Shane Dorian, Kalani Robb and Noa Ginella — all professional surfers and Hawaii locals — were a couple hundred yards off Oahu’s North Shore, and smack in the middle of the impact zone when the canoe began filling with water. They weren’t in a typical outrigger, but a sailing canoe inspired by the kind Polynesian explorers used when they traveled here from Tahiti, using the stars as their map and compass, many years before Columbus got lost. It had been a moody tropical morning punctuated by a light squall, but as the three of them shoved off, the sun was shining and the wind began blowing offshore.
They skimmed the surface, rolling over the swell. Ginella steered the rig, while Robb and Dorian leapt from pontoon to pontoon, mugging for the cameras, which were everywhere — in their hands, mounted on the mast and an oar. This wasn’t Hollywood or Discovery’s doing, though: Dorian and Robb were among the 99 athletes here for GoPro’s second athlete summit.
Over the next two days, some of the best surfers, skaters, snowboarders, mountain bikers, skiers, BMX riders and BASE jumpers on earth would be paddling, jumping, riding and diving together. They’d shoot it all with the Hero3+, the latest version of the palm-sized HD camera, then grind through their own version of film school. GoPro’s millennial production staff would teach them how to better capture what GoPro calls a “golden moment” with a device that has come to dominate action sports, spilled into the mainstream and turned a surf geeky little camera company into what looks like the next sports marketing juggernaut.
This time the golden moment happened on the way back in as the set of the day began to rise. “That fifth one is the big one, bra,” Robb said, eagerly craning his neck toward the lines. Not a minute later, the day’s biggest wave crashed on their head and swamped the canoe. They enjoyed the ride then bailed frantically, laughing and howling with one eye peeled toward the reef. If another sizable wave broke soon, the boat and bodies would be tumbling.
Of course, that was not to be. Dorian and Robb, who you might remember from the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” each spent a decade on the Association of Surfing Professionals tour. These men aren’t just pros and fearless big wave riders, they are among the best watermen alive. And young Ginella, their guide, is no slouch. He charges big surf and competes in SUP races when he’s not conquering his own endurance expeditions, like, say, swimming Kauai’s 17-mile Na Pali coast … for fun. Only at a summit such as this would a boss like Ginella be a hired hand.
Even the athletes could hardly fathom the pedigree when they mingled at the boutique four-star Turtle Bay Resort during the welcome Luau the night before. Gathered on a manicured lawn overlooking a pair of white sand beaches and azure bays was the legendary Shaun White, reigning slopestyle gold medalists Jamie Anderson and Sage Kotsenburg and former Olympic champions Hannah Teter and Julia Mancuso. Skateboarding superstar Ryan Sheckler huddled at a table with pals Sean Malto, 2011 Street League champ, and Mitchie Brusco, teen vert and MegaRamp skater who just won bronze at X Games Austin. Big wave surfer Jamie O’Brien and former big wave world champ Jamie Sterling stormed the buffet. And that’s just an appetizer.
All told, the athletes represented 35 sports disciplines, 15 countries and 14 world titles. Keep counting and you’ll find 68 X Games medals and seven Olympic golds. No wonder Alex Midler, the rising 15-year-old street skater from Calabasas, California, and the youngest of them all, was running around with his Hero 3+ rolling. His lens landed on whichever star happened to be gliding past, but eventually it was trained on the hula and fire dancers who were also strapped with Heroes.
The next morning, they all piled into a hotel ballroom for two days of adventure and education, and downloaded the vision from Todd Ballard, global sports marketing director, and Bradford Schmidt, GoPro’s creative director. The way Schmidt and Ballard told it, GoPro patterned itself after Red Bull, a once fledgling energy drink company that partnered with action sports stars to become a media brand. Only GoPro had a distinct advantage: They could ask athletes to create their content for them.
“We’ve never shot a commercial,” Ballard said. “Every creative asset we own was developed from people just going out and capturing these moments.”
Some of their athletes cut their own video shorts, which are essentially GoPro commercials, distributed on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Others send their footage in raw, and GoPro’s media team cuts and shines it up. Traditional brands like Nike, Gatorade and even Red Bull couldn’t buy the level of access these stars offer their fans, and the company, for next to nothing.
As a result, GoPro hasn’t just become the top brand in action sports with the largest adventure sports video archives ever compiled, it is the No. 1 overall brand on YouTube, with 1.9 million subscribers and 475 million total views. Pull that thread of star content and you’ll reach a sea of user-generated video shared by millions worldwide. GoPro sold 2.2 million cameras in 2013 alone, when 2.8 years’ worth of footage were uploaded to YouTube with the GoPro tag.
“It’s not just about the camera anymore,” said Schmidt, who was hired to start the YouTube channel in 2009. “It’s about content.”
“We have a great opportunity to become a media company,” Ballard announced to his riveted athletes. He went on to say that GoPro is the top brand on Instagram (where, based on number of followers and hashtag posts they’re actually ranked seventh) and Facebook (where, with 7.4 million likes, they aren’t even in the top 100).
Thanks to their social media dominance, Ballard said, “We can continue to get paid to do what we love to do, and create the art that we want to create.”
Granted, his rankings were inflated and the art comment a stretch, but that hardly mattered in the moment. Ballard was selling a dream that has already come true, and the athletes were all in.
GoPro is a force. Its imprint on our culture, undeniable. While traditional camera companies are losing market share and watching revenue evaporate, GoPro made $985.7 million in 2013, an increase of 87 percent over the year before. Their cameras are part of every professional production team’s toolbox. They are gifted to new fathers to use in the delivery room (CEO and founder Nick Woodman did it, so did this author’s best friend), and used by gourmet chefs in the kitchen, search and rescue teams in collapsed mineshafts, surgeons in the operating theater, and strapped to puppies at the dog park. They’re mounted everywhere you can think of, and several places you would never imagine.
GoPro’s rise began in the ashes of founder Nick Woodman’s two previous start-ups, which flamed out during the first tech crash. A devout surfer, he hit the road to shake off bad juju and wound up catching waves in the Mentawais, a remote island chain off Sumatra, with Schmidt. Woodman was toying with a disposable camera strapped to his wrist with an old surf leash so he could shoot from inside the barrel.
For two months, the friends surfed and traveled together. Woodman eventually went back to Half Moon Bay to tinker with his invention, and new iterations would occasionally land at Schmidt’s door like a future promise while he was enduring film school at UCLA. Schmidt’s task was to surf with it and give notes. But it wasn’t until Woodman figured out how to turn that camera back on himself that the GoPro revolution began.
If smartphone technology made the selfie a thing, GoPro birthed the Selfie 2.0. “Suddenly you could shoot yourself in these amazing places, doing things no one had ever seen before,” said Ballard. “You had the opportunity to shoot yourself surfing, snowboarding and skating.”
And who better to shoot selfies than the boundary-pushing athletes who soar above and drop into the world’s most unforgiving and beautiful terrain? It’s what put snowboarder Mike Basich on the map. An early days World Cup and X Games rider, Basich got mainstream notice when he figured out how to take mountain selfies in 2000.
“I wanted to express what I saw from a snowboard,” said Basich, and he didn’t mean a groomed run. “I was using a $4,000-$5,000 camera, and taking them where people couldn’t go.” Translation: he was leaping from helicopters, and jumping off cliffs in the Alaskan backcountry with a 45-pound backpack and an awkward camera rig. He shot with slides, so he never really knew what he had until he was off the mountain. It often took two weeks to capture one great image.
In 2008, he happened upon an early-model GoPro at a trade show. This was pre-Hero, and it wasn’t yet HD, but the company asked him to send in the footage he captured. He obliged, and their relationship began.
In 2011, two years after the Hero hit the market and GoPro became HD-ready, Basich began shooting exclusively with GoPro. “What they did was my dream come true,” he said. “Something light weight, with different ways to mount it on your body and your board.”
As the morning meeting came to a close, Ballard and Schmidt shared some of the best athlete videos they’d seen in the past year. Basich carving Alaskan powder, dressed as a Yeti, was one of them (“Tales Of An Alaskan Yeti” is soon to be released). Another was Jamie O’Brien’s insane footage captured from inside a barrel at Pipeline. His effort won an open GoPro-sponsored surf photography contest on the North Shore last winter, earning him $20,000.
Then there was New Zealander Kelly McGarry’s epic run at the 2013 Red Bull Rampage, a top freeride mountain biking event. He rode downhill, along a series of knife-edge ridges, jumping from cliff to cliff, with a few midair backflips above jagged red rock thrown in.
“I was just hoping I wouldn’t die,” he said. Watch the video, shot with a single helmet-mounted camera, and you’ll see why. “I didn’t click that button thinking 19 million people would watch it.” But that’s what happened.
It’s that kind of magic, the instant connection to fans and the possibility of larger, broad audiences for niche athletes, that makes GoPro such an attractive partner. After seeing the cameras around his favorite surf breaks and buying them as Christmas presents for years, Kelly Slater took the unusual step of calling Woodman and asking to be sponsored. He got the gig. Shaun White did the same thing.
Julia Mancuso also wanted in, but while she’s a three-time Olympian who owns four medals including a 2006 gold in giant slalom, she isn’t exactly Slater or White. So she shot an audition reel. It was a 30-second video set to a James Bond theme, entitled “The Girl Who Will Try Anything,” featuring clips of her bizarre stunts on and off the mountain. She made it as a goof, but the company thought it was one of the most creative things they’d seen from a top athlete. She was in.
“I feel so honored to be a part of the team,” said Mancuso, who’s plotting a fourth Olympic run and makes her home in Maui when snow isn’t falling. “With GoPro, it’s not just about getting first place, it’s about putting your personality into it. Every other brand is so based on results. If you don’t win, you’re dropped, but you get the sense here that if you keep producing rad content, you are always part of the family.”
Both Mancuso and Ayumu Hirano, the Japanese wunderkind who took silver in halfpipe at Sochi, called the camera a valuable training tool. Mancuso has her coach follow her down the run as she carves a slalom course, with a GoPro capturing every wobble. White uses it in training, as well.
“I can take a run, try some tricks, then watch those files on my phone on the chairlift up,” White said. But as his career shifts into a new phase, and he drifts away from competition and toward music, he also values the flexibility that comes with a sponsor like GoPro.
“GoPro fits that thing I’m looking for,” White said. “A company who’s open-minded and ready to do whatever.”
This summer, he plans to hold his own skate showcases, wherever his band, Bad Things, is playing a show. “I can say, hey, we’ll be playing in Prague, come watch me skate. That’s way more fun to me than showing up at the Dew Tour. It gives me freedom.”
That rare mix of authenticity, visibility, excellence and liberty is what lured the athletes to the North Shore, where between activities they crunched footage in Turtle Bay’s ballrooms and learned how to make better content. Well, not all of them. White ditched one work session to ride waves with 44-year-old surf legend Sunny Garcia. But even the biggest stars are contractually obligated to upload 30 minutes of video a month and post at least two videos or stills to the big four social media platforms. Not that they find it daunting.
“GoPro is in a situation that makes an athlete want to give them as much as they can,” Basich said, “because it’s such a powerful tool.”
And they’re about to get stronger. On June 26, Woodman rang the opening bell at NASDAQ, and GoPro (GPRO) shares were publicly traded for the first time. As part of the company’s initial public offering, or IPO, they are offering nearly 18 million shares, priced at $24 per share, in the hopes of raising $427 million. If successful, the company will be worth an incredible $3 billion.
According to a USA Today story, Woodman, who will retain 48 percent ownership, plans to sell 3.5 million shares, equaling a take of over $85 million. Yet aside from Slater, whose deal with GoPro included over 200,000 shares, 35 percent of which he is reportedly looking to sell in a deal north of $1 million, few athletes will cash in.
We spoke to several at the summit and those who shared their GoPro salary off the record — including multiple Olympic champions — said they earned in the low five figures annually. That’s better than users who are only gifted free GoPro products in exchange for footage that hits the eyeball jackpot. A program implemented in March awards athletes $1,000 when their videos reach one million views, but that’s not an easy target, and in the grand scheme, not much money either.
Plus, athletes are competing against one another and users for that critical GoPro megaphone. It’s not as if the company shares just any video. That’s why Sheckler sought shortcuts from young Midler, whose recent photo blast became a company ad. And why the old guard of the North Shore, a group that includes Kala and Kamalei Alexander, consulted the 21-year-old Roxy Girl and two-time world longboard champ Kelia Moniz for tips.
Given the intensifying competition and GoPro’s growing wealth, two athletes wondered aloud if they shouldn’t be offered stock options, like Slater, from the business they helped build. That seems unlikely, considering when their reps approach the company for more money, they are almost always told to seek it from their other sponsors. GoPro, after all, has enlarged the athlete’s audience, so those other sponsors should pay more, the company argues.
Or so goes the theory. It sounds reasonable for a media network, but this one lives off cheap and free content without significant investment in either sport or production. (Though they did help White out with his private halfpipe leading up to Sochi and they also title-sponsor an IndyCar race). And now that the company is publicly traded and poised to become wealthier than most other brands ever hope to be, will that argument still fly? Or will there be push back from both sponsors and athletes?
“We’re building this as we go,” Schmidt said. “We’ve got some programs in place, and we’ve got more ideas as far as revenue sharing with our athletes. It will improve.”
Complicating the issue is GoPro’s desire to seek partnerships with traditional sports. Can you imagine a Hero 3+ attached to Richard Sherman or Russell Wilson for the entirety of a football game? GoPro can. In fact, some NFL players were strapped with them for what ESPN called “HeroCam” segments during “Monday Night Football” telecasts last year.
They’ve also spoken with the NHL and Major League Baseball. Negotiations with MLB have been lukewarm, but NHL talks have been encouraging, and the pair seems a natural fit. It’s a winter sport, and hockey wants to boost ratings. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see breakaways and body checks through the fish-eye?
“No matter what happens, we want everyone taken care of,” Schmidt said. “We are a family-based company, and the athletes are part of our family. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re growing and we’re all growing together.”
Big-picture prospectus aside, the athlete summit was drenched in far too much optimism and good will to be weighed down by the future. Shane Dorian had been listening to Schmidt, who’d mentioned that as much video as GoPro owns, they haven’t been able to build a solid library of stills, despite the fact that the camera fires 30-shot blasts in seconds and can be set to time-lapse.
So on the last afternoon, Dorian stepped to the ledge of a 30-foot cliff at Laie Point, a spectacular lava peninsula that tumbles into the frothing Pacific, sheltering one of the most beautiful bays on Oahu. Preparing to fill that JPEG void, Dorian grinned, remote-fired the trigger and launched a laid-out backflip. It was radical and graceful, his entry was clean and the image was pure gold.