Death of a legend…
South African surfer turned clothing baron, Michael Tomson, who was revealed to be gravely ill with throat cancer three months ago, has died, aged sixty-six.
Tomson had reportedly been on life support for nine days before passing away.
As the surf historian Matt Warshaw wrote in our initial report,
“Michael’s legacy is and will always be divided into three parts. The easy, uncomplicated, foundational part was built wave-by-grinding-wave at Pipeline in the winter of ’75-’76.
“My guess is that playing second banana throughout his formative years to a younger and slightly better-looking relative had much to do with what Michael achieved in his career, beginning at Pipeline, where he never out-surfed Shaun but often out-gritted him.
“Shaun was a surgeon on those big hollow walls. Michael was a bull at full charge with six banderillas stuck in his back.
“The second part of Michael’s legacy is Gotcha, the wildly innovative and successful company that he co-founded in 1978 and into which he poured all of his fissioning talent, taste, ambition, and vanity.
“The third and final part of Michael’s legacy will be his enduring and literally all-consuming cocaine addiction, which Chas Smith calls ‘Shakespearean . . . a forty-year dance.'”
(Read Michael Tomson’ Encylopedia of Surfing entry here.)
In 1996, Warshaw interviewed Tomson on pro surfer salaries, an exchange that demonstrates MT’s perpetual forthrightness and entertainment value.
Why are pro surfers’ salaries such a big secret?
Because most of the surf companies aren’t publicaly traded, and as such don’t have to disclose those kinds of things. That and, it isn’t a big media event, what people get paid, the way it is in other sports it is. The salary caps in basketball is a huge deal. It’s an intregal part of building your team. Everybody has to know what everybody else is making in that situation, that’s how the whole system works.
Is it unseemly, to you think, to even bring up money?
No. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. People get rewarded for excellence, and who’s to say that this kind of thing should be paid this much, and that kind of thing paid that much. It’s a free country and it’s a free market, and if someone’s willing to pay for the service, why not take it? Take it and be proud of it.
When we talked a couple days ago you said you’d be willing to tell me how much your guys [at Gotcha] are making.
Fire away. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.
Okay, so let me back up a little. None of these numbers are completely, perfectly precise, okay? Salaries are never a fixed thing. Photo incentives, contest incentives, contract changes, everything goes up and down, it’s always moving. But with Potter, yeah, his salary has just been reduced. I think he makes $60,000 from us, and another $30,000 from our Australian licensee, plus incentives for photos and videos and things.
How does that compare to his best year, earning-wise? [Note: Potter at this point was six years past his world title, and had just retired from competitive surfing]
Less than half. Way less.
I think Rob’s at $185,000 this year. Between 185 and 200. Last year it was 150.
So, in your mind, when you’re thinking about paying somebody $200,000, how does that translate in terms of the companies bottom line? How do you know you’re getting your money’s worth?
You never really know. It’s a game. Does having Rob Machado on the Gotcha team earn the company $200,000 at the end of the year? Who knows? My theory is that 50% of all advertising and promotions are a waste of money, but nobody really knows which 50%.
But you’d never consider not having a surf team.
Not a chance. For anybody positioning themselves in the so-called hardcore surf market, having a kick ass team is one of the most important things
The Gotcha team, apart from Rob and Chris Ward, is getting older . . .
(Pause and a sigh) This is problem. The aging guys, and what to do with them when they’re done.
After all those years, I hear Cheyne Horan is maybe no longer with the company, or no longer getting a salary? Something like that.
(Another pause) That got ugly.
Is it over?
In one way. The friendship isn’t over
Shall we move on?
No, no, that’s okay. Look, Cheyne got to a point where he was chasing something with his career that was going to impossible to obtain. And he was looking to us to support him in that chase, to an extent that I didn’t think we could really afford. Plus his financial situation was just a mess which, you know, wasn’t really my problem. Cheyne didn’t spend his money wisely, back when he was making a lot. But somehow, invariably, with Cheyne, it ends up being my fault, you know?
So he’s off the payroll?
Honestly, I don’t know right now if Cheyne is getting an official salary from Gotcha. If he is, its very small.
He was in right at the beginning. Cheyne was your first team rider.
There was a time when I was paying Cheyne myself, out of my own pocket. Yeah, I mean, these are really hard decisions. In other professional sports, there’s usually enough money left in the pot at the end of your career that you can live comfortably from then on. That’s the case in surfing. The money isn’t big enough in most cases, and when it is big enough, a lot of guys, most guys, don’t manage it properly. So they end up hanging on longer than they should. And, for us, for the company, that becomes really difficult. There’s a lot of emotion involved, a lot of history, a lot of sentiment. You’re talking about somebody you’ve been with—and not just in terms of a paycheck, but surfing with them, living with them, all of that—for 10 or 15 year. So those are really, really tough decisions.
How do think Potts is going to do, as far as moving on to the next stage?
Honestly, I predict a major problem with Potts. There’s someone who really blew a pile of money. Way more than Cheyne. I mean, a huge pile. On Peter Mansted [Potter’s manager], on his entourage, on his own indulgences. And what’s gonna end up happening is he’ll wake up one morning as say, “Shit, I’ve got nothing left.” At the moment, the guy still surfs well, but the kids are surfing better. And wait and see. What’s gonna happen is, he’ll come to us and say, “What have you done for me lately?” And we’ll have to something like, “Look, we’ve gone as far as we can go. This is where you are in your career, and we’ve just signed Chris Ward, so . . . . ”
Michael Tomson from ENCYCLOPEDIA of SURFING on Vimeo.