December 17, 2016
by Christopher Parker (@wheresbossman)

Musical Chairs: Several of the World’s Best Paddlers Are About to Change Teams

King of the Cut

Plenty of different board brands, including a few up-and-coming teams, were on show at the King of the Cut in West Oz earlier this month (photo credit: SUPWA)

While another race season is in the books and the new year is fast approaching, there’s still one last thing¹ left to wrap up before the end of the season: Athlete contracts.

When it comes to board sponsors, almost all of the top paddlers are on annual deals that expire on December 31st. And given the current volatility of the racing scene, where many new boutique brands are fast rising and some of the established players are faltering, it seems like the 2016 ‘trade season’ is going to be the busiest one yet.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve chatted with many of the world’s best racers about their plans for the future, sometimes playing the role of middleman as the athletes look for new deals and seek to optimise their travel budgets and all-important equipment choices. And from those I’ve spoken to already, I know of at least half a dozen top 20 ranked guys and a few of the top women that are almost certainly moving to new homes in season 2017.

While I won’t reveal exactly who is on the move just yet (out of respect to the athletes still in the middle of contract negotiations), I can assure you that you’ll be hearing plenty of big announcements over the next few weeks, including quite a few surprises from some of the up-and-coming race teams that weren’t even on the map 12 months ago.

It’s a bit like the much-hyped guessing game that happens when the stars of Formula 1 are about to finish their contracts and begin exploring their options. SUP racing isn’t quite as lucrative as F1 (unfortunately) but a similar theme of ‘race teams’ is emerging in our sport.

Unlike sports such as surfing, where it’s all about the clothing brand or energy drink sticker on your board, the vast majority of international SUP athletes still get most of their funding from their board manufacturer. So unless you’re a superstar like Kai Lenny getting mainstream, big-brand endorsement deals, you’re going to be heavily reliant on your board brand for a $$ budget that’ll allow you to travel and compete at the main international races.

This year’s busy trade season also highlights a changing landscape for the core industry, with several race teams (and by extension, the very board brands themselves) on the rise and a few of the established players potentially taking a dive. We already saw this in 2016, when ’boutique’ brands such as Infinity and ONE climbed the ranks while heroes of previous seasons, such as SIC, fell down a few steps on the ladder and others, including Lahui Kai, dropped off entirely.

This game of musical chairs will get even more intense next year; I know of one brand in particular that isn’t even listed on the Battle of the Brands leaderboard right now that will jump straight inside the top 10 when their new signings are revealed in early January. Again, I don’t want to name names before all the athlete signatures have been locked in, but there’s definitely going to be a flurry of athlete announcements to start the new year.

From my unique standpoint – being good friends with many of the top athletes as well as several leading brand managers – it’s been really interesting to see who’s getting offered what and which teams are making aggressive moves when others are cutting back. One trend that’s become clear is that results are becoming less critical as brand look for more influential team riders and ambassadors that can make a lasting impact beyond the podium.

Results are still a fairly important factor though, with a handful of athletes at the pointy end of the world rankings being offered deals that give them a definite full time job in the ocean. But not everyone is banking it…

On the flipside, and something I believe is quite important to remember (especially for younger paddlers looking to make a career from SUP) is that some of the biggest names in the sport don’t have a contract with a board brand at all, and some that do get little more than free boards and the occasional plane ticket while still working 9-5 jobs in order to fund their paddling adventures.

The sport of SUP racing certainly isn’t lucrative, and I don’t think anybody is in it for the money. Nor should any emerging paddler expect a golden ticket that’ll give them a free ride around the world. The majority of board brands have actually cut back on their team budgets since the ‘wild west’ golden days of a few years ago, which means athletes have to work harder, be more creative and provide more value to their sponsors than ever before.

So that means not only will some athletes be changing teams in the next few weeks, some will be left without a team at all.

It’s also been very interesting to see that the paddlers’ primary concern isn’t necessarily $$ budgets, as you might expect, but is often about finding the most competitive equipment; a lucrative contract is quickly deflated if you feel you’re standing on the start line holding a slower board than the competitor next to you.

But anyway, keep your eye out for a series of announcements in the coming weeks. Though no matter which paddlers end up on what boards in the new year, one thing’s for sure: SUP Racer’s Battle of the Brands leaderboard is going to look a lot different in a few months’ time.

¹ Actually there are two big things, the other being SUP Racer’s ‘Top 16 of 2016’ that lists the year’s best paddlers. The definitive power rankings for stand up paddling will be revealed next week.