Of Mics and Men: A New Age of Surf Broadcasting
After undergoing a nearly decade-long evolution, the surfing world can almost claim that ASP World Championship Tour webcasts are top shelf productions. Almost. Sponsors pump millions of dollars into equipment and set-up, enlist hordes of personnel from within the surf industry and local event sites, and successfully battle endless logistical nightmares in order to produce an event broadcast from start to finish. But at the end of the day, the success or failure of an ASP webcast ultimately rests in the hands of a select few: the men and women behind the microphones.
Given ZoSea Media and ASP International’s partnering to take over event media rights for the 2013 WCT season and standardize broadcasts for 2014, webcast viewers can anticipate some significant changes to the commentary booth. But as the two companies merge, they’ll need to acknowledge that there’s a fine line between webcasts “retaining the authenticity of the culture”, to cite Quiksilver Event Director Rod Brooks, and acknowledging that veteran commentators, guest professional surfers, and industry figures have widely demonstrated inconsistency and a lack of professionalism behind the microphone.
Most webcasts during the competition year betray a well-known principle of the surf industry’s hiring practices: a significant number of jobs in Action Sports are given to former pros and bros, whether qualified or not. While most industry executives, accountants, designers, tech experts, and production managers are bona fide professionals with proven track records, many of those tapped for positions with less direct financial consequences descend from the ranks of frothers who, while impressive in the water or at the skatepark, lack the skills to perform their job function at a level equivalent to their non-Action Sports analogs.
Enter here the ASP broadcast personality (especially the American ones). With the exception of longtime Triple Crown MC Dave Stanfield, the vast majority of webcast anchors seen and heard in recent years exemplify 1) why professional athletes should not necessarily be ordained professionals in occupations they have limited training in and 2) just how much lower the standard for media professionalism is in surfing than in nearly any other sporting endeavor worldwide.
Admittedly, one of the more entertaining elements of the broadcasts comes not from the heats themselves, but the interminable chatter that largely inexperienced commentators have to generate in order to avoid a much-feared moment of silence. By entertaining, I don’t mean informative, humorous, or mechanically enlightening. Rather, I mean that it’s entertaining to laugh at the miscues, botched interviews, sneaker expletives, and the announcers’ general inability to effectively narrate a thirty-minute heat. About half the time it seems that the guys in the booth are the victims of some practical joke that they don’t know is being filmed and broadcast live to the world. The other half are remarks about how good a guy’s boards look (always mentioned by brand), how passionate Brazilians are, and how every viewer needs to immediately buy a plane ticket to the event locale.
Listening to the hordes of pros-and-bros-turned-commentators throughout the competition year gets painful. Professional surfer webcast personalities provide little respite from the hailstorm of sub-par commentary by the industry regulars behind the mic. A lot of young pros (mostly freesurfers or WQS grinders) are grating, abrasive, over-caffeinated, and over-hyped. Others strike the listener as artificially mellow and even melancholy alongside their frothing counterparts. Some great surfers—and industry CEOs—are downright annoying to listen to as guest commentators. Others lack any semblance of professionalism in their presentation, hardly censoring the “bros”, “dudes”, and expletives as they blatantly hype their new fin model. Some are undeniably just too damn young or stoned not to embarrass themselves on camera. Narcissism, machismo, and too-cool-for-school attitudes abound, front and center for the world to see.
One might think that I’m talking about Bobby Martinez, Chris Ward, and other ASP malcontents. Wrong. Bobby Martinez’s comments in New York last year proved that professional surfing is, well, still surfing. Chris Ward’s comments about the GoPro camera on his board in Hawaii were sincere and honest, although unlikely to get him a long-term contract anytime soon. I’m not talking about post-heat interviews, either. Mason Ho, Sebastian Zietz, and Matt Wilkinson are genuinely comical and energizing in front of the camera. Guys like Ace Buchan and Owen Wright are so articulate that they leave their interviewers reaching for a dictionary. And most top ten contenders have their routine so dialed (or are so tightly handled by their managers) that their post-heat interviews rival congressional addresses.