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 Three surfers, one wave at Mavericks.

Jeff Clark surveying the Mavericks site in Half Moon Bay. (Patrick Trefz)

Keir Beadling (left) and Jeff Clark in 2006, before their “breakup.” (Seth Migdail)

Clark and competitors on the opening day of Mavericks in 2010. Even after being kicked out as contest director the year before, Clark says he “wasn’t about to be removed from the grounds.” (Seth Migdail)

Who Owns This Wave?

After three years in exile, Mavericks godfather Jeff Clark has won back the world's most aggro surf competition. But whether it'll remain in his hands—as well as thrive under his leadership—is a whole other question.

CLARK TALKS ABOUT HIS SEVEN-YEAR STINT as Beadling’s business partner as if it were a POW camp from which he has recently escaped. Several times during our September interview at Clark’s Half Moon Bay surf shop, he asked to change the subject. When he did talk about Beadling, he fidgeted uncomfortably and shifted in his chair. Beadling, on the other hand, didn’t respond at first to multiple interview requests. Eventually—after hearing that accusations were being made against him—he did agree to communicate via email and over the phone. But even then, he offered only limited details, citing the confidentiality terms of the settlement.

Still, after interviews with Beadling, Clark, a dozen-odd Mavericks insiders, and other journalists who cover the event, the story began to emerge. When Clark first met Beadling in 2003, the lawyer had just quit his private legal practice to pursue his true passion—outdoor adventure—and start an extreme sports agency called Evolve Sports. A hard worker with a sharp mind for sales, Beadling soon landed Dean Karnazes, the famous San Francisco ultrarunner, as a client, putting Evolve on the map. Clark, who was at least as famous as Karnazes, was another logical candidate—and the deal would be good for him, too. A renowned surfboard shaper, he still makes boards by hand, an incredibly time-consuming task. Add to that the facts that he runs a surf shop, loves to golf, and surfs or performs rescues at Mavericks up to 50 times a year, and you can imagine how little time he had to run the business side of the contest.

It wasn’t long before Beadling decided that the real money would come not from promoting Clark the athlete, but from building a Mavericks brand with Clark at the center. He convinced the surfer to start MSV with him as a partnership that they would own 50–50. Beadling would solidify sponsors for the contest, handle the business details, start a Mavericks apparel line, and manage Mavericks-related events and films, maybe even a concert tour. In short, Beadling would make Mavericks the contest a mere sideshow to Mavericks the lifestyle. For directing the contest, occasionally speaking to the media, and just being himself—shaper, charger, hyped-up rad dude—Clark would be paid an unspecified amount.

Beadling was open about the fact that he hoped to eventually sell MSV to a bigger investor or company and make some real money (though he insists that it wasn’t his main goal). Clark says that he cared most about maintaining the contest and honoring the waves he’d discovered, but getting rich in the process didn’t sound like a bad idea. Hell, everyone else was cashing in on his find. “It all looked good on paper,” Clark tells me. “But as soon as I signed on the dotted line, they just ran with it. It turned into the worst thing I’ve ever been part of.”

The first few years at MSV were lean and scrappy, and by 2006, the company still hadn’t raised any serious cash. That year, without warning or explanation, Beadling didn’t pay the Mavericks surfers the $500 they were accustomed to getting for their participation in the contest. You have to remember that while a handful of the competitors (like Kelly Slater) have lucrative sponsorship deals, the majority make very little, or nothing, from their surfing careers. They compete in Mavericks simply because they love the sport. So the lost participation fee was very dismaying.

Beadling did reinstate the $500 stipend after 2006, saying that he’d made a mistake. And you have to feel for the guy. Trying to fit in with one of the most testosterone-infused crowds in professional sports can’t be easy. Nevertheless, if Beadling hoped to use the surfers’ cool to sell his clothes and fatten his wallet, cutting the little money they did get was not the way to get love in return. “The surfers were already suspicious of Beadling’s corporate-speak,” says Grant Washburn, a San Francisco–based Mavericks competitor and filmmaker. “But to top it off, he just didn’t get what we’re about. He’d say things like ‘Hey, the TV cameras will be coming today, so don’t forget to smile and get your face on TV.’ People were just like, ‘What? Who is this guy?’”

But starting around 2007, it seemed like things were turning around. Each event drew millions of viewers online and on networks like NBC Sports, with big-name sponsors like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Hard Rock, and Jim Beam. And Beadling was making headway with his business plan. “We raised $2 million selling into the teeth of the recession,” he says. “Beadling’s a very smart guy,” says Bruce Jenkins, a San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist (and avid surfer) who has written numerous stories on Mavericks. “It always seemed to me like he was doing a great job.”

Indeed, in October 2007, Beadling and Clark entered into a new contract that, for the first time, guaranteed Clark a regular payment: close to $10,000 a month. Still, to the surfers, it often seemed like Beadling was getting rich while they risked their lives for pennies. Washburn claims that even during this time, the invoices for his editing and filming were going unpaid. A 6-foot, 5-inch beast of a man, he decided that he had to show up at the MSV office and demand his money in person. “So I always got paid,” he says. “But not everyone else did.”

Although it didn’t become public until Clark sued MSV for fraud in 2010, Clark was among those who were shorted. By May 2009, Clark says, his monthly payments weren’t showing up. He stayed quiet about it at first, not wanting to mess with the chances of Mavericks taking place. But soon, he wasn’t the only one complaining.