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PHOTO: MICHAEL GOULDING/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Vans team rider and San Clemente surfer Tanner Gudauskas is one of the local favorites who will no doubt be at this year's Vans US Open of Surfing.
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Vans steps up as surfing's US Open sponsor

ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

It was at a surf contest at the Huntington Beach Pier in the '60s when surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku had an idea – turn his blue, Hawaiian surfer shirt into a pair of shoes.

Paul Van Doren was just the man for the job, and would transform the Duke's print shirt into what would become one of the first pairs of custom Vans ever made.

Orange County-based Vans is returning to its surfing roots at the Huntington Beach Pier, becoming the new sponsor of this year's US Open of Surfing, the world's largest festival and surf contest that in the past few years has drawn crowds nearing 1 million through its nine-day run.

“We believe Vans can add a new and valuable layer to what has become a must-attend event in action sports and youth culture,” said vice president of marketing Doug Palladini. “Vans was founded in Orange County in 1966, and this has been our home ever since, so becoming part of such a meaningful event right in our backyard makes perfect sense.”

The biggest surf event in the world has been in the hands of Nike and Costa Mesa-based Hurley since 2009. When Nike announced in September that it was not renewing its contract with the US Open of Surfing, it sent shockwaves into the surfing community with many wondering who could fill such big shoes.

Vans is stepping up and will be the sponsor for the next three years.

The surf contest the past few years saw the big names once again return to the water in Huntington Beach, with world-champion athletes such as Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning and local favorites such as Huntington Beach's Brett Simpson all hoping to nab the big prize of $100,000. The crowds swelled on the festival side, with youngsters trying to get free swag by interacting with savvy multimedia booths. The free concerts on the sand offered an ocean backdrop for the masses of people who showed up for big-name acts.

Sponsorship for the US Open of Surfing has changed hands many times through the years. Before Nike and Hurley were sponsors, it was the Honda US Open of Surfing presented by O'Neill. Bank of the West sponsored the festival for a few years. At one time, it was called the US Open of Surfing, presented by Philips Electronics. In the mid-'90s, it was the G-Shock US Open of Surfing, and then the Shockwave US Open of Surfing.

The newest to be tacked onto that list, Vans, has a rich history in Orange County. The first store opened along Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa in the mid-'60s, where a shop still exists today.

Today, Vans is headquartered in Cypress and produces about $30 million in shoes each year, and sells in 170 countries worldwide with a strong following in the surf, skate and BMX cultures. The brand was one of the first to really adapt the lifestyle brand concept – focusing on everything from skate, surf and snow to art, apparel and music in the early days.

“It all started off here in Southern California,” said Steve Van Doren, son of founder Paul, in a past Register article. “The action sports; that's where our roots are – the surfers and skaters, they adopted us.”

The US Open of Surfing is big business for the local economy. Nearby hotels are usually booked solid during the US Open of Surfing, with shops bustling with customers, and bars and restaurants busy with partying patrons. Parking structures make money with the influx of visitors who fill parking spaces, or feed meters on the streets.

While it's still early to give detailed specifics of the event, Vans will no doubt have a strong presence of skateboarding at the event. The brand has an indoor skate park at The Outlets at Orange that opened in 1998, and in December it broke ground on a free, public park that will open in north Huntington Beach in the near future.

Vans has spent the past decade beefing up its presence in the surf world by adding big names to its surf team, including one of the best young surfers in the world, John John Florence, as well as local favorites the Gudauskas brothers.

The brand is no stranger to putting on surfing events, sponsoring the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing since the mid '90s, and the East Coast Surfing Championships in Virginia.


“Event-wise, they are stronger than anyone else in the business,” said Peter “PT” Townend, surfing’s first world champion. “I’m pretty confident in Vans taking on the U.S Open; it will be a smooth transition.”

Townend noted that one major challenge for Vans will be getting the top athletes like Slater and current world champion Joel Parkinson to show up.

“That is the most important thing. If we don’t have Kelly Slater, it’s like not having Tiger Woods at the PGA,” he said.

Palladini said this year's US Open of Surfing is all about “bringing the industry back,” and that organizers intend to have every surf and skate brand on site that wants to be a part of the US Open of Surfing.

“The US Open is just too important to our industry to keep it just for us,” he said. “We also intend to lead by bringing a Vans identity to everything from the surf, skate, and BMX events to music, art and street culture, to even the way retail comes to the beach.”

HISTORY OF U.S. OPEN

1994: The U.S. Open of Surfing was created in 1994 after the OP Pro struggled financially in the early '90s, never rebounding from a tarnished past charred by images of a beach riot in the mid-'80s that broke out during a bikini contest. Those images include police in riot gear, cars in flames and chaos on the sand. The OP Pro would be a warm-up event with 410 competitors, then the second week the U.S. Open of Surfing would bring the best surfers into town for the first World Tour event on the mainland since 1991.

A young Kelly Slater, 22 at the time, would show up with the rest of the best 48 surfers on the World Tour, along with the 16 best women. Slater the year before had just wrapped up his stint with "Baywatch" and was being followed around by crews of the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

Back then, you could buy tickets for seats to watch the event -- $20 to watch the last days of the Op Pro and the U.S. Open finals. But ticket sales were lackluster, drawing 30,000 fewer fans than the 200,000 projected.

1995: A big showdown happened in 1995 in a final with Rob Machado winning a close – and now historic – heat against Slater in front of nearly 50,000 fans. His prize: $14,000, a bit smaller than the top prize offered the past few years under Nike's reign: $100,000.

1997: The event was pulled off the World Tour list, meaning the big names became less frequent at the event each year.

2003-2008: The event was named Honda U.S. Open of Surfing, and had everything from freestyle motocross and volleyball to poker in the festival area, creating a circus-like atmosphere. In 2007, wackiness hit the sand before the surf contest as 100 steer and 25 horses showed up under the pier as a joint promotion with the OC Fair.

2009: Hurley came on as sponsor, paving the way for parent company Nike. The event focused on surf, skate, art, fashion and music. The event was upgraded in status to an ASP 6-star Prime event, and along with a $100,000-prize purse, the event became a stop for most World Tour surfers looking to earn valuable points. A big swell with 15-foot surf had crowds pumped, and surfers performed at their top level. It was a fairytale story for O.C., with Huntington Beach's Brett Simpson and Costa Mesa's Courtney Conlogue winning first place.

2010: Nike – parent to Hurley – took over title sponsorship but kept a big presence of the surf brand, along with sister company Converse. The crowds continued to hit nearly 1 million during nine days. Weezer performed in 2010, and in 2011 MGMT again brought near-tipping point crowds. World champion Kelly Slater won his first U.S. Open title in front of tens of thousands of surf fans.

2012: The U.S. Open had the same look with Nike/Converse/Hurley as the previous year, with an increased focus on social media and brand interaction. Two big retail shops were built on the sand, and the Walk the Walk fashion show was eliminated. The city enforced restrictions on the concert series, and smaller bands were brought in, with no headliner on Saturday as in previous years. Still, crowds continued to swell, and the world's best surfers still showed up.

HISTORY OF VANS:

1966: Van Doren Rubber founded by Paul J. Van Doren, Gordon C. Lee, James Van Doren and Serge Delia. Company makes sneakers that gain a strong following among skateboarders.

1982: Vans becomes a trendsetter after the 1982 movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," in which actor Sean Penn sported a pair of black-and-white checkerboard Vans shoes.

1984: Vans' rapid expansion proves overzealous, and the company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

1988: McCown De Leeuw & Co., a venture banking firm, acquires the company in a leveraged buyout for $74 million.

1991: Newly named Vans Inc. goes public to raise $57 million.

1993: Chief executive Richard Leeuwenburg resigns after large quarterly loss and slowing sales.

1995: Vans closed its Orange manufacturing plant.

1996: Vans moves headquarters from Anaheim to Santa Fe Springs.

2004: VF Corp., which owns Nautica, The North Face and Wrangler, buys Vans for $396 million. Gary Schoenfeld resigns as president and CEO of Vans and Steve Murray replaces him as president.

2007: Vans moves headquarters to Cypress.

More information about Vans: Vans.com

Contact the writer: lconnelly@ocregister.com


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