Surfers Ride 'Rad' Money Wave

Big bucks roll in for merchandisers hawking the quintessential California look at the US Open Surfing Championships

Sure, the long concrete pier is packed with bare-chested men and women in the barest excuse for a bikini, but all eyes are on the water. Down below, Kelly Slater is cutting through the waves like a neon shark, leaving other surfers in his wake and generating such a roar from the crowd that the coconut-oil-scented air vibrates.

"That," gushes the master of ceremonies, "was highly up there in the excellent category."

Welcome to Surf City - Huntington Beach, Calif., as it's known on maps - home of the US Open Surfing Championships, the world's biggest battle of the boards. This year, 350,000 spectators watched 700 surfers from around the world spent a week competing for $155,000 in prizes. The event just ended Sunday, but organizers are already expecting bigger crowds next year.

The quintessential symbol of southern California, surfing has been booming in the 1990s. More people are watching the sport and plying the waters. In land-locked American cities and beyond, teens are buying into the surfer look and lingo, making surfing not simply a sport, but a Californian cultural export.

"It's a compelling lifestyle," explains Ian Carins, executive director of the championship. "Beautiful people going to beautiful places doing beautiful things. It's what makes people closet surfers even if they're in Milwaukee."

And elsewhere. America's surfing community has grown steadily in the 1990s, reaching 1.7 million last year, with a 15 percent jump in women surfers. Surf aficionados attribute the rise to increased surf programming on ESPN and Fox TV, and the International Olympic Committee's 1995 recognition of the sport. They also say that the popularity of extreme sports with their roots in surfing, including snow-boarding, air-boarding (for skydivers), and wake-boarding (a variation on water-skiing), are kindling interest in surfing.

And the boom isn't confined to these shores, says the La Jolla, Calif.-based International Surfing Association. "Namibia just became a member," says representative Pierre Camoin. "And we've recently got a group in Switzerland, where there's no ocean, but they go surfing anyway."

That odd logic actually makes sense to Toshi Mori, a Japanese exchange student who's here to watch the pros ride eight-foot waves. As he sees it, people want a surfing lifestyle as much as they want the sport. "Surfing is very American," he says earnestly. "Very free, very outdoors, very fun. And it's a good look."

The look, as modeled by Toshi and every other man on the pier, has become street fashion across the country: surfing T-shirt, Airwalk sneakers, wrap-around Oakley sunglasses, and gravity-defying baggy shorts that begin somewhere below the bellybutton and end somewhere below the knee.

It's all for sale here, where sponsors' tents line the beach and a stream of people churn through the powdery-white sand, turning the air gritty.

The carnival-like commercialism in some ways shows that surfing has come full circle since its American debut at nearby Redondo Beach almost a century ago. Seeking to entice crowds to take his railway line to the beach, entrepreneur Henry E. Huntington brought Irish-Hawaiian surfer George Freeth to California in 1907. Mr. Freeth dazzled crowds on an 8-foot, 200-pound wooden slab - a dinosaur next to today's sleek 9-foot, 14-pound longboards. And a way of life was born.

FOR some, the departure from the purist surfing culture of the 1960s, back to commercialism is a step back. But Mr. Carins says it's a change for the better. In 1976, when the first world championship was held, Carins was the top-earning surfer with annual winnings of $8,000. Kelly Slater, a young Floridian and Tom Cruise look-alike, earns close to $1 million in prize money and sponsorship each year.

"When I was in my early 20s, everyone thought surfers were bums and druggies," remembers Carins, who has played a large part in marketing the sport. "I didn't see why I shouldn't be treated any differently than a professional athlete. It's just fabulous that people can surf and earn a living."

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