Surfing On X

On June 13, the Association of Surfing Professionals board of directors held a special meeting in Coolangatta, Australia. The meeting was held to discuss Brad Gerlach’s request for ASP tour professionals to be allowed to compete in The Game surf format as part of ESPN’s 2003 Summer X-Games in Los Angeles. Surfing in the X-Games was already a foregone conclusion. This meeting would simply decide if top pros would be allowed to compete in the event.

In late May, when ESPN announced that it would be including surfing in the X-Games, most in the surf industry had already decided that it was fundamentally a good idea. “I think the X-Games have been really positive for snowboarding and skateboarding,” says Billabong International Marketing Director Graham Stapelberg. “They have created household names for athletes, as well as being good for those particular boardsport industries. Surfing is the father of all these boardsports, and it’s been a shame that’s it’s not been part of the X-Games until now. I think it’s a great opportunity that it will be allowed to do so this year.”

[IMAGE 1]

The fact that it’s Gerlach’s The Game that will be featured on ESPN had some even more stoked. “Personally, I like anything that’s new, innovative, creative, different, or inspiring, and I think The Game could be all those things,” says Danny Kwock, Quiksilver’s vice president of core marketing. “There are so many different ways to bring entertainment value to fans of surfing and future fans of surfing. It’s great that people are being given the opportunity to try something new.”

Who can really argue? According to Neilson Media Research Ratings, last August when ESPN’s X-Games aired on ABC on a Sunday afternoon, nearly 2.4-million people tuned in to check out the action. For the week of August 12, 2002, the X-Games grabbed four of the top ten sports-show spots, losing only to the PGA Championships, an NFL preseason event, and the all-powerful WWE Smackdown.

[IMAGE 2]

One of the main questions was not if the X-Games were good or not, but why had it taken seven years for ESPN to pull surfing into their action-sports mega-mix. It wasn’t from a lack of respect on the X-Games side. “Surfing is the granddaddy boardsport. It’s where the other ones emanated from,” says X-Games General Manager Chris Stiepock.

What kept surfing out of the X-Games in the past were the logistics of location and the details of putting surfing on TV. “Our original event was in Newport, Rhode Island, and while they have surf, it’s not consistent,” Stiepock says.

Another hurdle was the dynamic between producing a TV show and the traditional two- to three-week waiting periods for a surf contest. “We’re what’s called ‘plausibly live,'” says Stiepock. “What you see either happened that day or the day before. That’s one of the reasons we chose Huntington Beach, because it’s consistent. That’s also the reason we chose The Game format. No matter the conditions, we know that it’s going to start no later than 9:00 a.m. and the whole thing can be completed in a three-and-a-half hour window.”

The concept of surfing in the X-Games seemed agreeable, but it’s obvious that for surfing to get the most out of this opportunity, it needed to have the best surfers involved. But to do that, you have to get the ASP’s support.

It’s really a matter of the business of sports. The ASP delivers the best athletes in the world, and those who pay sanctioning fees for the right to host those athletes have certain rights. “From a Billabong perspective, we run three of the biggest events on the tour,” says Stapelberg. “We don’t want to see obscure events showing up that attract all the top athletes. But there are exceptions, and I think the X-Games are one of those exceptions.”

That’s not to say that the ASP felt threatened. “The ASP isn’t paranoid about this,” says ASP Rules And Discipline Judge Robert Gerard of the law firm Friedman, Peterson, Stroff& Gerard. “If the X-Games wants the sport’s best surfers, they ought to pay for it. It’s no different than any professional sports organization. You can’t play for the Lakers one day and then go play for someone else the next night.”

[IMAGE 3]The ASP rulebook is specific when it comes to surfing outside a sanctioned event: “Any ASP member who surfs or otherwise competes in any event that is not sanctioned by, or has not been granted a waiver by ASP, or participates in any display of surfing related to such an event, shall lose their seeding and rating points for the next year, and will not be eligible to compete in the current year, at any ASP World Tour event.”

Luckily, this rule has yet to be enforced. “This rule involves one of the most serious and heavy decisions I can make, because in essence I would be ending someone’s career,” Gerard says. “If someone loses their points and can’t compete for the rest of the season. That means they have to fight through the WQS to requalify for the WCT. Only a few people have done that in the history of surfing.”

Adam Sharp, Rip Curl USA’s vice president of marketing and a former ASP judge, agrees that working outside the system is definitely not in anyone’s best interest. “The best solution at the end of the day is for the organizers of The Game to sort out an amicable deal with the ASP, paying the sanctioning fees so all the top surfers can do it. It’s not that hard.”

The ASP may not have felt threatened in early June, but there was an initial feeling around the Coolangatta offices that the X-Games may not be the best thing for surfing. “The advice from our marketing people is that it’s best for the ASP to steer away from the X-Games genre and grow professional surfing on its own laurels rather than joining a potpourri of sports all vying for a slice of the same promotional pie,” said ASP CE0 Peter Whittaker before the June 13 meeting.

Whittaker also said that current ASP guidelines would not allow The Game format to even qualify for specialty-event status.

But all that seemed to change after Brad Gerlach made a presentation to the board of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association on June 3, 2003. In what some of those present called a clear and impassioned presentation, Gerlach explained to the board why it was important for the surf industry to get behind the X-Games this summer.

“We thought if SIMA backed The Game being in the X-Games, and if millions of people watched surfing on the X-Games right next to snowboarding and skateboarding, it would be a good thing for surfing and for the people who sell surf goods,” says Gerlach.

The SIMA board was already sold on the X-Games, according to Dick Baker, president of Op and SIMA board president. “We all know Brad and we understand the concept of The Game,” says Baker. “We were just making sure that we were clear to the ASP that we were supporting The Game and we wanted to make sure that the X-Games would have access to the athletes. Without the ASP athletes, it would have diluted the whole process.”

It appears that SIMA’s support was exactly what The Game needed. In their emergency meeting, the ASP board voted to grant late-application specialty-event sanctioning to The Game and waived the minimum-prize-money requirement. In other words, the ASP granted its approval and support.

“I think the most important part of this deal is that it could be a great opportunity for the ASP and ESPN to work together in the future,” says Stapelberg. “Surfing hasn’t really broken through on TV here in the U.S. It does really well in Australia and Brazil. With the great ASP events that are going on right now, this is a great opportunity for senior management at ESPN and ASP to work together. This is a good-faith gesture on the ASP’s part and hopefully it will work out.”

ASP specialty sanctioning could cost as little as 15,000 dollars for North American pros, or not more than 35,000 dollars for any of the ASP’s top-ranked surfers. While ESPN has traditionally not paid sanctioning fees for the X-Games, in this case they’re going to work on it. “We will entertain the idea of sanctioning fees,” says Stiepock. “Payment comes in different forms. This is obviously a very new thing, so there are many things that need to be discussed.”

Gerlach says he’s already neck-deep in the details of bringing his event to life for the TV cameras. “They’re talking about really doing this thing right,” he says. “We’ve got Taylor Steele consulting on how to shoot the event. They’re even putting in a cable cam from the pier to the beach. The ASP is going to benefit heavily from this. The Boost Mobile {event at Trestles, California} is going to be two weeks after this event. This will create a bigger draw for them.”

Gerlach still has to respond to the ASP regarding the sanctioning requirements, and details and discussions remain, but he’s confident: “I think we’re going to be okay.”dollars for any of the ASP’s top-ranked surfers. While ESPN has traditionally not paid sanctioning fees for the X-Games, in this case they’re going to work on it. “We will entertain the idea of sanctioning fees,” says Stiepock. “Payment comes in different forms. This is obviously a very new thing, so there are many things that need to be discussed.”

Gerlach says he’s already neck-deep in the details of bringing his event to life for the TV cameras. “They’re talking about really doing this thing right,” he says. “We’ve got Taylor Steele consulting on how to shoot the event. They’re even putting in a cable cam from the pier to the beach. The ASP is going to benefit heavily from this. The Boost Mobile {event at Trestles, California} is going to be two weeks after this event. This will create a bigger draw for them.”

Gerlach still has to respond to the ASP regarding the sanctioning requirements, and details and discussions remain, but he’s confident: “I think we’re going to be okay.”