Tom Lowe surfing in the 2018 Jaws Challenge in Hawaii. Photo: Richard Hallman/World Surf League via Getty Images
In late April, British big-wave surfer Tom Lowe paddled for a famous slab wave off the coast of Tahiti called Teahupo’o as its 25-foot wall roared toward him. He wasn’t taking part in a contest, but he was surrounded by many of his top peers. Often when a huge swell is forecast in some far-flung locale, the world’s best surfers flock there both for the thrill and to generate content for social media and their sponsors.
Lowe took off deep in the barrel of the wave — so deep that he had to bail out. He covered his head and dove, attempting to pop out the back of the wave as he’s done hundreds of times before. Teahupo’o, though, is a true freak of nature, and it had other ideas for him. The massive lip of the wave pummeled Lowe straight onto the reef below.
“I felt myself going under the water a bit deeper than the surface and my mind said, ‘You’re fucking gonna hit [bottom],’” Lowe explained recently over the phone. “I folded sideways around a large coral like I was going to snap it.”
Several of Lowe’s ribs and one shoulder blade snapped instead, and he began bleeding internally. He was airlifted to a Tahitian hospital and spent the next several weeks in more pain than he’s ever felt before.
Then things got even worse. Lowe’s travel insurer denied his injury claim, and Lowe was stuck with a $40,000 out-of-pocket medical bill. “For a traveling surf dude, to get a $40,000 bill is pretty intimidating,” he says. “There’s no gray area — I just don’t have it.” Vans Europe, his sponsor, certainly did, but when his medical bill came due, it had no legal obligation to help. Because like most sponsored surfers, skateboarders, snowboarders, skiers, mountain bikers, and other action-sports athletes, Lowe is an independent contractor, which can leave him exposed in the kind of worst-case scenario he experienced.
Lowe charges some of the biggest and scariest waves on Earth, but few things make him as nervous as renegotiating his contract with Vans’ European team every two years. (Company executives did not respond to requests for comment.) The blue-chip action-sports brand, whose parent company, VF Corporation, boasts a $7.4 billion market cap, has sponsored him for most of his career. But Lowe is by no means rich from the arrangement. He lives an ascetic life, spending every penny chasing waves around the world last-minute with his wife and young daughter — hustling as hard as he can. Still, Lowe said the company did step in after learning of his plight, for which he is grateful. “Vans, along with all of my sponsors, have contributed to my medical costs, even though they have no obligation to,” he said. “I know it’s not the same with all other brands, so I consider myself very lucky to be so well supported.”
For action-sports athletes and the people who follow them, danger is a major part of the job’s allure. Riding away stylishly and unscathed is the goal, but the risk inherent in taking on that monster wave, or long handrail, or giant kicker is what makes the whole thing exciting. Yet the multibillion-dollar industry Lowe is part of offers no actual safety net for its athletes.
This is how the industry has always operated. A rider gets money and equipment, or sometimes just equipment, and the chance to align with a brand that can help with marketing and exposure. In return, the company harnesses the athletes’ personas along with footage of their death-defying feats (most contracts require athletes to post a certain number of clips on social media) to legitimize its branding. Rider-generated cachet is what sells billions of dollars’ worth of apparel to customers who may have never pushed a skateboard but at least want to look the part and vibe on the lifestyle.
The world’s largest shoe brands have become major forces in many of these sports, yet little has changed in the way of athlete benefits. What is a company’s responsibility to an athlete who constantly puts their body on the line? And what do they owe their athlete who gets hurt on the job? While most extreme athletes grudgingly accept that it’s on them to protect themselves, this question is only getting louder.
In Lowe’s case, his friends initially came to the rescue. The weekend of his injury, fellow big-wave surfer Greg Long set up a GoFundMe, and in almost no time, surfing’s bigger stars, as well as shapers, surf-industry folks, and the drink-ware company Yeti (another of Lowe’s sponsors) contributed enough to settle the bill. But the incident still served as a cautionary tale.
“The importance of having health insurance wasn’t really told to us when I was coming up as a pro surfer,” Long said over the phone from Mexico, between surf sessions. “I don’t feel like it should fall on the companies, but I do feel like they need to be larger participants in ensuring that the athletes are knowledgeable of this aspect of their sport and their lives, and giving them the tools and contacts to get themselves covered.”
Long is a rare case in surfing: From an early age his parents stressed the importance of insurance, and for many years he paid for the most expensive plans, though never used them — until one day in 2012 he nearly drowned and had to be airlifted from a remote surf spot called Cortes Bank about 100 miles offshore.
“All those years of paying and feeling like it wasn’t worth it paid for itself tenfold,” Long says.
Many pros stay on their parents’ insurance plans till age 26. After that, the Affordable Care Act gives many Americans access to health insurance — but getting and keeping it isn’t easy, and many athletes continue to ride uninsured, including those at the very top.
“At the moment I don’t have any,” says Mark Suciu, Thrasher magazine’s 2021 Skater of the Year, the highest honor in skateboarding. “At the end of 2022 my plan expired. I reapplied and there was no communication from them.”
In the meantime, Suciu relies on a handful of physical therapists who specialize in skateboarding injuries. He too wishes brands took a bit more responsibility.
“It’d be great if sponsors paid for that, because they’re sanctioning us fucking our bodies up,” Suciu says. “But it’s cutthroat. We’re all trying so hard to be recognized, and if we don’t go for it, someone else will.” Suciu is quick to add that he feels well-compensated by his sponsors.
A handful of companies do offer health-related perks to their riders, though they tend to stay quiet about it, perhaps to avoid the perception that it’s official policy. Skateboarders say that even though Red Bull doesn’t provide insurance to its team, the brand has been known to financially assist athletes in need of medical assistance. Nike SB, the Swoosh’s skateboard line, is said to offer physical therapy to its sponsored riders. (Nike SB executives also did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)
Walker Ryan, a pro skateboarder, writes novels that critique the business side of the skateboard industry. They’re echoes of conversations he’s had in the back of team vans over the years. He remembers that his first sponsor paid for one of his teammates to cross the border to Mexico so he could get his wrist casted on the cheap. But when Ryan naïvely asked the company whether it would provide health insurance to him, he got a hard no. He says there’s a desire among skaters to organize, but it’s just not part of the culture — which companies use to their advantage.
“People talk about unionizing but no one who gets a consistent paycheck wants to put that at risk,” Ryan says. “There’s so little transparency in the industry. I would go on trips with several guys sponsored by the same company and have no idea what each of them were making.”
Players in the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball unionized decades ago and negotiated league-wide insurance plans. Even PGA Tour members, who are individual contractors, receive health insurance from their league. Such leagues exist in the world of action sports, but many of the biggest athletes don’t actually compete in them. For now, the only way these athletes are guaranteed decent insurance is by qualifying for the Olympics. Pros say that many athletes shoot for that goal less for the glory or the nationalism than for the security: Becoming an Olympic athlete means membership in the national governing body of their sport, which entitles them to insurance and other benefits.
Sponsors can even cite injury as a reason for dropping an athlete, according to Circe Wallace, a sports agent to some of the biggest action-sports athletes, who started out as a pro snowboarder herself in the 1990s. Wallace hurt herself while performing for her board sponsor, Ride, which was then being acquired by the large ski brand K2. The company terminated her contract, but with the help of a lawyer, she won her case in arbitration.
“It’s the whole reason I became an agent,” Wallace says. She says she always makes sure the athletes she represents are insured or in the process.
One hurdle toward that goal is that in the world of action sports, there’s a huge discrepancy in sponsorship levels. At the low end are those on what’s called flow — riders who get free product but no money. In the middle are athletes who actually earn little: $10,000 to $20,000 per year, plus free product. At the top are the fortunate few who make a comfortable living from their sponsors. Brands calculate an athlete’s ROI, and thus their value, with cold numbers. According to Wallace, many brands use Hookit, a data-tracking service that measures how well an athlete promotes their sponsor’s brand.
With so many athletes making small salaries, it’s clear why big brands that offer benefits to their desk-bound employees won’t do the same for their athletes. “The insurance plans could be more expensive than the sponsorships,” according to Lauren Anderson, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, who previously worked for Adidas and Nike. “Sponsorship is a gig economy for sport,” she says. For companies, “the athletes are easy to cut ties with as independent contractors.”
Travis Rice, one of the greatest snowboarders of all time, has contributed to more GoFundMes than he cares to remember. He laughs darkly when asked if he knows many snowboarders who ride without insurance. He knows a lot of them.
“To dig in and get yourself an insurance policy, compare the pros and cons of what’s out there, that’s some pretty boring adult shit, frankly!” Rice says. “Most people come out of whatever level of education they have, very ill-prepared for the responsibility that comes with being a citizen. And resources can be so tapped living in a mountain town with five roommates, not making much money.”
Rice himself has five different policies and used to have more. It’s very difficult for an athlete who charges huge waves or jumps off cliffs to buy disability insurance, yet when Rice was 20 he purchased an ultra-rare policy from Lloyd’s of London for extreme-sports athletes. It was eventually discontinued.
He thinks companies should at least be educating riders about insurance — maybe even requiring a certain amount of their stipend to go toward it. But the industry itself has changed in the past 15 years. Many legacy companies — Quiksilver, Billabong, Vans, and others — are now part of publicly traded conglomerates. The founders are long gone, and shareholders end up making the decisions.
“Ten to 20 years ago there were more resources,” Rice says. “The team manager at brands used to be a bigger role, kind of a parent figure who was looking out for these kids and would hopefully broach these conversations about what you’re doing with your money.”
There are small reforms in the works, though. Rice is passionate about what he calls “empowered responsibility,” and cites one recent insurance innovation by a company called Spot, which he partners with. It has partnered with mountain resorts and the Ikon pass (a multi-snow-resort season pass) to offer injury coverage with the purchase of a lift ticket for a few dollars extra. It can be used short-term, or to cover gaps in insurance plans that have a high deductible. The mechanics of the plan seem like a reasonable way for both parties — resort and rider — to each take a bit of responsibility. Perhaps this model can be broadened out to the action-sports world.
Lowe, meanwhile, is recuperating, and rethinking some prior assumptions. Until recently he always traveled with the cheapest insurance he could get, and in the days before Brexit, being a part of the European Union gave him coverage in many places, which meant he never gave supplemental insurance much thought.
“Moving forward, I’m very aware of the fact that you need to read small print, and that you need to opt for professional-athlete-specific medical insurance,” Lowe says.
Lowe is currently on the mend, buzzing with a deeper appreciation for life — and a newfound wariness of living it without a safety net. But as soon as he heals up, he’ll be right back in the water. There’s still nothing like the thrill of a huge wave and the danger that comes with it.
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