You remember the commercials. A hapless schmoe walking down the street eating a chocolate bar bumps into another who’s licking spoonfuls from a jar of peanut butter. “Hey, you got peanut butter on my chocolate!” says the former. “You got chocolate on my peanut butter!” says the latter. And, the story line goes, that’s how they discover what a great match peanut butter and chocolate make.
At least, that’s how it works in the commercials. In the surf industry, however, such accidental harmony is rare.
Consider the news that the Professional Surfing Tour Of American (PSTA) and the Foster’s Surfing Tour have parted ways. From the outside looking in, the development is difficult to understand.
On the right, we have a big non-endemic company (Foster’s) looking for surfing events to sponsor. On the left, we have a surf tour (PSTA) looking for sponsors willing to support the tour.
It certainly seemed to be a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment in the making. That’s not how it turned out. What we got instead is an unfortunate mess that’s left the PSTA without ASP sanctioning and the Foster’s tour without five of its scheduled events.
So what happened? It’s a bit confusing, but the split centers around the new multi-year commitment the beer brand Foster’s has made to professional surfing in North America. Surfing America, the SIMA-backed organization that owns the ASP North America franchise, quickly put together the deal with Foster’s back around the ASR trade show in February. As the umbrella sponsor of ASP North America, Foster’s receives 25 percent of the signage at every North American event that’s ASP sanctioned.
It’s a huge and extremely positive development for pro surfing in America, and it’s understandable why many are calling it the most important sponsorship deal American pro surfing has received since Budweiser’s involvement with the PSAA in the late 80s.
However, PSTA Founder Jeff Grell sees it differently. He says the deal, which he had no role in putting together, severely dilutes both the PSTA brand and its value to its sponsors, including Subaru, Paul Mitchell, and Balance Bar.
“There are no heroes or villains here,” says Grell. “It’s just business. Title sponsorship of the PSTA tour costs 300,000 dollars, but the deal Surfing America put together with Foster’s only gives me 5,000 dollars per event, or 25,000 dollars all year. In return, Foster’s gets 25 percent of the signs at all PSTA events. Honestly, that’s just not enough money for us to give up our name.”
Body Glove VP of Marketing Scott Daley, who’s also a driving force behind Surfing America, says, “I think Jeff walked because he is proud of his tour and has placed a value on the PSTA name, and to have Foster’s Surf Tour come in and be bigger than that name is not a valid option for him. What he’s doing is producing five WQS one stars, which would give him 25,000 dollars from Foster’s and to him that doesn’t warrant having the PSTA being eliminated as the premiere surf tour in North America.”
According to Grell: “I don’t like the idea of pushing beer too much. It would make it difficult to launch the junior’s division I’m planning. Plus the Foster’s Tour doesn’t want a longboarding division, and I have some good, passionate longboard competitors on my tour. It boils down to the fact that I need to be able to direct and manage the program I’m representing.”
Grell says he’s spent the last four years building the PSTA brand. “I feel like I’m a place holder,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Jeff, you’ve done a good job, but now we’ve got a good sponsor and we’ll take it from here.'”
“I feel like an outsider,” he continues. “I feel like people are saying, ‘Here’s the deal Jeff, take it and don’t ask questions. We know what’s good for you. If you don’t do this, we’re all fucked.’ I’m not trying to be a spoiler for anyone, but I didn’t go out and sell events I didn’t own.”
“I understand his opinion,” says Daley, “but I don’t necessarily agree with it. We made arrangements to have Body Glove be the title sponsor of the PSTA Morro Bay event, and Foster’s involvement was a vital component. As a marketer I need to make one dollar spend like ten. I get it. We need to build on what Foster’s is offering us.
“The whole concept of coming to a tour and offering it money is unprecedented,” Daley continues. “In one sense, I want Jeff to be successful, but the whole concept of Surfing America is to avoid situations like these. Our goal is to make sense of the yearly madness in this surf sport, and to back up this goal, we’re offering the events cash.”
Grell says that Surfing America didn’t sell Foster’s on the PSTA tour, but on the Foster’s Tour. Because of that, he says, Surfing America wants the PSTA to go away. “Look at the event at Trestles,” says Grell. “There was no PSTA signage, competitors weren’t wearing PSTA jersies — my understanding is that’s how they wanted it.”
Bill Sharp, the tour ambassador for the Foster’s Pro Surfing Tour, says, “There’s a problem with the PSTA being an entity at the same time as the Foster’s Tour. It’s a bit redundant. Having both the PSTA and the Foster’s Tour is too confusing for the public.”
However Surfing Publisher Peter “P.T.” Townend, founder of Surfing America and a driving force behind the Foster’s deal, says that while the idea of PSTA going away was discussed with Grell, “We never demanded it.”
This point is driven home by Daley: “We certainly didn’t need the PSTA to go away. The PSTA could have very easily become a Grand Prix part of the Foster’s Tour like the Vans Triple Crown Of Surfing. Or it could have been the PSTA Subaru Grand Prix where Subaru would give away a car to the for the leader of that portion of the tour. All of those things make sense not only for Foster’s but also for the PSTA’s existing sponsors.”
“I wish I could get to Jeff and have him be a part of the Foster’s Tour and show him the value of Foster’s involvement,” says Daley, “but so far I’ve been unable to do that.”
Sharp says tough decisions are sometime necessary to propel the whole sport forward. “If we’re going to have solidarity in pro surfing, we’re going to have to force issues to see if people are really on board or not,” he says. “We can’t just toss a problem back and forth forever and never reach a conclusion.”
“We made Grell an offer that he apparently thought was too low,” continues Sharp. “His counteroffer, however, exceeded the value of Foster’s entire involvement. If that’s his position, there’s nothing left to negotiate.”
And to the charge that Surfing America was selling Foster’s on a tour it didn’t own, P.T. responds: “Surfing America has the franchise to ASP North America. That gives us the right to take on an umbrella sponsor for all ASP-sanctioned contest without having to consult each individual event owner. Any contest that wants WQS sanctioning has to fit in that formula. It’s not determined by us, it’s determined by ASP International. Look, it’s very simple. There’s an ASP rule book and we have to follow it to operate the franchise.”
“You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists!” laughs P.T.
So is the PSTA now a competitor of the Foster’s Pro Surfing Tour?
“The PSTA is a competitor to the Foster’s Tour now insofar as both tours may be holding their hand out for financial support,” says Sharp. “Someone will have to make a decision about which event to support. Plus both tours will be trying to get the message to the media because there are only so many column inches available for contest coverage.”
“Sure, the whole situation is a concern,” he continues, “but I think it will be a minor speed bump on the path to achieving the long-term goal of having someone go into a bar and ask for a cold Foster’s. The deal was done so quickly that there were bound to be a few details that were imperfect. But we’re moving forward. There have been a few wobbles, but nothing the average guy would either
know about or care about.”
And the split doesn’t have to be permanent. “He could change his mind tomorrow and the light would flick back on as quickly as it flicked off, but it’s up to Jeff,” says Daley.
“We didn’t make any mistake,” says Grell. “Our side is moving forward and we’re looking forward to the Imperial Beach opener in a few weeks.”
“I’m prepared to lose athletes,” he continues. “But the Bud Tour in its heyday had nothing to do with the ASP. Prize money is the deciding factor for a lot of pro surfers. I’ll do my own program and have my own points. Plus, I have a television deal in place. I’ll create my own stars.”