The State Of Pro Surfing Part Two

What if they held a surf contest and nobody cared?by Gary Taylor

That’s the dilemma facing professional surfing’s hiearchy at the start of the new century. Growing sentiment among several top pros and industry insiders suggests that professional competitive surfing needs a good swift kick in the ass to bring about more progressive manuevers, ultimately resulting in more excitement and audience appeal. Nobody doubts the ASP’s success in securing some of the world’s best venues for the World Championship Tour. And you definitely won’t hear any competitors complaining about man-on- mans at locations like Tahiti, Tavarua, and J-Bay.

There are, however, some major challenges facing the ASP, coming both from the water and the beach. One centers on the competition format and judging criteria, which has been labeled by several top pros as conservative and detrimental to progressive, radical manuevers. In the last issue of TWS, we heard from Shane Beschen, Rob Machado, Andy Irons, and others on the ASP Tour’s “ten flicks to the beach” criteria.

Other challenges involve pro surfing’s exposure, its entertainment value, and its position as a “spectator sport.” Ask the typical surfer in America who the top ten finishers on the ASP World Tour were last year, and you’re liable to get answers like, “Uh, well Occy won it, right? And I think Sunny was in there … did Slater surf enough to finish top ten?”

Top finishers like Taj Burrow (number two, Australia), Victor Ribas (number three, Brazil), Michael Lowe (number seven, Australia), and Nathan Webster (number ten, Australia) are hardly household names in America, at least not yet. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; it reflects pro surfing’s international scope and a changing of the guard from the American domination of the ’90s to the young lions of the new millennium.

Yet to the core surfing consumer in Southern California and across the U.S., the connection to the World Championship Tour amounts to a small monthly update in the surf mags and Web sites, a few TV shows scattered at obscure hours over the sports channels, some word of mouth, and of course the events themselves, which in America (not counting Hawai‘i) amounts to exactly one WCT contest, the U.S. Open in Huntington Beach (Trestles, also in Orange County, California, is a scheduled addition for 2000).

About the excitement factor–at last year’s U.S. Open, more eyes were turned toward the skate and BMX demos on the beachside vert ramp, and you can’t blame them. While most surfing contests feature at least some flashes of brilliance, it’s not exactly nonstop action. Crappy waves and long lulls become tedious for both competitors and spectators, especially when you factor in the typical contest marathon that trudges along from early mornings to late afternoons for days on end. Not even soccer moms have that much patience.

And now the ASP must deal with the fact that surfers don’t need a constant diet of pro surfing contests and shows to keep stoked. We’ve got more than enough killer stories, photos, and videos of hot surfers traveling to the outskirts of society with nary a judge or jersey in sight.

So where does that leave professional surfing contests, and what’s being done to improve the excitement factor? Here’s a few innovations on tap for 2000, according to ASP Executive Director Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew:

• A round-robin format will be introduced this year, possibly at Bells Beach, Australia and Huntington Beach, California. It would involve all 48 competitors surfing three times, with a leader board reflecting their progress. The top sixteen after three rounds would make the cut, followed by a normal man-on-man elimination to a final. “This is the first step in creating a format menu that can be tailored to specific locations and events,” says Rabbit.

• A Personal Watercraft Assist Program will also be introduced. Surfers generally have had a hate-hate relationshipith jet skis (known as personal watercraft or PWCs) since they first started plying the waters, spewing fumes, and lacerating incoming waves. So it’s ironic in 2000 that PWCs will be used to improve pro surfing’s excitement factor by ferrying contestants back outside after kicking out at places like Kirra and Jeffrey’s Bay, where strong currents and long paddles are the norm.

In theory, such a ferrying system using PWC drivers, or caddies to retrieve contestants back to the takeoff zone would dramatically increase the number of waves ridden during a heat and reduce the down time used for paddling. According to Rabbit, a skeptical Luke Egan tested the technique last November and was impressed with the results. “Basically it gives the opportunity to maximize those classic days,” says Rabbit. “We will see much, much more surfing, plus a more free-form approach encouraging committed, high-risk, progressive surfing. Instead of having ten-percent action in a heat, we should see 70 to 80 percent more activity.”

Ken Bradshaw, co-director of the World Tow Surfing Association (WTSA), is working on the acceptance of PWCs in rescue operations, tow surfing, and the ASP Personal Watercraft Assist Program. “It’s just a natural progression,” says Bradshaw. “Man-on- man competition is exciting to watch, and all this does is eliminate all the dead time. Imagine if pro tennis players had to pick up their own tennis balls after a point, or a snowboarder had to walk back up the mountain after a ride. They’d be fit mothers, but it’s not entertaining to watch. It’s not about who paddles the best, it’s about who surfs the best. It’s incredible that the new millennium should start out with such an improvement in pro surfing. I feel it’s the biggest development in pro surfing since man-on-man.”

• The ASP promises more action and more public/media exposure. Pro surfing still creates heroes and crowns champions, but it’s their off-the-field exploits we end up seeing more of in print and on videos (it’s no wonder you don’t see much contest stuff from Taylor Steele). How can the ASP get back to reaching the global lounge?

“What we need is action,” President Bartholomew says. “Only about ten percent of the time in any heat is action-packed. We need to flip-flop that to provide 90-percent action and keep the attention of the grommet in the grandstand and the folks back home in TV land. It was identified several years ago that many venues suited to spectators and grandstands were low in surf quality. Interest in broadcasting event after event in pathetic surf reached the point of a joke.”

The ASP’s goal of expanding pro surfing’s presence in America’s huge media machine has been on hold due to a lack of funds, Rabbit explained, although television coverage in other countries such as Brazil, where surfing is nearly as popular as soccer and motor sports, is “phenomenal.”

Meanwhile, the natives are getting restless, at least in California. From the ashes of the old Bud Surf Tour, which became the blueprint for ASP’s World Qualifying Series, comes the Professional Surfing Tour of America (PSTA), a budding alternative circuit for burgeoning pros like Cody Steele, Jason Bennett, Troy Tecklenburg, and some ASP Tour vets like Mike Parsons and Dino Andino, who may not have the vast amount of time, energy, and resources to hop a jet to Japan or Brazil for WQS events. In 1999, the PSTA held six events ranging from tiny Seaside Reef to maxed out Morro Bay, and the general consensus was positive, especially regarding its double-elimination format, which gives third- and fourth-place finishers a second chance before the long drive home. Other incentives include cash prizes for all heat winners throughout the contest, and media exposure via a television and Internet broadcast package. “We are filling a niche that was not being addressed,” says PSTA’s Steve Gibby. “We are neither allies or adversaries of the ASP. They do their thing and we do ours.”

For 2000, the ASP tour expands to eight events, including two on the East Coast and the finale in Hawai‘i. Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge to the ASP status quo is Derek Hynd’s efforts to create an alternative international pro surfing tour. An ex-pro and longtime chronicler of ASP events, Hynd has continued to keep specific details of the so-called “IS Tour” under wraps, but did speak with TransWorld SURF in early February.

“Upon a return to covering the ASP Tour in 1998,” Hynd recalls, “the despondency of three pros in particular was malignant, it grew with every progressive turn that just did not get justice. The whole structure was problematic. Several pros wanted fresh air. Nothing changed, it couldn’t. Classic versus progressive surfing equal different worlds. In doing my film Pro Land, the on-camera comments, most edited out, could not be accomodated by the ASP. No disrespect intended, but I needed to start a new system to let progressive surfing breathe.”

Hynd also pointed out that “pro surfing” has expanded far beyond the realm of contests, evidenced by the steady stream of mag pictorials, stories, and videos of hot surfers getting paid to surf hot waves sans contest jerseys. “No longer are the best surfers all on tour,” Hynd says. “Surfers in general know it, especially the younger ones. Pro surfing’s appeal is stronger than ever, but not in the contest arena. As many red-hot progressive pros are off the ASP WCT as are on it. Almost every progressive pro will not or cannot show full potential on tour due to a classically ingrained mechanical surfing structure.”

In theory, pro surfing and the ASP World Tour in particular is good for the sport. Its symbiotic relationship with the surfing industry has provided a good living for both competitors and many thousands of others who’ve based their careers on the surfing lifestyle. It provides a goal for groms who dream of becoming world champ. Now it seems time for the ASP to employ some new moves to ensure that future world champions are indeed the hottest and most progressive surfers on the planet, and give the rest of us on the beach something to cheer about besides skaters busting moves on vert ramps.

For 2000, the ASP tour expands to eight events, including two on the East Coast and the finale in Hawai‘i. Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge to the ASP status quo is Derek Hynd’s efforts to create an alternative international pro surfing tour. An ex-pro and longtime chronicler of ASP events, Hynd has continued to keep specific details of the so-called “IS Tour” under wraps, but did speak with TransWorld SURF in early February.

“Upon a return to covering the ASP Tour in 1998,” Hynd recalls, “the despondency of three pros in particular was malignant, it grew with every progressive turn that just did not get justice. The whole structure was problematic. Several pros wanted fresh air. Nothing changed, it couldn’t. Classic versus progressive surfing equal different worlds. In doing my film Pro Land, the on-camera comments, most edited out, could not be accomodated by the ASP. No disrespect intended, but I needed to start a new system to let progressive surfing breathe.”

Hynd also pointed out that “pro surfing” has expanded far beyond the realm of contests, evidenced by the steady stream of mag pictorials, stories, and videos of hot surfers getting paid to surf hot waves sans contest jerseys. “No longer are the best surfers all on tour,” Hynd says. “Surfers in general know it, especially the younger ones. Pro surfing’s appeal is stronger than ever, but not in the contest arena. As many red-hot progressive pros are off the ASP WCT as are on it. Almost every progressive pro will not or cannot show full potential on tour due to a classically ingrained mechanical surfing structure.”

In theory, pro surfing and the ASP World Tour in particular is good for the sport. Its symbiotic relationship with the surfing industry has provided a good living for both competitors and many thousands of others who’ve based their careers on the surfing lifestyle. It provides a goal for groms who dream of becoming world champ. Now it seems time for the ASP to employ some new moves to ensure that future world champions are indeed the hottest and most progressive surfers on the planet, and give the rest of us on the beach something to cheer about besides skaters busting moves on vert ramps.