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Agent Mitch Varnes champions college surfing to NCAA schools

The USF surfing team finished fifth at the Sebastian Inlet Pro event, but it remains a club sport.

Special to the Times

The USF surfing team finished fifth at the Sebastian Inlet Pro event, but it remains a club sport.

Mitch Varnes is an ambassador for surfing. He is a Florida-based agent for professional surfers such as C.J. and Damien Hobgood, and he helped bring high-level pro surfing to Florida's east coast four years ago with the Sebastian Inlet Pro contest.

Varnes' meteoric rise in the industry started in 1983 when he co-founded a surf club at UCF.

"I was a pretty good surfer, but I had no aspirations of going pro," he said. "We started a club so our friends could go to the beach and compete for trophies."

Twenty-six years later, the sport remains at the club level and is not recognized by the NCAA. But Varnes is trying to change that.

He co-founded, along with Melbourne attorney Jack Kirschenbaum, the Collegiate Surfing Association, a nonprofit organization to give college students the chance to compete in contests with the hope of eventually making surfing an NCAA championship sport.

To make the leap from club status to an NCAA championship event, surfing needs 50 schools to recognize men's or coed varsity teams and 40 schools to field women's teams, said Joni Comstock, NCAA senior vice president of championships.

Varnes said there are more than 78 schools, from Puerto Rico to Maine, that have surfing clubs. But none are recognized as a varsity sport. One of the problems is universities have to draw the line somewhere among a number of club level sports (USF has sailing and rugby clubs, among others) that would like varsity status.

"We know we have quite a bit of work ahead of us, but there is a lot of support," Varnes said. "There are more colleges or universities out there that have surfing clubs than we thought there were."

USF is one of 12 state schools that has a surfing club. Crystal Price, president of the USF surfing club, said the number of active members has gone from nine to 63 in the past three years.

"The sport is really growing in popularity," said Price, a sophomore. "We have 380 more students here who have inquired about joining. I'd love to see the sport be recognized by the NCAA with scholarships and a true championship."

Varnes said the motive is not just for a championship event but also to keep surfers in school rather than pursue a professional career before they reach college.

As sponsors search for the next wave of talent, the industry has increasingly turned to younger surfers to promote its products.

"The major sponsors are definitely catering to the young guys," said Burgess Autry, director of the Eastern Surfing Association's southeastern region.

With surfing seemingly becoming a kids' world, college is an afterthought for many in their quest to become the next Kelly Slater, the nine-time world champion.

"It saddens me that the incentive to stay in school and pursue an education does not exist for the competitive surfer," said Shea Lopez, a pro surfer who grew up in Indian Rocks Beach. "There's no need to have travelled the world 12 times before you're 16. The tremendous number of talented young surfers should be developed more slowly and be much more well-rounded as there will be less of a percentage making a life from pro surfing. Going on the (World Qualifying Series) after college and a collegiate title should be attainable, and the industry should support it."

Varnes said just because young surfers receive sponsorships doesn't automatically mean it is easier to become a pro surfer.

"There are more sponsors and a chance to make money as a professional," Varnes said. "Because of that, guys are staying on the circuit longer. There are a lot of pros who are in their 30s. There's just not a lot of slots open for young guys.

"It really would make more sense to compete at the college level and get an education at the same time.

"And that's what we're all about."

Other college news

florida: The football games against Tennessee (Sept. 19) and Georgia (Oct. 31) will kick off at 3:30 p.m., CBS announced.

Florida state: Receiver Cameron Wade appears headed to trial next month on the simple battery charge in connection with an on-campus brawl between football players and a fraternity in November. Wade will have a pretrial hearing Aug. 12 with jury selection Aug. 14.

More football: After fighting to change the Bowl Championships Series, the Mountain West Conference reluctantly agreed to a BCS television deal. Utah president Michael Young said the Mountain West felt it had no choice but to sign the agreement, which runs through the 2013 season, with ESPN. The Mountain West champion would still not automatically qualify for a spot in one of the top-tier bowls. … Georgia's Tanner Strickland, projected to start at left guard, will miss the season with an undisclosed right shoulder injury.

Basketball: Tennessee men's coach Bruce Pearl will earn $1.9 million for the 2009-10 season under new terms of his contract, which has been extended one year to the 2014-15 season. … The NCAA put the women's program at Missouri Western on probation for two years and threw out some 50 victories as punishment for allowing an ineligible athlete to play for two seasons that included a conference title for the Division II program.

Agent Mitch Varnes champions college surfing to NCAA schools 07/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 9, 2009 1:04am]
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