American WCT Surfers Defy The ASP

BREAKING NEWS: As of 4:30 p.m. PDT on August 8, TransWorld SURF Business received word that a breakthrough had been reached between the ASP, ESPN, and Boost Mobile which will allow America’s WCT surfers to compete in the X-Games without penalty.

A very relieved Robert Gerard reports, “They got it over the line. I think ESPN is cutting a check right now. All the efforts of the surf industry and the surfers apparently have paid off.” Stay tuned for more coverage as it occurs on Transworldsurf.com.
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It’s August 6, 2003 and Brad Gerlach has had a rough day. By the time he makes contact it is 6:30 PM on a day that began for him fourteen hours earlier. Brad is laying down, with his eyes closed, audibly fading. “I just want to go into a deep sleep,” he apologizes. “I feel like I’ve been in a war for the last six days, and I’ve got big stuff for the rest of the week. All the time, everyday.”

He has every right to be wrecked. Earlier in the week, ESPN was notified that it had failed to secure ASP sanctioning for surfing in the X-Games — an event scheduled for August 9.

It was an emotional day that put an unsuccessful end to months of negotiations, planning, and pleas to the ASP, surfers, and even SIMA. It was also a day that may go down in history as the day surfers took their professional futures into their own hands, when the nine WCT surfers invited to compete in the X-Games decided, as a group, that regardless of what the ASP had to say they were going to surf in the X-Games.

[IMAGE 1]The decision was made during an X-Games practice game held in Oceanside, California. At the event, in which Brad is happy to say the West was victorious in a shortened three-quarter game, Brad Gerlach and X-Games General Manager Chris Steipock spoke to the surfers.

Sitting there the sand in a semi circle was a collection of the best surfers in America — if not the world. Oceanside’s North Jetty locals stopped and stared at the galaxy of stars, but this wasn’t autograph time. One look and you could see that this was serious business.

“I wanted them to look me in the eye and to hear from me and from ESPN’s mouth what was going on right now and what the future of the sport of surfing with ESPN would be,” Gerlach says. “That way they know from more than one source.”

Gerlach spoke for about ten minutes, then Stiepock joined in. The surfers asked questions, but it was after Kelly Slater stood up from his blue canvas beach chair, towel wrapped over his head, and spoke to group, that discussions among the surfers began in earnest.

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A few minutes later the representatives from ESPN and Gerlach walked away in opposite directions down the beach, giving the surfers some room to make what had to be a tough decision — a decision that could end their WCT careers and reshape the ASP Top 44.

Sensitive to questions of motive, Gerlach is quick to point out that he simply laid out the facts. “I didn’t do any lobbying,” he explains. “I told them the facts, what our original proposal was to the ASP, I walked them through the chain of events that led up to today, and then I walked away and left it up to them to make an objective decision.”

Twenty-four hours later and 7,210 miles away in Coolangata, Australia ASP CEO Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew is also facing down another tough day. Yesterday he received the e-mail signed by the nine X-Games WCT surfers that came from that meeting in Oceanside. It read:

“The following list of surfers will be competing the 2003 X-Games: Kelly Slater, Taj Burrow, Cory Lopez, Shea Lopez, Damien Hobgood, Taylor Knox, Kalani Robb, Pat O’Connell, Shane Dorian.

“We are in unanimous agreement that we are participating in the X-Games to better the sport of surfing,” the letter continues. “We are also in agreement to stay fully committed to the ASP. This we feel will bring back more awareness to the sport of sfing, which in return will open many doors to corporate sponsorship, for events and athletes.

“We sincerely hope you understand the reason we chose do this better the ASP, and sport of surfing,” the letter concluded.

Now, a sanctioning deal gone awry has led to the very real prospect that Rabbit will have to boot some of the best and brightest stars off the WCT tour, including Slater (currently ranked second on the WCT), Burrow (seventh), Cory Lopez (eighth), Damien Hobgood (tenth), Shea Lopez (fifteenth), Taylor Knox (sixteenth), Robb (seventeenth), O’Connell (nineteenth) Dorian (42nd), and Curran (43rd).

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ASP rule 6(a)xiv is clear: any surfer participating in a nonsanctioned event will lose their seeding and ratings points for the next year and not be eligible to compete in the current year, at any ASP World Tour Event.

“I know Brad Gerlach is a great guy,” says Rabbit, his voice weary. “He’s their great surfer friend. But it seems like they all went down there and there was a practice session and on the spur of the moment they all said, ‘No, screw it. We’re with you Brad. No matter what, we’re with you.’ These are really intelligent guys. They’ve been around a long time. A lot of them have made a lot of money. No doubt a few of them are multimillionaires because of the ASP World Tour. You’d think that they’d say, ‘Well, it’s been good for me, what about for the next generation? We’ve got to work leaving a good legacy.'”

“The legacy is to have a very strong ASP,” he continues. “There’s no use having five ASPs. Look at what happened to snowboarding. I’m just saying, when these splinter groups happen in other sports five years down the track there’s no more credible world champion! People don’t realize that if you drop these things like a chandelier you can never put them together again. That’s the big picture. So, you know, we’ve just got to stick to our guns.”

“It’s basically come down to it’s their friend. It’s Brad Gerlach. They want to support their friend. They want to surf in this thing,” continues Rabbit. “I can understand their emotions, but I think they’re thinking with their emotions. They want to surf in this thing, but it’s not a sanctioned event.”

Sanctioning Deadline Missed

It is by putting the surfers in this situation that the ASP is getting the most heat. After all, on Friday June 13, 2003 the ASP agreed to grant specialty event sanctioning for the X Games, and waive the minimum prize money requirement all for the low, low price of $35,000.

Then things changed. There was a deadline involved. The sanctioning fee had to be received by the ASP by July 31 at 5:00 PM Australia time. “As I understand the issue, ASP is taking the position that ESPN did not pay their sanctioning fee on time,” says Robert Gerard, a partner at the law firm of Friedman Peterson Stroffe & Gerard. Gerard is also a nonpaid advisory ASP board member, and in the unenviable position of being the ASP Rules & Discipline Judge.

Gerard has spent the last week feverishly working behind the scenes to bring all involved parties together for a resolution to the crisis.

“The bummer is, when ESPN missed the deadline, it brought a lot of unwanted attention to the issue and everyone — including Boost — started weighing in.” In fairness, Gerard points out that apparently ASP management did not send out the contract until shortly before the deadline.

X-Games’ Stiepock agrees: “I guess you could say we missed the deadline. I got an e-mail with the contract on the 27 of July and in that contract was the deadline of July 31. It doesn’t really matter. That’s not really what the issue is all about.”

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What Stiepock and others say is really happening here is that one of the ASP’s larger sponsors is not happy about another event getting to showcase the best surfers in the world for less money and more TV. The Australian mobile phone giant Boost Mobile is the title sponsor of the Quiksilver Pro at Trestles, September 5-14, and its competitor Verizon is a sponsor of the X Games set for August 9.

Rumors of Boost filing a lawsuit against the ASP have been circulated, but Gerard says no such lawsuit has been filed: “Although I’m not the ASP legal counsel, and my role is limited to service as an advisory board member and ASP Rules & Discipline judge, I am completely unaware of any viable cause of action that Boost could have brought against either the ASP or ESPN.”

“While I have not had any direct communication with Mr. Adderton {Boost Mobile CEO}, and he has not informed me of any threatened litigation against the ASP, I have certainly heard through the grapevine that he has made those threats.”

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Stiepock has no ill-will toward Adderton or Boost Mobile. “Peter Adderton has a contractual right to his stance,” he says. “And right now he is placing his shareholders above the surfers. Mr. Adderton is protecting his investment. I think our event could really help his event, but he doesn’t see it that way.”

Rabbit deflects questions about Boost, but downplays the talk about the X-Games affecting Boost’s sponsorship of the Trestles event: “{If the nine WCT surfers compete in the X-Games} we can’t say what the endplay is. I would say that the event sponsors will be looking closely to see what action ASP takes. I’m sure if we just turned a blind eye to it, that they wouldn’t be pleased.”

Regardless of the how’s and why’s of ESPN missing the deadline, Rabbit admits the situation has put the ASP in the crosshairs. He’s asked the ASP board for guidance, but the ultimate decision seems clear. “I couldn’t see the board just going, ‘Look, we’ll rescind that rule.’ Then we wouldn’t have a rule anymore,” says Rabbit. “It is black and white. Guys are kind of deciding their careers here.”

“In the end ASP is going to come out the villain,”continues Rabbit. “We’re going to be completely vilified over this. But at the end of it, we just can’t blow it all out the door — all the years of work out the door — just because a bunch on prominent surfers want to compete for their mate in a nonsanctioned event. I think they’re not just thinking it through. Some guys might be saying, ‘Look, it’s the last year of my career. I’m there anyway, so I’m going to do this.’ But those guys who are going for world titles and those who have years and years and years of WCT involvement, and years of good salaries coming from WCT contracts, they’ve really got to consider what they’re doing here.”

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According to Rob Machado, the surfers have thought it through. Since he fell off the WCT last year, Machado will face no penalty for surfing in the X-Games, but he was in on the discussion in Oceanside when the ‘CT surfers reached their decision: “What’s important to know is that we have the full support of all the major sponsors, starting with SIMA, Quiksilver, and Billabong USA — they’re all backing us. {Editor’s Note: Transworld SURF Business has been unable to confirm this assertion} That was the first step. Guys like Kalani are putting their necks out.”

“The guys from ESPN were down on the beach and they were blown away that we all stood together and said ‘This is good for surfing,'” he continues. “We even asked them straight to their face if this is a one-off deal — are you committed to surfing for years to come? They were pretty pumped.”

“If the ASP sticks to what they say, there will not be one single American on tour,” says Machado. “Andy {Irons} was going to the X-Games except he had to be at a wedding. I don’t know who would want to go win a world title without all the guys being on tour. What’s the point if no one else is there? You can’t travel with your friends. The best surfers aren’t out there. I don’t see Andy continuing on when all his friends are doing something else.”

“The ASP will lose America,” Mach is the title sponsor of the Quiksilver Pro at Trestles, September 5-14, and its competitor Verizon is a sponsor of the X Games set for August 9.

Rumors of Boost filing a lawsuit against the ASP have been circulated, but Gerard says no such lawsuit has been filed: “Although I’m not the ASP legal counsel, and my role is limited to service as an advisory board member and ASP Rules & Discipline judge, I am completely unaware of any viable cause of action that Boost could have brought against either the ASP or ESPN.”

“While I have not had any direct communication with Mr. Adderton {Boost Mobile CEO}, and he has not informed me of any threatened litigation against the ASP, I have certainly heard through the grapevine that he has made those threats.”

[IMAGE 6]

Stiepock has no ill-will toward Adderton or Boost Mobile. “Peter Adderton has a contractual right to his stance,” he says. “And right now he is placing his shareholders above the surfers. Mr. Adderton is protecting his investment. I think our event could really help his event, but he doesn’t see it that way.”

Rabbit deflects questions about Boost, but downplays the talk about the X-Games affecting Boost’s sponsorship of the Trestles event: “{If the nine WCT surfers compete in the X-Games} we can’t say what the endplay is. I would say that the event sponsors will be looking closely to see what action ASP takes. I’m sure if we just turned a blind eye to it, that they wouldn’t be pleased.”

Regardless of the how’s and why’s of ESPN missing the deadline, Rabbit admits the situation has put the ASP in the crosshairs. He’s asked the ASP board for guidance, but the ultimate decision seems clear. “I couldn’t see the board just going, ‘Look, we’ll rescind that rule.’ Then we wouldn’t have a rule anymore,” says Rabbit. “It is black and white. Guys are kind of deciding their careers here.”

“In the end ASP is going to come out the villain,”continues Rabbit. “We’re going to be completely vilified over this. But at the end of it, we just can’t blow it all out the door — all the years of work out the door — just because a bunch on prominent surfers want to compete for their mate in a nonsanctioned event. I think they’re not just thinking it through. Some guys might be saying, ‘Look, it’s the last year of my career. I’m there anyway, so I’m going to do this.’ But those guys who are going for world titles and those who have years and years and years of WCT involvement, and years of good salaries coming from WCT contracts, they’ve really got to consider what they’re doing here.”

[IMAGE 7]

According to Rob Machado, the surfers have thought it through. Since he fell off the WCT last year, Machado will face no penalty for surfing in the X-Games, but he was in on the discussion in Oceanside when the ‘CT surfers reached their decision: “What’s important to know is that we have the full support of all the major sponsors, starting with SIMA, Quiksilver, and Billabong USA — they’re all backing us. {Editor’s Note: Transworld SURF Business has been unable to confirm this assertion} That was the first step. Guys like Kalani are putting their necks out.”

“The guys from ESPN were down on the beach and they were blown away that we all stood together and said ‘This is good for surfing,'” he continues. “We even asked them straight to their face if this is a one-off deal — are you committed to surfing for years to come? They were pretty pumped.”

“If the ASP sticks to what they say, there will not be one single American on tour,” says Machado. “Andy {Irons} was going to the X-Games except he had to be at a wedding. I don’t know who would want to go win a world title without all the guys being on tour. What’s the point if no one else is there? You can’t travel with your friends. The best surfers aren’t out there. I don’t see Andy continuing on when all his friends are doing something else.”

“The ASP will lose America,” Machado says, “and I don’t think the ASP will survive without them.”

— By Lee Crane and Sean O’Brien. Additional reporting by Gary TaylorMachado says, “and I don’t think the ASP will survive without them.”

— By Lee Crane and Sean O’Brien. Additional reporting by Gary Taylor