Building A Fleet — Will The U.S. Amateur Organizations Ever Sail Under One Flag?

“I believe we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found. — Thomas Wolfe

With a list of acronyms longer than a NASA launch checklist and more complicated than AOL’s tax return, the battle over U.S. amateur surfing’s national governing body (NGB) tends to induce uncontrollable yawning for even the most surf-stoked industry insider. It may seem like a benign list of acronyms, but if the NGB does change hands, it will be a profound event in the history of American surfing. It would likely mean the end of an organization that’s been America’s voice in amateur surfing for more than 25 years and the dawn of a new one. The question is, why should anyone care? Because the disinterested are easily led astray.

To understand any good battle, you have to know what the parties are fighting over. Love, money, revenge, territory, and power are all the classic reasons, and in some form they all come into play here. The sought-after prize is America’s National Governing Body (NGB) status, the fate of which will be debated this March in Ecuador, when the International Surfing Federation (ISA) has its annual meeting. What this means is that whichever organization holds the NGB represents America in the eyes of the ISA, which is sort of the surfing world’s version of the United Nations. Among other duties, the American NGB picks the U.S. National Team that goes to the ISA World Games every two years to compete against the rest of the world’s national teams.

Second, you need to know who’s on both sides of the barbed wire. For the last 25 years, the United States Surfing Federation (USSF) is the organization that has held the NGB. While the USSF has it, Surfing America wants it. Surfing America, formed in 1998, is the organization created with intentions of getting the NGB, among other things. Although just an adolescent compared to the USSF, Surfing America is a subsidiary of SIMA, the increasingly powerful trade organization that claims to have 80 percent of the surf industry’s dollars in its membership. Surfing America also runs America’s domestic pro tour, the Foster’s Pro Surfing Tour. In other words, its silos are well stocked.

The next logical question is: why is the NGB in jeopardy? Well, if you’ve picked up a surf magazine since 1998, the first reason has been in the headlines like clockwork every two years. After years of dominance, the engine of amateur American surfing — at least on the international stage — has been in serious trouble, and the first flare was sent up at the ISA World Games in 1998.

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There’s been a lot of negative attention devoted to America’s performances at the World Games over the last five years. It’s true, the only time people look under the hood of a car is when it clunks. Internationally, the engine of American surfing has done a lot more than just clunk, it’s blown a head gasket and the transmission has dropped out. At the 1998 World Games, the U.S. placed sixth, which raised eyebrows, but not alarm. But as the slide continued downward to a tenth place in 2000 and an eleventh in 2002, all hell broke loose in the surf press. Reactionary headlines flared after the 2002 embarrassment in South Africa, including one that read “It’s Official: America Sucks!

To be fair, it’s not just that the American teams have been sub-par. The international contingent has made massive leaps in organization and ability over the last ten years. “With the growth and development of the sport, explains Paul West, head of the USSF, “countries who were never even players before now have a couple athletes that could possibly be in the finals or even win.

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Still, on the WCT, the “other international stage, American pros have been cleaning up for the last decade. So the poor results of the last three World Games are deservedly problematic, and criticism has been mounting against the USSF. This criticism, combined with Surfing America’s increasingly resolute efforts to acqre the NGB, has made the battle heat up considerably in the last year. West has taken more heat than a poodle in a pen of rottweillers. “The only thing that people are looking at are our results at the ISA World Games, retorts West. “I don’t think it’s proper to judge an organization just based on the contest results.

From the USSF’s point of view, they haven’t had the sponsorship necessary to build a strong enough program to attract the top amateur athletes. “We’ve asked for support in part or in full from the industry, says West. “But after so many years of being disappointed, well, the invitation is still there, but we’re spending our time and energy securing sponsorship outside the industry. Given corporate America’s recent flirtations with surfing, it’s possible the USSF could get some sort of non-endemic sponsorship.

From another point of view, critics say the reason the USSF has had trouble getting significant sponsorship is due to questionable management, which they say the World Games results are merely a symptom of. It’s sort of the chicken or the egg scenario: The USSF says with more backing it could attract better surfers. Detractors say it can’t get the top surfers because there’s a failure to secure backing, which they claim is a result of inefficient management. Whatever the reasons, nobody will contest that the last three teams that have gone to the World Games have failed to represent the best amateurs in the U.S.

The most recent and troubling problem for Paul West and his organization, though, is that the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA), a founding member of the USSF 25 years ago, has severed ties with the USSF. The ESA, recognized as the largest amateur surfing organization in the world, has been by far the biggest talent and financial draw for the USSF. So, after a 25-year relationship, why would the ESA leave the organization that facilitates its surfers going to the World Games? ESA Director Kathy Phillips says, above all, it was a financial decision: “What it really came down to was a fear of financial liability for the ESA to stay a part of the USSF any longer.

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Some would say the well-organized ESA had outgrown and become more powerful than its parent organization. Indeed, recently they also took over duties for all the East Coast WQS contests.

The other dominant amateur player in the U.S., the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA), also has a rocky history with the USSF. But the only important part in this context is that it left the USSF in 1993 and has become the most high-profile amateur organization in the country.

So, now the NSSA and the ESA, the two biggest and most successful amateur bodies in the U.S., are independent. With both of them absolutely unwilling to work with the USSF, it’s clear that this situation presents a major opportunity for another party to unite these two titans of amateur surfing under one umbrella. Any guesses who might be interested?

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The New Kid On The Block
It seems more than coincidence that Surfing America sprouted up in 1998, the same year the U.S. national team started its downhill descent. Under the leadership of Peter “PT Townend, SIMA created Surfing America, to in their words “Provide a clear path from novice to professional competition. To do this effectively requires getting the amateur NGB. So with a powerful organization with the majority of the surf industry behind it in SIMA, and savvy people like PT and board member Scott Daley at the helm, is the USSF quaking in its boots? Yes and no.

For one, Surfing America’s application for the NGB in 2000 wasn’t exactly convincing. That application was denied, at least in part because Surfing America didn’t even send a representative to the meeting to talk on its behalf. Now, almost six years after its creation, though, Surfing America looks to be sending more troops to the front lines of the NGB battle. “I think we’ve been more guilty of having a lot of discussions over the last couple of years without a real game plan, says SIMA chairman Dick Baker, also the president of Op. “Scott {Daley}, PT, Graham {Stapleberg}, all the people that have been involved in the process, are now fully behind it. Our number-one goal is to make something happen. So this is going to be the first time we have a literal, specific, major plan to be proposed to amateur surfing.

Last year Surfing America also stepped up its personnel and hired Mike Gerard to head the effort. Gerard’s spent the majority of his time so far trying to get the Fosters Pro Surfing Tour running on all cylinders. But with the ISA meeting in March approaching quickly, the time Gerard and Surfing America have to get the ESA and NSSA under its umbrella is running out fast. “We’re working on that {getting the NSSA and ESA involved}, and everybody’s in support of the direction we’re heading, says Gerard.

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To some, Surfing America’s failed attempts so far look as though it hasn’t had its act together. But it’s also true the process is long and bureaucratic — especially for something as monumental as revoking one party’s NGB and awarding it to someone else. And it is monumental. A parallel would be the White House deciding to take power away from the CIA and then transferring it in total to the FBI. In theory, the CIA would then be obsolete, as would the USSF if its NGB status was revoked. Decisions like this don’t happen quickly.

There’s another reason that the USSF’s future may not be as shaky as it appears. Many thought the ESA’s departure would dry up the USSF’s talent draw for the World Team. But actually, it doesn’t change much about the U.S. team selection because the trials for the national team have been open to any athlete from any organization for the past couple of years.

The problem is that not enough of the best kids go out for the National Team. But why? “The kids just don’t care, says Janice Aragon, executive director of the NSSA. “It’s not a goal of theirs, at least for our best surfers, to get on that team and go to the World Games

However, if West and crew at the USSF could somehow manage to get the highest caliber amateurs together and win the next World Games, their critics would be all but silenced. Unless they can get an all-star team together before the ISA World Games and meetings in March, pending the outcome of the voting, it’s possible the USSF may never have the opportunity again.

Getting Voted Off
So who makes these important decisions? In world politics it’s usually the United Nations. In world surfing issues like this, the ISA does. However, some mistakenly think ISA President Fernando Aguerre can unilaterally wave a wand and either grant or revoke NGB status. In reality, this is an issue that’s voted on by the ISA’s board, made up of representatives from member countries. But this is a problematic issue for the ISA board.

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What makes voting in favor of revoking an NGB such a conflict for the board members is that it sets a disconcerting precedent for all the countries in the ISA. It would mean that if another country’s NGB isn’t up to snuff in the eyes of enough people, their NGB status could also be revoked. But the people voting are the heads of each of their respective countries’ organizations, which makes it sort of like throwing rocks straight up in the air with you and your friends sitting in a circle below. Each representative is afraid if they throw a rock, another rock could land on them next. “When you’re asking people to vote on expelling one of the club, says Aguerre, “they’re all looking over their shoulder saying, ‘Am I next?’

Not to mention that the ISA and the USSF have been metaphorically married since the beginning. They’re high school sweethearts about to have their 25th anniversary — only the future of the relationship is tinged with uncertainty.

And really, the relationships of all the parties involving a lot of discussions over the last couple of years without a real game plan, says SIMA chairman Dick Baker, also the president of Op. “Scott {Daley}, PT, Graham {Stapleberg}, all the people that have been involved in the process, are now fully behind it. Our number-one goal is to make something happen. So this is going to be the first time we have a literal, specific, major plan to be proposed to amateur surfing.

Last year Surfing America also stepped up its personnel and hired Mike Gerard to head the effort. Gerard’s spent the majority of his time so far trying to get the Fosters Pro Surfing Tour running on all cylinders. But with the ISA meeting in March approaching quickly, the time Gerard and Surfing America have to get the ESA and NSSA under its umbrella is running out fast. “We’re working on that {getting the NSSA and ESA involved}, and everybody’s in support of the direction we’re heading, says Gerard.

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To some, Surfing America’s failed attempts so far look as though it hasn’t had its act together. But it’s also true the process is long and bureaucratic — especially for something as monumental as revoking one party’s NGB and awarding it to someone else. And it is monumental. A parallel would be the White House deciding to take power away from the CIA and then transferring it in total to the FBI. In theory, the CIA would then be obsolete, as would the USSF if its NGB status was revoked. Decisions like this don’t happen quickly.

There’s another reason that the USSF’s future may not be as shaky as it appears. Many thought the ESA’s departure would dry up the USSF’s talent draw for the World Team. But actually, it doesn’t change much about the U.S. team selection because the trials for the national team have been open to any athlete from any organization for the past couple of years.

The problem is that not enough of the best kids go out for the National Team. But why? “The kids just don’t care, says Janice Aragon, executive director of the NSSA. “It’s not a goal of theirs, at least for our best surfers, to get on that team and go to the World Games

However, if West and crew at the USSF could somehow manage to get the highest caliber amateurs together and win the next World Games, their critics would be all but silenced. Unless they can get an all-star team together before the ISA World Games and meetings in March, pending the outcome of the voting, it’s possible the USSF may never have the opportunity again.

Getting Voted Off
So who makes these important decisions? In world politics it’s usually the United Nations. In world surfing issues like this, the ISA does. However, some mistakenly think ISA President Fernando Aguerre can unilaterally wave a wand and either grant or revoke NGB status. In reality, this is an issue that’s voted on by the ISA’s board, made up of representatives from member countries. But this is a problematic issue for the ISA board.

[IMAGE 6]

What makes voting in favor of revoking an NGB such a conflict for the board members is that it sets a disconcerting precedent for all the countries in the ISA. It would mean that if another country’s NGB isn’t up to snuff in the eyes of enough people, their NGB status could also be revoked. But the people voting are the heads of each of their respective countries’ organizations, which makes it sort of like throwing rocks straight up in the air with you and your friends sitting in a circle below. Each representative is afraid if they throw a rock, another rock could land on them next. “When you’re asking people to vote on expelling one of the club, says Aguerre, “they’re all looking over their shoulder saying, ‘Am I next?’

Not to mention that the ISA and the USSF have been metaphorically married since the beginning. They’re high school sweethearts about to have their 25th anniversary — only the future of the relationship is tinged with uncertainty.

And really, the relationships of all the parties involved is uncertain, but not for lack of trying. Aguerre, going above and beyond his duties as ISA president, has put more time and energy into reconciling the NSSA, ESA, USSF, and Surfing America than perhaps anyone. He’s played Bill Clinton at Camp David to surfing’s version of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. And like Clinton’s efforts, Aguerre’s too seemed at first hopeful, but ultimately couldn’t reconcile the labyrinth of conflicts.

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The Long And Winding Road Ahead
Despite all the questions floating around about U.S. amateur surfing, the only question truly worth asking is: what’s the solution? Sometimes the simplest of questions can bring up the most complicated answers, and this is a perfect example. The question evokes intensely heated, complex, and highly political responses from the parties involved with amateur surfing. It’s as impassioned an issue as there is in surfing.

Whether or not the short-term future holds any resolution, there are basically four scenarios that could play out after the ISA reviews Surfing America’s latest bid for the NGB status in March. The first three involve Surfing America’s application being denied.

Number one is that all the organizations come together to select the U.S. team. At least as far as all the organizations getting together, the odds on Keanu Reeves winning an Oscar are far, far better than this happening.

The second, also under the pretense that Surfing America is denied the NGB in March, is that the USSF could get upgraded and slowly return to prominence. Whether through generous sponsorship, donations, or something extraordinary, it would take a major infusion of support. It’s possible that the USSF could secure some sort of non-endemic sponsorship, although any outside backing for amateur surfing has been thin in the past. It’s even less likely, given the lack of interest in the last decade, the USSF will get any meaningful sponsorship from within the surf industry.

The third, still assuming Surfing America’s petition is denied, is that things basically continue the way they’ve been going. At this point, given the extremely slow and bureaucratic nature of the process, this is the most likely scenario in the short term.

The fourth scenario, however, is also possible. This is what all the fuss is about: That Surfing America is granted the NGB. Logically, this would mean the demise of the USSF. For ISA President Fernando Aguerre, this is an unprecedented issue. “I can tell you this: there is a sense of uncertainty about the future of the USSF at the ISA when we see such a large piece of pie falling off the table {the ESA}. At the same time, we can’t make any decisions about a piece of pie falling off the table, because another piece of pie might come into play. Besides, we haven’t been shown a plan by any other group that includes the pyramid that we want to see.

Part of the pyramid, in this case, is the infrastructure needed to run amateur contests across the country. Meaning, Surfing America would have to get both the NSSA and the ESA under its umbrella. This may prove to be the largest challenge for Surfing America, but it’s essential, according to Aguerre. “If those guys {the NSSA and ESA} are not under the umbrella of a petitioning party, then the credibility is gone. Still, whether or not the application is approved in March, Surfing America has plans to keep bidding until it gets the NGB.

So the onus of getting both the ESA and NSSA involved is on Surfing America. Kathy Phillips, director for the ESA, seems ready to work with Surfing America, as long as it presents her with a well thought-out and beneficial plan. “Our number-one priority, says Phillips, “is that we very much want to be part of a national organization again and have a national championship to send our surfers to. That’s really what we’re looking for.

The NSSA is more hesitant, though. As far as Aragon is concerned, Surfing America would have to present her with