Surfing finds itself at a crossroads right now. We’re all going to be glued to our monitors to find out who will be 2013 World Champ in the next few days as Kelly or Mick duke it out in one of the closest title battles in years. But beyond the booming peak of the season finale at Pipe, there has been a quiet yet seismic shift going on behind the scenes this year that will determine the future of the ASP and the very essence of professional surfing. The mandate of the new ASP, as you will know if you’ve been following the ZoSea takeover, is to make pro surfing a legitimate mainstream sport and turn the tour itself into a money making enterprise from 2014 onwards.
That may not sound very different from what you thought the ‘old’ ASP was doing, until you consider the numbers that actually constitute a mainstream sport, or find out that the tour has been running at a loss on and off for ages. As stalwart surf journo Sean Doherty coined it, “Nobody ever got rich holding surf contests in the tropics.”
To change this will mean reconfiguring how surfing fits into mainstream culture. Reading between the lines, it means getting the mass buy-in of people who do not surf. They need to know the difference between a reverse and a roundhouse. They need to understand why Kelly can still win the title from Mick, even though he’s not leading the ratings right now. They need to support pro surfing with their wallets, not just a day at the beach.
I’m not saying it can’t be done. There are some very powerful people driving this new venture and they have the support of the best surfers in the world – especially the 11x world champ. The potential danger is the insistence on trying to make surfing something it’s not. No matter how much marketing you throw at it, how much spin you give it and how well you broadcast it, surf contests are simply not mainstream friendly.
Sure, you and I love watching the pros pulling in at Cloudbreak and going berserk at all the tour’s quality stops. For the most part the webcasts are excellent and let’s admit it; we even watch the contests in crappy waves. But that’s because, like you, I’m tuned into the nuances of the ocean. I understand the dynamics at play when a set approaches. I know what it feels like to stand up on a wave and race towards a section. Not only does it allow me to anticipate what may happen next, it gives me a heightened appreciation of the incredible feats the Top 34 routinely pull off. It’s what hooks me in and keeps me watching.
It’s not easy or simple to understand our playing field. Unlike throwing a pigskin around, it’s difficult to comprehend the nuances of a wave and why surfers are scored accordingly. It’s something you learn through years of commitment and doing the act yourself, not flicking a channel.
A lot of this becomes negligible when the waves are absolutely pumping. Even a farmer from Mpumalanga can’t help but be enthralled seeing someone get barrelled down the line at Supers. But even when the waves are firing, they’re not always breaking. How many people would carry on watching Wimbledon if Murray and Djokovic stopped serving for 10 minutes at a time and instead looked wistfully at the court, hoping to resume play? Why do we have to construct elaborate sideshows to pull the crowds in at events? For all its glamour, live surfing can also be like watching paint dry – especially in an era of diminishing attention spans.
At the same time that all of this is going on, surfing has never been less dependent on competitive performance. Some of the most influential surfers in the world right now are indifferent to contests. Dane Reynolds can throw down a clip that goes viral and get as many eyeballs on it as a clutch World Tour heat. John John’s biggest recent accolades are for freesurfing stints on the net. The hard truth is that a significant chunk of the surfing population doesn’t even know who’s on the tour or how it works. There are ferals holed up in Sumatra who still think Occy is world champ.
Occy is still a champ, but not the world champ.
Don’t blame pro surfing. It simply comes down to the fact that surfing is not one-dimensional. That’s the beauty of it. If you really want to look at how different we are from mainstream sport, look no further than the pages of any surf mag. You’re not going to find contest reports. The majority of the content does not even touch on competition. Surfing has long transcended the reliance on who is winning to be meaningful.
Of course I’m also playing devil’s advocate here. Pro surfing remains highly influential. It pushes performance forward. It creates heroes while setting the bar. It wields the power to shape surf culture, for better or worse. The danger is that if the new ASP is truly hell-bent on seeking acceptance – and money – from the mainstream at all costs, it could end up alienating the very foundation on which the whole show is built. Us.
* From an earlier version of an editorial that appeared in Zigzag 37.7