Surfer  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotAs professional sports go, surfing is not one of the biggest or the most lucrative for athletes or sponsors. It's a small niche, with very few professional surfers earning a livable income.

Professional surfers compete in surfing contests around the world. Ideally, they earn prize money as well as endorsements from surfing-related companies. Most surfers are paid in equipment from sponsors, rather than in cash.

Isabelle Tihanyi is a surfing instructor. "A lot of the women nowadays [aren't] necessarily making the money so much off of contests, but more off of endorsements, modeling contracts, photo shoots, travel writing, things like that," she says.

Tihanyi adds that most surfers aren't in it for the money. "The benefits far outweigh the paying the bills part," she says.

dotSince cash prizes are reserved for top riders, many surfers will also be instructors or board salespeople. They may also work with the media at covering or marketing the sport. But most consider surfing their main occupation and build their lives around being ready for the major competitions on the surfing tour.

Bruce Gabrielson was a pro surfer during the '70s. He understands the attraction of a life of riding. But he says, quite honestly, that it is a brutally hard way to make a living. "Surfing should be fun. Working for a living is hard enough as it is," he says.

"Being a professional in a technical field pays a lot more for a much longer part of your life. I would rather be able to buy a house on the beach than rent forever. I see a lot of old pro surfers now who never did anything but surf. The ones who opened their own shops did OK, but they are a minority. Believe me, there are many who would change their lives if they could do it over again," says Gabrielson.

dotProfessional surfing is an international sport. Many of the top surfers are from South America and Australia. The International Surfing Association has its headquarters in California.

dotWhen surfing started to become big in North America during the '60s, women weren't as involved in the sport as men. According to surfer Jon Bartlett, things have changed.

"One thing to keep in mind is that young women who have taken up the sport have only done so in greater numbers in the last 10 years or so. This is because the boards have gotten much lighter and are easier to control and paddle for girls starting out. Also, the professional circuits have been more open to women -- as in all sports," says Bartlett.

dotMost surfers work seasonally, depending on location. Seasonal work often means having to find an alternate source of income during the off-season. "Some of my instructors have the best lives in the world," says Tihanyi. "They teach surfing full time in the summer, and then in the winter they go and teach snowboarding."

She adds that many of her instructors go to school or have other jobs. "They do this job because it's their fun job," she says.

At a Glance

Use a board to ride the ocean waves

  • Few surfers do it professionally
  • It's not an easy way to make a living unless you get lucrative endorsement deals
  • A good education will help you in the long run