Estimating the amount of time competitive surfing fans are able to observe any individual competitor requires some flexible math, but this may just be the kind of math behind recent tour reorganization. On his march to a tenth world title last year, Kelly Slater surfed approximately 59 heats. At 30 minutes per heat, that’s 29.5 hours fans got to watch him in competition. Let’s compare this with LeBron James in the NBA. James currently averages 38 minutes per game, and at 82 games per year, that’s 52 regular season hours. If the Miami Heat make the finals, this number could reach nearly 80 hours.
Not every world tour surfer is Kelly Slater, and so obviously competitive hours drop away precipitously as you move down the ratings. Sponsors, on the other hand, want their surfers in front of fans more. In order for surfers to achieve this, they need more competitive hours, and for most surfers, that means entering more competitions. Sources say this is a root cause of last year’s tour reorganization, and the drive to get more top-rated surfers into Prime and 6-star events. The interesting thing about all of this is that it’s been tried before. It was called the 1980s.
By 1989, the number of championship title events swelled to a record of 25 in a single competitive season. Each of the events was staged near a big city, or within range of a prominent surf market. Without the internet, the promotion angle was all about putting “bums on the beach.” This often led to rambling side attractions and a carnival atmosphere. Surf forecasting was still in its infancy, and “waiting periods” were not implemented to the extent that they are today. The result was a travel schedule packed with festival-type events in mediocre to poor wave scenarios. And whether the waves came or not, promoters and audiences expected the event to go. In 1984 at Florida’s Deerfield Beach, in fact, the final was held in an ocean so flat that the event promoters sent out a ski boat to drive back forth, creating enough wave action for Tom Carroll to stand up on his board and “win” the contest. That win counted toward his second world title.
By the 1990s, the Association of Surfing Professionals found itself in the same kind of stagnation that allowed Ian Cairns to wrestle pro surfing away from the International Professional Surfers tour in 1982. “There was unrest at every level of the ASP,” said Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, “The prize money had remained static for years, the judging criteria was outdated and still had elements of amateur surfing in them, the surfers were over going to metropolitan beaches in the middle of summer, they were over being dictated to.”
Then two things happened. One: technology. Two: an idea.
In 1992, an important restructuring occurred within the ASP. The number of world tour events was cut back to 10 or 12, and the World Qualifying Series was established with the remaining contests. This created a two-tier system that allowed younger surfers the opportunity to grow through the WQS.
Then, in 1995, the Billabong Challenge introduced the idea of a two-week waiting period that put a premium on running events in quality waves. That same year, Quiksilver dared to host an event at the reef point perfection of Indonesia’s G-Land. With the G-land Quiksilver Pro, the precedent of a contest driven primarily by wave quality, whether large audiences could physically access the venue or not, was established. This single event put the “bums on the beach” mentality squarely into question.
G-land may have been an anomaly if it weren’t for a little thing called the Internet, and more specifically, webcasting. The 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games are credited with hosting one of the sport world’s very first webcasts. Surfing, however, was not far behind. The ASP’s resident techie Mano Ziul had the Atlanta webcasting equipment shipped to Huntington Beach for that year’s U.S. Open. Ziul and his team then made inroads with various telcom companies around the globe and developed the skills necessary to webcast from isolated coasts and distant islands. “It was clear to me,” Ziul told ESPN, “that the web was eventually going to save surfing. I used to say that a lot. Technology got better, surfing got better, and it all translated into the growth of the sport on the web.”
“Pro surfing embraced this technology very early on,” said Bartholomew, “and Mano was the engineer and architect. This was the center piece of the Dream Tour, as well as finally overcoming surfing’s reputation for unreliability and mediocrity in television. We could beam action live, directly into the global lounge room.”
It was into this environment — a fractious, underdeveloped, change-averse organization with gleaming potential — that Bartholomew stepped into as the ASP’s CEO in 1999. “At every level changes needed to be implemented. This required dozens upon dozens, maybe more then a hundred in total, of rule changes. Each one had to be fought for, each one intertwined with the next, to attain the big picture,” Bartholomew said.
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