Surf’s Up When It Comes to Women and Watches

Surf’s Up When It Comes to Women and Watches

The list of items essential for surfing can be counted on one hand: surfboard, swimsuit, board shorts or wet suit. Maybe a leash. Likely a watch.

“It’s a staple piece,” said Coco Ho, a professional surfer from Hawaii and for 14 years a Proteam athlete, one of Swatch’s groups of ambassadors. “A watch is a tiny little instrument on your arm, but it’s got a big personality.”

While watch brands such as Swatch and Freestyle have decades-long involvement in surfing, a wave of more mainstream timepiece companies newer to the sport, including Tudor, Breitling and TAG Heuer, have been increasing their participation. Since becoming more organized in the early 2010s and an Olympic sport in the 2020 Games, what was once a sport partially owned by surfers has grown to be big, corporate business.

It is easy to imagine how brands could be attracted to a picture-perfect day at the beach — glistening blue ocean, surfers dancing on waves.

But it is specifically women’s surfing that has built new audiences and, as a result, drawn brands. “Women’s surf has been growing fast over the past 50 years, but has recently gained much more visibility as well as equality,” Alain Villard, chief executive of Swatch, wrote in an email.

In 2018, the World Surf League, the governing body of professional surfing, announced that prize money would be equal at all its events, regardless of gender, starting the following season. It was the first U.S.-based global sports organization to offer equal pay.

“For a while, watches, it felt like, were equated with a male athlete at the top of their game and maybe an actress,” said Maya Gabeira, 36, a professional big-wave surfer from Brazil. “I think brands are leveling up to bring more strong women into the category.”

Ms. Gabeira was 20 when she became a professional surfer in 2007, winning seven world championships and holding a Guinness world record for the biggest wave surfed by a woman. She has been a TAG Heuer ambassador since 2017.

“You have these stages of bigger and bigger brands in surfing, not to mention the introduction of luxury into surfing, both because of social media and the investment in livestreaming and technology,” she said in a video interview from her home in Nazaré, Portugal. The local contest, also known as the Tudor Nazaré Big Wave Challenge, has been sponsored by the Swiss watchmaker since the 2021/2022 winter season.

“Surfing as a cultural element is interesting for Tudor,” said Cole Pennington, a Tudor spokesman. “We built our placement from the ground up. There aren’t many watch brands in the space in that capacity.”

The brand also underwrites the Tudor Jaws Big Wave Challenge on the Hawaiian island of Maui. “We’ve supported this competition, and the event in Hawaii hasn’t run since we signed the contract. And that’s totally OK, it’s the nature of the beast,” he added.

Although Swatch no longer sponsors an official World Surf League competition, the brand leaned on its longstanding relationship with Ms. Ho to re-enter the sport through its own event, Swatch Nines Surf, scheduled to debut in October at the Waco Surf water park in Texas.

“She is a member of a legendary surfing family,” Mr. Villard wrote. “She continues to inspire us as well as the next generation of surf talent.”

“The idea of getting to enjoy surfing something this big without being in a jersey is innovative and relatable,” said Ms. Ho, 32, referring to participating in an event outside of the World Surf League competition. “As brands and events give women equal opportunity to surf, to perform, it’s rising the sport in general and its popularity.”

According to a 2022 market study published by the market research company Global Industry Analysts, women account for more than 35 percent of the surfers in the United States. “One of the noteworthy demographic shifts with significant implications for the surfing market is the growing participation of women in this traditionally male-dominated sporting activity,” the report read.

“I’ve seen a lot of companies encompass that waterman mentality and then not stay in surfing,” said Sage Erickson, a two-time U.S. Open of Surfing champion. For nearly two decades, Ms. Erickson, 33, has been sponsored by Freestyle, which also supports Caroline Marks, the 2023 women’s world champion who also surfed for the United States in the 2020 Olympics.

In collaboration with Ms. Marks, Freestyle has a Caroline Collection of watches, the most recent of which is the Melbourne, named for Melbourne Beach, Fla., where she grew up surfing ($70). The 38-millimeter model, with a water-resistant case and polyester strap, is being marketed on the brand’s website as featuring “hues of green and blue reminiscent of the water at the surf break.”

As both the sport and lifestyle surrounding surfing have gained popularity, an influx of watch brands have entered the space.

For example, “Breitling is really pushing to take over the high end with their big surf athletes,” said Ms. Erickson, referring to Breitling’s Surfer Squad, one of its four ambassador groups. The squad’s three members include the Australian professional surfers Sally Fitzgibbons and Stephanie Gilmore, as well as the American veteran male champion Kelly Slater.

Like Ms. Ho and Ms. Gilmore, who recently said she was stepping off the World Surf League tour for a year, Ms. Erickson is also not on the tour — something she said makes her more relatable to her fans and fans of Freestyle. “Not every person can relate to being a high level athlete, but free surfing and having a great, fun watch that goes from the water to land, that’ll make everyone happy,” she said.

“Watches are incredibly important to people in the water and yet, culturally, watches have been more associated with men,” Ms. Erickson said. “At this point, brands are stupid and honestly missing out if they aren’t sponsoring strong women.”

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