark" posting on Surfline.com who noticed the ASP had its calculations wrong. Slater did the math himself and passed the word along. Four days later, Slater won the heat he needed and was recrowned.
But the ASP's reputation took a serious ding. Professional surfer Jamie O'Brien, under the moniker "whoisjob," tweeted: "WHAT IS THE ASP???? It's a SANCTIONING body for a WORLD TITLE." Within two days, the organization announced it had accepted the resignation of CEO Brodie Carr.
The controversy wouldn't die. The ASP had screwed up its most basic mission just as its complex One World Ranking system was in its first full year.
"It's the first time in surfing history that [the ASP] ever fucked up on the points," Martinez says.
ASP's Prodan told the Weekly that the mistake was not due to the new, computer-driven system but was "human error." Officials there claimed that the complex tiebreaker formula was the problem.
But on ESPN's Action Sports blog, Surfing contributor Peter "Joli" Wilson questioned that, noting that if human error affected the world title decision, "You have to think, what other results and ratings might be skewed?"
Room for error was plentiful given that the One World Ranking involves changing the point values that can be won at all ASP-sanctioned events and required a complex weighting system.
Even Quiksilver jabbed the ASP. It asked Martinez for an interview set at a Santa Barbara–area tennis court. There he delivered a powerful serve — and some choice words. He lightheartedly suggested that surfers who'd qualified to try for the world title should check the math because their chance might have come and gone during the previous midyear cycle.
"Honestly, after New York, people were, like, 'Oh, man, he's crazy,' " Strider Wasilewski says of Martinez. "But now, after you see what happened in San Francisco, people are, like, 'Maybe he's not so crazy.' "
Wasilewski is a widely liked pro surfer who works in the industry and whose approach to criticism is softer than Martinez's, but he too questions the results of ASP's changes.
"They did it to evolve the sport as a business, so that more people would stay interested and they could sell the package — but it didn't work," Wasilewski told the Weekly in early November. "They still don't have a blanket sponsor for the tour. They don't have a TV deal, the companies are all funding their own webcasts, so there's no continuity. There's no webcaster or sportscaster or surfcaster, whatever you want to call it, that becomes a glue and people get familiar. They have not put together a package of any sort for anybody to actually become interested. To me it didn't help evolve the sport."
By mid-November, the ASP was considering backing off the change that Martinez found so egregious, the midyear cutoff. And surfers were pushing for a return to the two-tier system made up of a title race and qualifying tour, said Renato Hickel, the World Tour manager, by phone from his headquarters perched over four noted Australian surf breaks. "A lot of guys want to go back to the two-tier system," he said.
Hickel has a warm Brazilian personality, and it's easy to take him at his word when he says that calling Martinez in New York to ban him from the tour was difficult. "I know Bobby and I'm really fond of him," Hickel says.
Although the press and gossip were painting Martinez as having lost it, Hickel saw a different man. "We met later in the hotel, and he gave me a hug and we exchanged a couple of jokes."
Martinez had spoken up and moved on.
But ask Hickel which individual surfers are pushing the ASP to return to the old system, and he buttons up. "Surfers that attended the board meeting were representing the 'surfers' as a whole, so it is best to address as 'the surfers' or 'the majority of the surfers on tour,' " he says in a follow-up message.
With ASP refusing to name the board representatives who spoke out, surfing had lost the guy who was always unafraid to speak on the record.
"Maybe the way [Bobby] said it wasn't extremely diplomatic. It could have been done in the King James version of etiquette, the rules of Canterbury or whatever, or like the way you see the House of Lords do it on C-SPAN: 'Good gentleman, I object, this is bullshit, as we say,' " says Lightning Bolt's Paskowitz, thinking it over at his setup in Venice, miles from the money in Orange County. "Maybe, yes, semantics could have been different — but the guy's point is valid."
In fact, on Dec. 27, the ASP and the surfers' union announced that they were dropping the midseason cutoff system, which would have affected top surfers in the 2012 title race. They cited scheduling complexities as having made the new system unmanageable.
The essence of their decision reflected Martinez' point of view: A midyear rotation doesn't work in competitive surfing. Martinez just didn't say it that way in New York.
What Bobby Martinez did was "no different than a John McEnroe outburst, you know — get over it. That's the one analogy that I used," says Monster's Tim English. "After I put it in that context, everybody was, like, 'Oh yeah, why is everyone making such a big deal out of it?' "