Yes, but those characters who are sponsored "free sufers" are just that. Characters.
They offer something that is out of the ordinary for a prospective sponser...sometimes they are particularly articulate or clever and can help a sponsor develop & test a produce like fins, boardshorts or deck grip, perhaps they are abit "out there" for some other reason, like the well known musician mentioned previously and can offer brand association with a product that way.
Perhaps they have been a well-known contest surfer with a "cool" profile previously and are getting abit older and want to move into the biz in another way. Simply (and lets not kid ourselves here) they offer their sponser something none of the thousands of other frothing groms who want to be a free-surfers can.
Lets be honest about the business also, despite the nice marketing, the cool vibes etc you'll find the surf product industry cut-throat - how do you think manfacturers like Rip-Curl & Billabong got to be so global so fast...with penetration into the whole youth culture so quick? Those people are clever. They do not tolerate fools or wannabes, nor even put them on the payroll.
I suggest if you are sponsor hunting as a free-surfer you first be objective about your surfing...are you really blindly talented? Can you dramatically prove to a potential sponsor in some way you're better than all the others approching them wanting the same deal??? Have you been a regular contest winner in the immediate past? Can you front up & deliver the goods for a camera day-in day-out, in a hugh variety of conditions....from 1 foot onshores to 10 foot reefbreaks? Do you look good on film & stills when surfing (i.e not flailing your arms around?)
Have you seen yourself surfing on video and critiqued yourself yet?
Are you clean? Do you have a criminal record (i.e bad passport and unable to travel to some countries) , a drug or liquor problem or offensive tattoo's on your body...any of the above...forget it.
Do you deal with physical stress well? Travelling & being in different environments all the time is hard on your mind & body, eating different foods all the time, time-zone crossing - things you never think of. Are you able to accept you're only going to be a good as you last photo in a mag or video and the profile you currently have in the surf media, and you will have no income security while performing the role of free-surfer.
So, reality check here dude. Are you up for it?
If you are, work on something that makes you different, "quirky" perhaps and eye catching. Just being a good surfer is not enough. Build up a recient photo portfolio and be a desirable person to associate with a brand. Sort out what brand you'd like to represent and for what reasons - cause you'll be asked when you're being grilled by the suits at the boardroom table - You'll have to sell youself bigtime. Draft up your surfing C.V and it better be professional looking. Get a good fashionable haircut, some good clothes and go & make an appointment with their local marketing manager for that brand.