Jumping The Tracks: X-Games Part Two

August 8: An Unexpected Breakthrough

Friday, August 8, dawned bright and clear in Huntington Beach, but expectation hung heavy around the pier.

The bleachers had been set up. The cable cam was ready to zip above the surf line and beam super slo-mo footage to a waiting world. A Jumbotron had even been rigged to the side of the pier. In slightly more than 24 hours, surfing would come to ESPN’s X-Games — and clearly this would be unlike any show surfing had seen before.

But the drama the cameras were preparing to capture in the water in some ways paled to the drama taking place on land. It was August 8, and in 24 hours the best surfers in America would be kicked off the ASP tour.

At least that was the way it appeared to be going. The day before, ASP CEO Rabbit Bartholomew was adamant that rule 6(a)xiv would be enforced, and that if Kelly Slater, Taj Burrow, Cory Lopez, Damien Hobgood, Shea Lopez, Taylor Knox, Kalani Robb, Pat O’Connell, Shane Dorian or Tim Curran competed in the non ASP-sanctioned X-Games, their ASP careers would be effectively over.

“It really is a watershed thing,” Rabbit said on Friday morning, Australian time. “If they surf in this, a nonsanctioned event, it means that we no longer have anything to tell all the event licensees and franchises around the world. We can’t give them any guarantees that surfers aren’t going to go into an event a week before theirs or two weeks before theirs by a company putting a couple of grand on the line. That totally diminishes the value of the ASP and completely dilutes the value of the WCT.

“I mean it’s our job in management to develop and protect the WCT,” Rabbit continued. “We’ve worked long and hard for an event on the mainland U.S.A. Eventually I’d like to see two events on the mainland U.S.A, but right now we’ve got one.”

He lets out an enormous sigh: “This is a really tough situation.”

So on Friday morning in California, the back channels were going ape-shit with frenzied last-minute negotiations and planning. There seemed to be a lot to sort out: conflicting opinions about the X-Games within companies (often splitting down geographic divides), fallback contingency plans if sponsorship of the Trestles event fell through, and at least one or two of the ASP WCT surfers wondering if they were making the right move. All this — and more — seemed to be on the dance card.

But all that was really static. The real conflict seemed intractable: ESPN’s X-Games didn’t seem to have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting ASP sanctioning.

Except, of course, that was exactly what ended up happening.

On Friday, August 8, professional surfing pulled back from the brink, pulled back from what most feel was the dead-end closeout of barring America’s best surfers from the ASP tour. But was it the ASP management who pulled off this neat feat? Was it the surf industry with their considerable influence and power? To be sure, both had roles to play. But apparently they weren’t the ones who decided the surfers’ — and ultimately the ASP’s — future.

In a back room of Duke’s Huntington Beach restaurant, the X-Games surfers met with representatives from Boost Mobile. It was Friday afternoon, after the practice session was over. Apparently Boost Mobile CEO Peter Adderton wanted to give his side of this story, says X-Games General Manager Chris Stiepock, who relates a secondhand account of what occurred: “He told these guys {something like}, I feel as though I’m protecting my investment. I feel like I have been wronged by the ASP. I think because I’ve protected my million-plus-dollar investment, I’m going to back the ASP’s decision to take your points away for this year’s Tour and for next year’s tour. From that point he also told them, Look, I plan on sending a lot of money into this sport of surfing, and I want you guys to tell me how to spend it.”

Adderton did not return phone calls seeking comment.

FinallyTim Curran stood up. He told Adderton that the surfers were going into the water and they were going to surf in the X-Games. Soon after, Adderton left the room — seemingly for good — leaving the surfers looking around the table wondering what was next.

“Everyone came out of the meeting saying that Timmy {Curran} was the man,” says The Game Founder Brad Gerlach, who wasn’t in the meeting but was in Duke’s waiting for word. “He stood up and found places where Peter Adderton was contradicting himself and called it on him. I guess he just nailed him on a bunch of different points. So he {Adderton} sort of accepted that the guys were going to surf in the event and walked out. And all the surfers were like, ‘Fuck! Goddamn it, we wanted to resolve this thing, but fuck it! We’re sticking together.”

[IMAGE 1]Stiepock picks up the account: “From what I’m told, and I have to emphasize that this is only what I was told, Adderton left the room, said, ‘Fine’ and then three minutes later came back in and said {something like}, Okay guys, you win. I’ll tell the ASP to give you points for this year and next year, but I just want to ask you to put Boost Mobile stickers on your boards.”

According to Gerlach no one was stoked on this request: “They {the surfers} knew that he had leveraged them right at that point, but they were mature enough to go, ‘Well, yeah, I guess we’ll do it.'”

The logjam had finally cleared. Stiepock says, “So they all agreed to do that {put the stickers on their boards}, and they got out of the meeting. Within minutes I got a call from Peter Whitaker of the ASP saying, ‘Look, I hear that things are looking good to get those guys in the water. We still need to get a deal to sanction the event.'”

[IMAGE 2]

It had been a big day for surfing and the X-Games, but the next day would be the real test. Could they get a sanctioning deal worked out in time for the first quarter? And what would happen if everyone had gone through this amazing hassle and the ocean went flat?

August 9: On With The Show

The International House Of Pancakes on Main Street in Huntington Beach opens at 6:00 a.m., and shortly thereafter representatives from ESPN met with Robert Gerard, a partner at the law firm of Friedman Peterson Stroffe & Gerard, an unpaid ASP advisory board member, and the ASP Rules & Discipline Judge.

Gerard had been burning the midnight oil all week, working without pay to find a compromise to the crisis. So perhaps it was appropriate that he was involved with wrapping up the sanctioning deal.

“I am delighted to report that at 6:30 on Saturday morning — only a few hours before the X-Games event was set to commence — I had a meeting with the top ESPN executives in Huntington Beach,” says Gerard. “Everyone came to the table with an open mind and an agreement was reached, documented, and signed off prior to the event beginning. In one of my happiest professional moments I was able to walk across the street to the competition area on the south side of the pier, gather the surfers together in a huddle, and tell all of them that this was an official ASP-sanctioned event.

“I want to commend ESPN and its X-Games executives, the surfers, Boost Mobile’s executives, and ASP management for all permitting me the opportunity to find common ground amongst the parties and bring this matter to a successful resolution,” he continues. “I am convinced that over the long haul this event going forward was in the best interest of surfing and the surfers on the tour. Hopefully all involved parties can find a way to work in a cooperative fashion in the future.”

And so at 10:00 a.m. in Huntington Beach, surfing finally came to the X-Games. In tiny-yet-rideable one- to three-foot surf, the team from the East Coast triumphed over the West Coast in front of more than 25,000 people. The Goodyear blimp circled overhead. The cable cam worked like a charm. The crowd roared. It was enough to send chills down the backs of true surf fans. Most importantly, the surfers absolutely ripped.

[IMAGE 3]

“{Surfline President} Sean Collins says August 9 was the flattest day of the summer,” says Gerlach. “I love the fact that it was like that, because I now don’t have to tell people that it {The Game} still works when the waves are shitty. It’s still exciting to watch Kelly Slater or Taj Burrow ride a one-foot wave.”

And how. ESPN had initially given the event a 30-minute television slot. But after The Game actually occurred, they bumped it up to a full 50 minutes. “They {ESPN} loved it that much,” says Gerlach.

“With the nature of the X-Games format,” says Stiepock, “we just can’t survive any waiting period. Gerlach always said to me that we wouldn’t need a waiting period if we had these WCT athletes involved — that they would be able to give a good show regardless of the conditions. Gerr was right. We saw this week that the WCT guys can surf slop and still make it look good — and give a good show.

[IMAGE 4]

“I think no one can dispute that the surfers, by virtue of what they’re able to do in the water, have the ultimate leverage,” Stiepock continues. “I think this should result in the ASP listening to the surfers more.”

Ten Days That Shook The ASP: The Fallout

So The Game in the X-Games turned out to be the success many thought it would be, the bleachers have been pulled down, and attention moved elsewhere. Some seem eager to move on.

What’s amazing to others, however, is that the ASP train jumped so far off the track that a sponsor of an event that wasn’t even part of the X-Games ultimately decided whether the X-Games received ASP sanctioning and the fates of the World Tour’s brightest stars. How did professional surfing find itself in such a jam?

That was a question repeatedly asked, and never entirely answered, when gathering information for this report. Perhaps the best analogy heard was that of a school-yard scrap, where a 98-pound weakling (the ASP) may know he’s in the right but just doesn’t have the sack to tell the bully to back off.

Apparently the threat of losing the sponsorship of the only WCT on the mainland U.S.A., coupled with the prospect of a protracted and expensive lawsuit, was enough for Adderton to drive the agenda.

Some view this whole mess as ten days that shook the competitive surfing world to its roots. They believe it would be a mistake not to use this as an opportunity to affect change. Everyone appears to have the best interests of surfing in mind, and yet opinions vary widely on what should be done — and who should make the call.

According to Gerard: “I’m hoping that there can be a thorough debriefing at the September ASP meeting in San Clemente where some clear guidelines for the future sanctioning of specialty events can be established. There are enough people involved in the ASP from both the event side and surfer side that I find it difficult to believe that a win-win solution to these issues can’t be found.”

Gerlach says this situation will most likely lead to surfers changing their contracts with the ASP: “What will be interesting to see is what the American surfers decide to do when they go to sign their ASP contract for next year. I have to believe after this deal right here they’re going to put in there that they have the right to surf in the X-Games if they want to.”

But these topics skirt the larger issue currently being discussed: Would surfing benefit if the ASP headquarters were brought back to the United States and the organization significantly restructured?

Stiepock found the eighteen-hour time difference between Connecticut-based ESPN and the ASP headquarters in Coolangata, Australia to be a huge hurdle. He’s also clearly disappointed that no one from the ASP flew over to help find a solution: “As far as I know, there were still jets landing every few hours from Australia up at LAX. If the chills down the backs of true surf fans. Most importantly, the surfers absolutely ripped.

[IMAGE 3]

“{Surfline President} Sean Collins says August 9 was the flattest day of the summer,” says Gerlach. “I love the fact that it was like that, because I now don’t have to tell people that it {The Game} still works when the waves are shitty. It’s still exciting to watch Kelly Slater or Taj Burrow ride a one-foot wave.”

And how. ESPN had initially given the event a 30-minute television slot. But after The Game actually occurred, they bumped it up to a full 50 minutes. “They {ESPN} loved it that much,” says Gerlach.

“With the nature of the X-Games format,” says Stiepock, “we just can’t survive any waiting period. Gerlach always said to me that we wouldn’t need a waiting period if we had these WCT athletes involved — that they would be able to give a good show regardless of the conditions. Gerr was right. We saw this week that the WCT guys can surf slop and still make it look good — and give a good show.

[IMAGE 4]

“I think no one can dispute that the surfers, by virtue of what they’re able to do in the water, have the ultimate leverage,” Stiepock continues. “I think this should result in the ASP listening to the surfers more.”

Ten Days That Shook The ASP: The Fallout

So The Game in the X-Games turned out to be the success many thought it would be, the bleachers have been pulled down, and attention moved elsewhere. Some seem eager to move on.

What’s amazing to others, however, is that the ASP train jumped so far off the track that a sponsor of an event that wasn’t even part of the X-Games ultimately decided whether the X-Games received ASP sanctioning and the fates of the World Tour’s brightest stars. How did professional surfing find itself in such a jam?

That was a question repeatedly asked, and never entirely answered, when gathering information for this report. Perhaps the best analogy heard was that of a school-yard scrap, where a 98-pound weakling (the ASP) may know he’s in the right but just doesn’t have the sack to tell the bully to back off.

Apparently the threat of losing the sponsorship of the only WCT on the mainland U.S.A., coupled with the prospect of a protracted and expensive lawsuit, was enough for Adderton to drive the agenda.

Some view this whole mess as ten days that shook the competitive surfing world to its roots. They believe it would be a mistake not to use this as an opportunity to affect change. Everyone appears to have the best interests of surfing in mind, and yet opinions vary widely on what should be done — and who should make the call.

According to Gerard: “I’m hoping that there can be a thorough debriefing at the September ASP meeting in San Clemente where some clear guidelines for the future sanctioning of specialty events can be established. There are enough people involved in the ASP from both the event side and surfer side that I find it difficult to believe that a win-win solution to these issues can’t be found.”

Gerlach says this situation will most likely lead to surfers changing their contracts with the ASP: “What will be interesting to see is what the American surfers decide to do when they go to sign their ASP contract for next year. I have to believe after this deal right here they’re going to put in there that they have the right to surf in the X-Games if they want to.”

But these topics skirt the larger issue currently being discussed: Would surfing benefit if the ASP headquarters were brought back to the United States and the organization significantly restructured?

Stiepock found the eighteen-hour time difference between Connecticut-based ESPN and the ASP headquarters in Coolangata, Australia to be a huge hurdle. He’s also clearly disappointed that no one from the ASP flew over to help find a solution: “As far as I know, there were still jets landing every few hours from Australia up at LAX. If the roles were reversed, I certainly would have gotten on a plane. I think it boils down to ASP Australia having a lack of understanding and knowledge about what the X-Games are all about.”

Changing the ASP to suit a single specialty event — even one like the X-Games — is ridiculous. However, some feel this isn’t an isolated event.

“Among the surfers, I didn’t get the vibe that they wanted the ASP to go away,” says Stiepock. “It’s more that they wanted to affect change within the ASP. My event just happened to bring matters to a boiling point, but I think the issues have been there for three years. It took my event for the surfers to say, “Damn it, when are we just going to say stop it!”

But who decides if and how the ASP should change? Who’s really in charge?

“Not the whole industry supports ASP. There are only a few {companies} that do,” said Rabbit when asked what he thought the surf industry’s role should be in the X-Games situation. “They’re the ones we answer to. They’re our clients. The whole rest of the industry, who just have nothing to do with ASP, really enjoy telling us how to run the business. But they actually don’t contribute in any way. Here they are telling us what we should be doing. They say that everyone should get stuffed and ‘renegade action!’ and ‘revolt!’ Some of them would actually revel in the demise of ASP just for the sake of it. Absolute bloody mindlessness.”

Rabbit is talking specifically about the situation with the X-Games, but there may be a wider point to his comments. The onus for change rests with the ASP’s main sponsors: Quiksilver, Billabong, and Rip Curl. Yet the divide between the Australian and American view of the ASP reportedly is substantial. Reaching consensus within each company — let alone among them — will be exceptionally tricky. However, knowledgeable onlookers say the status quo won’t change until this happens.

Time may also be an issue. The next ASP general meeting will occur in less than a month in San Clemente, California. For some, the X-Games situation was a symptom of a larger problem that needs to be hashed out. Others maintain smaller fixes should do the trick. The clock is ticking and the outcome is uncertain. Surfing successfully debuted at the X-Games, but it appears the larger story is still playing out.

the roles were reversed, I certainly would have gotten on a plane. I think it boils down to ASP Australia having a lack of understanding and knowledge about what the X-Games are all about.”

Changing the ASP to suit a single specialty event — even one like the X-Games — is ridiculous. However, some feel this isn’t an isolated event.

“Among the surfers, I didn’t get the vibe that they wanted the ASP to go away,” says Stiepock. “It’s more that they wanted to affect change within the ASP. My event just happened to bring matters to a boiling point, but I think the issues have been there for three years. It took my event for the surfers to say, “Damn it, when are we just going to say stop it!”

But who decides if and how the ASP should change? Who’s really in charge?

“Not the whole industry supports ASP. There are only a few {companies} that do,” said Rabbit when asked what he thought the surf industry’s role should be in the X-Games situation. “They’re the ones we answer to. They’re our clients. The whole rest of the industry, who just have nothing to do with ASP, really enjoy telling us how to run the business. But they actually don’t contribute in any way. Here they are telling us what we should be doing. They say that everyone should get stuffed and ‘renegade action!’ and ‘revolt!’ Some of them would actually revel in the demise of ASP just for the sake of it. Absolute bloody mindlessness.”

Rabbit is talking specifically about the situation with the X-Games, but there may be a wider point to his comments. The onus for change rests with the ASP’s main sponsors: Quiksilver, Billabong, and Rip Curl. Yet the divvide between the Australian and American view of the ASP reportedly is substantial. Reaching consensus within each company — let alone among them — will be exceptionally tricky. However, knowledgeable onlookers say the status quo won’t change until this happens.

Time may also be an issue. The next ASP general meeting will occur in less than a month in San Clemente, California. For some, the X-Games situation was a symptom of a larger problem that needs to be hashed out. Others maintain smaller fixes should do the trick. The clock is ticking and the outcome is uncertain. Surfing successfully debuted at the X-Games, but it appears the larger story is still playing out.