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The kid who could be king

6/21/2010

Kolohe And Friends

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At 16 years old, Kolohe Andino already finds himself among some pretty talented company. Here's a little photographic proof. onClick="window.open('http://espn.go.com/action/surfing/gallery?id=5155652','Popup','width=990,height=720,scrollbars=no,noresize'); return false;">Gallery »

"There are two ways to look at it," Dino Andino explains as the jeep he's driving bumps down a dirt road along Baja's East Cape. It's September 2008, and he's mulling over the sponsorship opportinities being presented to his son, Kolohe, who's sitting in the back, listening intently as a dusty wind blows through the windows. "We could stay with a surf brand, and there are plenty of good arguments why we should, or we could take a chance with somebody outside of the surf industry and see what happens? It's the most difficult decision we've ever had to make."

Two years later, and we know how the Andinos decided: They went corporate, inking groundbreaking deals with mainstream brands Nike 6.0, Red Bull, Target and Oakley. The 6.0 Lowers Pro gets under way this week as one of only two ASP Prime events on the U.S. mainland, drawing some of the world's best surfers and focusing the microscope acutely on how these mainstream brands are pushing into surf. Luckily for them, they have a performer with a pedigree on their side.

"Brother" as his father calls him (for no other reason than when Kolohe's sister was born, that's just what the family circle applied to him) has been on a surfboard nearly since he could walk. He entered his first contest at the age of 8, and the water time has translated into unrivaled competitive dominance in America's junior ranks. He possesses a record nine NSSA National titles (in 2009, he broke Bobby Martinez's record of seven) and has four Surfing America National Championship wins. More recently, he won the Ezekiel Pro Junior at the end of March in Huntington Beach, Calif., as well as the past two Surfing America Prime events.

"Kolohe's upside is massive," says Curtis Graham, Nike's global sports marketing director for action sports. "For a 16-year-old surfer, he's already extremely accomplished. But that said, I think the next 10-plus years of his career are going to be littered with some pretty amazing accomplishments."

And while much has been made of Kolohe's talent and success over the years, it's this shift in the sponsorship pool that might be the kid's biggest innovation thus far. In 2006, a 12-year-old Kolohe signed a deal with Billabong and, like luminaries such as Mark Occhilupo, Shane Dorian, Andy Irons and Joel Parkinson, looked destined for a career with the company. But as Kolohe continued his winning ways and became more visible, he became more attractive to those looking to establish themselves within the fairly closed circle that is the surf industry. More than money, more than incentives, more than "what can you do for me," a stark endemic versus nonendemic -- or core versus not core -- argument was at the root of nearly all negotiations.

The endemic argument goes like this: Stay with a surf brand within the surf industry because a company like Billabong has been there supporting surfing practically since day one. Mainstream corporate backers of surf are proven to pull the plug when they meet their marketing objectives or otherwise lose interest. Case in point, in the late '80s and early '90s, Budweiser sponsored the Bud Pro Tour, a domestic tour that was supposed to feed top American talent onto the world tour, but as the effects of a recession were felt and the commercial popularity of surfing waned, the tour was disbanded and domestic hopefuls were left with very few opportunities to compete on their home turf. The argument is that in being supported by somebody who's mantra is "for surfers, by surfers," one becomes basically impervious to trends and the goings on of the outside world. All you need to do is look at the past year for a perfect example: A global financial meltdown hits, and Billabong, Quik, Rip Curl and Hurley (which happens to be owned by Nike) don't run; instead, they increase the prize money on the ASP World Tour.

Sticking with the endemic brands doesn't just offer longevity and an element of security. The "big three" -- Billabong, Rip Curl and Quiksilver -- hold the keys to one of the only fast tracks onto the World Tour: wild-card berths into big-points ASP qualifying events. In 2008, Kolohe -- then still sponsored by Billabong -- nearly accepted a wild card into its World Tour event at Mundaka, Spain. In truth, at 14 years old, it probably was a little early to go that route, and he ultimately declined it when he realized he'd be surfing against Kelly Slater (who happened to be in the middle of his ninth World Title tear). But it's only a few years before Kolohe's bid for the World Tour begins in earnest, and there's no question Billabong could help that bid along.

The nonendemic argument, meanwhile, goes like this: Shuck tradition, take a chance with a larger, powerful corporate entity that's looking to develop and invest in a surf program, hopefully help it grow and "get surfing right," and potentially be on the ground floor if things explode. And while Billabong, Quiksilver and Volcom all are publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, Nike's pockets are considerably deeper, which affords it the ability to provide more "support" to its athletes. If you consider that last year Billabong's market capitalization was $2.9 billion, while Nike's was a whopping $37.84 billion, it's easy to see why this is so. To quote Dino, "What do you do if Nike approaches your kid?"

The rub on signing with Nike is that it "doesn't get surfing" or that it will abandon the sport again like it did Laird Hamilton and the Aqua Sock. But its history of entering new sports and eventually succeeding can't be ignored. You can ask Tiger Woods how the company has fared since investing in golf. Or hit up Andre Agassi to get a sense of what it did for tennis. On the action sports front, all one needs do is look at how well Nike SB is thriving. If anybody wasn't going to accept the corporateness of Nike, it was skaters, but nearly a decade into its push, it has notable names like Eric Koston and Paul Rodriguez repping its gear, its products appear in commercials with stars like Ice Cube, and it is actually making "real" money. With the fiscal resources to survive until it gets a toehold in whatever athletic pursuit it's gunning for, it's safe to say Nike has the requisite staying power to make big things happen in surf.

Kolohe Andino Raw Data

As 2009 wound down and the courting process intensified, the industry speculated on whether Kolohe would sign with an endemic or nonendemic brand. Finally, in January, the decision was made to go with the Red Bull/Nike 6.0/Target/Oakely package you see on his board today.

When Billabong was approached about the loss of Kolohe and what it could mean to endemic brands as a whole, it passed on the opportunity to comment.

Are there more of these contract opportunities waiting in the wings for others of similar ability and prowess? After parting ways last year with Roxy, her longtime sponsor and a heavyweight in the women's surf arena, Oahu's Carissa Moore signed a very similar deal with Red Bull, Nike 6.0 and Target.

"It was a long process," Moore said this winter. "I'm so thankful I had my dad, my family and some good people around me supporting me and helping me figure out what decision to make. I'm so happy with the choices we've made and the direction everything's going."

Together, Moore and Kolohe could very easily be construed as the future of American surfing, or at least their respective records would indicate so. With the top two juniors locked down, for the moment it would appear that the dust has somewhat settled. "We're pretty happy with where we're at," Red Bull Team Manager Pete Jasienski says. "Opportunities to work with surfers like Kolohe and Carissa is what we're all about. We want to do everything we can and give these two every tool possible to achieve their potential and hopefully become world champs. We're in it for the long haul."

"I'd say the future of our team is a bright one," Graham adds. "Complementing our team with a portfolio of events is something that's important to help round things out. The Nike 6.0 Lowers Pro will feature the top names in surfing globally, and we feel it's a great way for us to make our stamp on a very significant event at the core of the sport."

In recent weeks, Nike announced it has signed a multiyear deal to sponsor the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington, and after elevating the Nike 6.0 Lowers Pro to an ASP Prime event and underwriting the Hurley Lowers Pro, it's fair to say that when it comes to the support of domestic surfing, those big corporate backers -- or at the very least Nike -- are willing to lay down a heavy hand and might be here to stay this time. They currently control the biggest events in North America -- the biggest surf market in the world -- while surf industry heavies like Billabong and Quiksilver possess a very small piece of that pie. Although, to be fair, endemic brands still sponsor 90 percent of the ASP World Tour stops. But now, with a rising phenom like Kolohe leading the domestic charge, we could definitely be entering a new era in surfing.

"It's a weird spot to be. I feel like the enemy," Dino said recently. And when asked how Kolohe's handling it all, "I don't think he thinks much about it," Dino says. "He goes surfing with his friends, he does his school work and he doesn't let all this other stuff get in his head. He's happy with where he's at, and as a parent, you can't ask for anything else."

This article has been updated to correct factual errors.