Mavericks, Inc: The Big-Wave Mecca Gets A Reboot

Mavericks attracts the craziest surfers on the planet. Can it draw support from sponsors? Image courtesy Wikipedia/Shalom Jacobovitz.

Mavericks attracts the craziest surfers on the planet. Can it draw support from sponsors? Image courtesy Wikipedia/Shalom Jacobovitz.

Surfer Magazine | January 1, 2015 — High on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Jeff Clark watches swells roll into Maverick’s from his living room window. He keeps a spotting scope trained on the break so he can see the legendary A-frames form from his couch. Sometimes, when it’s really pumping, the 57-year-old goofy foot will drop what he’s doing and head down for a session. “More than once I’ve sat up and said, ‘Whoa, I gotta go,’” he says.

During winter months, swells from Asia can stir up waves as high as 80 feet at Maverick’s, transforming the sleepy reef break into arguably the best and most daunting big-wave paddle-in spot on the planet. On those days, Clark can see the waves without the spotting scope. This winter marks the 40th anniversary of his first ride at Maverick’s, and the 15th year of the notoriously gnarly big-wave contest there. And it could be a big one. If early forecasts are accurate, El Niño could drum up some of the heaviest waves in decades.

Clark isn’t the only one who feels the pull. Having only broken big a handful of times in the past several years, Maverick’s is a rare bird. When it goes off, surfers show up for the ride of a lifetime and spectators line the bluffs surrounding Pillar Point to watch the show. Meanwhile, a select group of 24 elite chargers, hailing from around the world, wait on standby for Clark to green-light the contest. “The guys who get the invites are the ones who show up here even when there’s not a contest—the ones who have shown their commitment to the spot,” says Clark. When they show up for the annual opening ceremony in the fall, Clark graces each member of the tribe with a tuft of Hawaiian ti leaves, then corrals them into a floating prayer circle and says a blessing. Maverick’s is sacred, he says. It’s hallowed water. Clark pioneered the break solo at age 17 and to this day his attitude is that of a gatekeeper: protective and uncompromising. There’s a reason he’s known as the Godfather of Maverick’s. “Maverick’s is about dedication,” he says.

Surfing Maverick’s has always been a passion pursuit (or a psycho trip, depending on who you ask) because, as surfers will readily attest, there has never been much money in it. The contest costs about $650,000 to run, according to Mavericks Invitational CEO Rocky Raynor. The amount covers permitting, safety, media bandwidth and the prize purse. In the contest’s early years the purse was $10,000, a measly amount considering the risk of charging Maverick’s. As the contest has drawn interest from international surfers and spectators, the payoff has grown—reaching a peak of $150,000 in 2010—but the top dogs often divide it into a half-dozen slices. Internationals who show up to compete have borrowed boards and crashed on locals’ couches. “There’s no rich and famous for surfing Maverick’s,” says perennial contest invitee Grant Washburn.

That could change this year. In June, a Southern California marketing company called Cartel Management surprised the surf world with an announcement that it had acquired the rights from Clark and the Mavericks Invitational board to promote the contest and to market the Maverick’s brand. In a press release, Cartel promised to “re-format” the event and “catapult” the brand to the highest heights of action sports entertainment via “blue chip sponsorships, national broadcast partnerships, digital media activations and enhanced global marketing strategies.” In September, Cartel unveiled the new banner under which the contest will operate going forward: “Titans of Mavericks: Where Risk & Reward Collide.”

Leading the reboot is Griffin Guess, Cartel’s 35-year-old founder and CEO. Guess’s client portfolio doesn’t list any surfers. He has no ties to Maverick’s—has never surfed it or seen the contest, in fact. He’s from La Jolla and currently lives in Santa Cruz County. He made his name working for production companies in Los Angeles and, in the past eight years with Cartel, handling production, advertising and “creative services” for the likes of Kanye West, Barry Bonds and Harley Davidson. He identifies what he calls “ahead-of-the-curve talent” and builds brands around it. In Maverick’s, he sees an opportunity to stage a massive event around a world-class wave and some of the planet’s craziest surfers. If he is successful, he could launch Maverick’s into the cross-over echelon alongside events like the X Games.

“We want this to be like Coachella meets South By Southwest,” Guess told me during a phone call in July. There is already a “viewing festival” in a parking lot near the break designed to cater to 20,000 people. Only about 7,000 showed up for the 2014 event. Guess views it as an item for immediate improvement. “The long-term goal is to create a very cool culture, food and music festival that is an all-things-surfing experience and that is integrated into a larger action-sports play in which Maverick’s is central,” Guess says. “From this point forward, we want Maverick’s to feel like the Masters. We want people to feel like they’re invited to something special.”

Guess says he was drawn to the idea of putting on the contest by Maverick’s surfers he met while surfing in Santa Cruz in 2013. A core promise of his proposal is to get the surfers paid. Or, in business speak: “We want to give the talent a position of leverage to have the opportunity to create a career,” Guess says. “That margin is just so small in the surfing business.” The participants are stoked on the idea of a more lucrative payoff. Clark and his board are excited to have an experienced professional on the job. “We have been looking for help from sponsors and businesspeople to help take better care of the athletes,” says Mavericks Invitational board member Brian Overfelt. “All of a sudden this guy with experience walks through the door and says ‘Hey, I’d really like to help you.’”

Guess appears to have the chops to pull off the kind of turnaround that Maverick’s needs to remain relevant in the emerging world of big-wave surfing. Last year, Clark’s board cut ties with the Association of Surf Professionals Big-Wave World Tour, dropping out of the world’s pinnacle big-wave circuit. It was a daring move considering that many of Maverick’s’ chief title contenders – Greg Long, Grant “Twiggy” Baker and Anthony Tashnick, to name a few – may be prohibited from competing in the contest due to their ASP deals. The top surfers on the circuit are required to request permission to compete in outside big-wave events. (In 2013, Kelly Slater pulled out of Maverick’s the day before the contest after the ASP threatened to fine him if he participated.) Big-Wave World Tour founder Gary Linden, formerly the head judge of the Maverick’s contest, said he hopes Maverick’s rejoins the circuit. Clark says he fears the tour would “restrict us.”

Maverick’s appears to be taking a cue from the other independent big-wave contest in the Pacific, the Eddie Aikau. But the Eddie has the backing of an established surf corporation in Quiksilver. Maverick’s does not. The spot has a history of resisting the kind of sponsor support and fortune that Guess promises to deliver. After our two-hour conversation, it occurred to me that the fundamentals of his vision sound eerily familiar. Particularly his emphasis on reeling in big-money partners and making Maverick’s a cross-over phenomenon. Guess wouldn’t reveal many details of his grand plan but loosely described “leveraging assets” to “create property value.” I’d heard a similar pitch to position Maverick’s as a brand-name triumph just five years ago from a different marketing expert. It ended disastrously.

(This is the first section of a feature story in the January 2015 edition of Surfer Magazine. The read the full story, click here.)

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