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Flea gets ready to go deep at Maverick’s — one of the best venues to highlight the “gladiator” appeal of big-wave surfing to the masses.


And Now For Something Completely Different….

Posted 02.21.2002
This is a test. It is only a test.
1. Name the sponsor of:
A. The 2000 Pipe Masters.
B. The 2000 Maverick’s Men Who Ride Mountains Big Wave Event.
2. Identify:
A. The 2000 ASP World Champion.
B. The winner of the 60,000-dollar Swell.com XXL.

3. Name:
A. The top-six ASP surfers at the end of the 2000 ASP season.
B. The six guys who tow-surfed the Cortes Bank.

4. Who did you see on CNN last winter?
A. Rob Machado at Pipeline and an interview with Sunny Garcia.
B. Flea Virostko at Mavericks and an interview with Mike Parsons.

Get the picture? Sure you do. Whether you’re a Surf Industry Soldier or a T-shirt-buying Civilian, the answers to the B questions were most likely bubbled into your Gulliver faster than the A questions.

The B answers all apply to “specialty events,” which are competitive surfing events or challenges that happen outside the WQS and WCT tours sanctioned by the Association Of Surfing Professionals.

The A answers all refer to people and events from the ASP World Championship Tour.

If the B answers came to mind easier than A answers, you’re not alone, and that says a lot about the current trend in the surfing world to create and sponsor more “specialty” events; custom-made, flexible spectaculars that make their own rules, give the ocean room to move, and allow some of the more veteran and interesting surf-industry Soldiers to create more “mainstream impressions” within the Civilian T-shirt-buying population.

There is only so much attention out there directed toward surfing, and over the past few years specialty events have been nabbing a lot of it — some say to the detriment of the ASP World Tour. Some believe specialty events are making surfing “special” again, generating a buzz and excitement within Soldiers and Civilians alike. However many others say specialty events merely augment the substantial history and progressive surfing on the ASP tour.

But as more and more specialty events go on the calendar and grab attention, there’s scuttlebutt from the enlisted ranks to the industry captains: Is the ocean and the calendar big enough for all that specialness? And are all the dollars and energy being thrown at specialty events enhancing or diminishing the allure of the ASP WQS and WCT tours?

The Reason For Contests
The sponsors who put up all those hundreds of thousands — and even millions of dollars — to sponsor ASP or specialty events want something more than a “thanks, bro” in return.

In the language of marketing, they’re looking for “sponsor value” and “brand recognition.” If you want a colorful metaphor appropriate to the times we live in: When a sponsor invests hundreds of thousands of silver bullets into an event they are aiming those bullets of “brand recognition” at as many “mainstream impressionable” brains as possible. A well-fired bullet stimulates the “that is cool!” section of the brain, hopefully severing the “controlled spending” area and lodging in the “Buy more T-shirts!” cortex.

The question is now, as it has always been: How does a company get the most “brand recognition” firepower and cerebral penetration for every promotional dollar/bullet fired? In the past few years there’s been every indication that the specialty-event ammo is penetrating more mainstream brains than dollars invested otherwise.

Want proof? Well, consider the amount of mainstream coverage the Cortes Banks expedition received. Civilians who might never pick up a surf magazine or check out a surfing Web site saw Mike Parsons drop into a 60-foot bomb 100 miles from land on their local and national news show. Surfing suddenly seemed more “extreme” than any skateboarding trick ever could. Did it hurt the ASP? Probably not. Did it garner the type of mainstream-media carpet bombing that the ASP would kill for? Absolutely.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the ASP should feel threatened by specialty events like the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau and Maverick’s Contest, or from “happenings” like the winter-long Surfline/Nissan Xterra XXL or the three-year Billabong Odyssey.

First, last year proved that even flexible waiting periods can fail or even get in each other’s way. Red Bull’s Surf Seekers at King Island in October 2000 and the Red Bull Big Wave Africa in June of 2001 both got profoundly skunked. Lots of travel and practice and preparation, but no surf.

On Maui, Rodney Kilborn managed to throw a decent tow-in event on December 26, but the main surfers and the main sponsors pulled out, leaving the winners to share their prize: pizza.

On January 12, Quiksilver ran the Eddie Aikau event successfully, and it looked like they were going to double-score when a promising west swell appeared on the horizon for Mavericks the next week. But the contest was never called. Coincidentally, that allowed Peter Mel, Ken Collins, and a bunch of others to take that three-hour tour out to the Cortes Bank and have a history-making session that won the Swell.com XXL Big Wave Awards 60,000 dollars and generated the biggest buzz inside and outside of the surfing perimeter for many years.

Some of the ASP’s biggest supporters also say this buzz ultimately helps all of pro surfing — including the ASP.

Rip Curl Cofounder Doug “Claw” Warbrick has been involved with pro surfing going back to day one. He sees the specialty events as a complement and not a usurper to the ASP schedule: “We’d expect that non-surf-industry companies who are getting involved with some of the specialty events will come to realize that the ASP tours have a credible history and significant worldwide following.”

However, Claw does think that the industry and the ASP needs to handle specialty events properly: “There is some danger for the ASP if too many specialty events are sanctioned in competition with ASP tour events. The ASP events have a significant history and very real consequence of determining champions, whereas specialty events are more promotional exercises for companies.”

Rip Curl is currently the naming-rights sponsor of the Rip Curl Pro WCT at Bells Beach in April and the Rip Curl Cup WCT at Sunset in December. It’s also the sponsor of six one-star, two four-star, and one each two-star, five-star, and six-star WQS events around the world. Warbrick wouldn’t say what Rip Curl’s financial involvement is, but it’s clear that Rip Curl is behind organized pro surfing all the way.

“I’d like to politely suggest that our WCT venues at Bells and Sunset are special in unique ways,” he says. “They both have a ?prime location’ ratings from the ASP. Bells is mobile and Rip Curl has innovated the use of personal watercraft at Bells to raise the level of surfing incredibly. Ask anybody who has been at the last two Rip Curl Pros at Bells what the standard of surfing has been like when PWCs were used.”

Rip Curl’s support of traditional ASP and specialty events proves his belief that anything that presents surfing in a positive and exciting way is “generally good for everyone involved in the sport and the surf industry.” Many of the other Surf Industry Admirals agree with Claw.

Danny Kwock at Quiksilver says specialty events complement the ASP tour, and Quiksilver is one of the ASP’s biggest supporters. He also sees specialty events appealing to a broader market. “Contests like the Quiksilver In Memory Of Eddie Aikau and Maverick’s Men Who Ride Mountains contest appeal to the mass market because of the size of the waves and the risk factor involved — the gladiator appeal of it all,” he says. “Plus the story of Eddie Aikau is tremendously compelling. The same goes for the story of Jeff Clark and Maverick’s.”

Kwock goes on to say that because Maverick’s is on the mainland and near a major metropolitan media market, news outlets like CNN are more likely to pick up on the story.

But Kwock is quick to point out that Quiksilver doesn’t sponsor these contests simply to chase after the mass market. “Perhaps we’re a little naive, but we do it because we love it and then worry about the analytical side of it later.”

He says that up until recently, Quiksilver didn’t even quantify the mass-market return on investment associated with contest sponsorship. “I guess we’re just these naive hillbilly surfer guys,” laughs Kwock. “Even though we’re the largest surf company in the world, we’re like a surfer who wins his first pro contest and then forgets to cash his prize-money check because he’s so stoked to have won.”

Billabong USA President Paul Naude has a similar take when it comes to his company’s ambitious three-year Billabong Odyssey commitment. “First and foremost our goal is to hold succesful and safe expeditions,” he says. “If we do that right, the coverage will naturally occur. But it’s never been our focus.” Billabong also remains one of the ASP’s most ardent supporters.

Warbrick doesn’t think the growing prominence of specialty events will ultimately make it harder for the ASP to find an umbrella tour sponsor. “Perhaps it will make it harder in the short term,” he says, “but ultimately we’d probably say it will make it easier because hopefully the proliferation of specialty events will help persuade the ASP to be more flexible in a range of areas like formatting and timing of their events.”

An Opportunity
Many industry generals say the best-case scenario is to balance the prominence of ASP and specialty contests. But any comparison this year is inherently unfair.

The WCT and WQS suffered a staggering blow this fall when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed by terrorists, making the ASP tourists a little sketched about air travel to Europe. They canceled the three events scheduled for France, Spain, and Portugal. But since this was already a rebuilding year for the ASP, perhaps the ASP will spend this period of time polishing the silver bullets in its own bandolier. At least, that’s what some are hoping for.

Shaun Tomson, one of the founding fathers of professional surfing, is not involved in any official ASP capacity these days, but he pays attention and he has the impression that his child has been struggling a bit. “I think the ASP tour is vital to the future of the sport, but it needs more excitement,” he says. “The current 48-man format, with a first round where everyone advances, needs to change. It is BS and a waste of time. Competition must have consequences. We need to bring back the elite — the top sixteen.

“Also, we need events in front of crowds,” continues Tomson. “Events in remote spots are great for the surfers surfing them, but the viewing public certainly does not participate in any drama. The event is usually months old by the time it gets to TV, and everyone knows the result so there’s little excitement. I’d rather pick up the latest surf video. We need events at Pipe and at Huntington, in front of berserk crowds. Sure, we need events at classic spots but we need a balance. And the rule giving events in premier spots more points than others is absolute crap. All events should be equal. Should an event in Brazil in front of 30,000 loony spectators be worth less than an event at Bells? I don’t think so.”

Even if the ASP doesn’t tackle these land-mine issues, it’s likely the Top 44’s jaunt around the world next year will have a mainstream marketing kick that’s been lacking in recent years.

First, Kelly Slater will return to the tour — which is bound to increase the title-race excitement. The tour will also be richer than in years past. The overall increase in prize money is highlighted by Quiksilver ponying up a 300,000-dollar cash purse for its mobile French event in October.

The specialty event radar will also be crowded for the winter of 2001/2002, with no less than three specialty big-wave events offering a total of 260,000 dollars in prize money: the 75,000-dollar Quiksilver Mavericks, the 75,000-dollar Quiksilver Eddie Aikau, and the new 110,000-dollar Tow In World Cup. Add another 70,000 dollars for Nissan Xterra XXL money for the biggest ridden wave of the winter, plus the Billabong Odyssey’s 1,000-dollar-a-foot for its elite crew and you have, in the immortal words of Jeff Spicoli, “Righteous bucks!”

So which type of event will best propel surfing forward? Which type of contest will compel Civilians to enlist in the army of surf supporters? For the sake of surfing and the all those T-shirt-building Industry Captains, let’s hope it’s not an “either/or” proposition. For surfing to win the hearts and minds of Civilians in this action-sports saturated world, our forces can’t be fighting each other.

— Additional reporting by Sean O’Brien

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