There was a time when big-crowd “arena” events were the norm. The Op Pro. The Coke. The Lacanau Pro. Surf competition used the “the stick and ball” playbook. If you built it, even if it was kind of shitty, they would come. And for a decade or so, it worked pretty well. Well enough to secure shows like Wide World of Sports. Well enough to attract thousands to the beaches to cheer for heroes like Tom Curren.
Somewhere along the way, though, two things changed. 1) Pro surfers like Luke Egan called bullshit on the system. 2) The Internet became part of our lives.
Soon, pro surfing had real fans. We could watch Kelly drop 10s from the comfort of our own cubicles. We could create a fantasy team and grin or groan as each round played out in pumping J-Bay or heaving Hossegor. The Internet was the new “arena,” and people came. Hundreds of thousands of them, exponentially more than the biggest crowds ever generated on the beach. And for a while, we couldn’t get enough of it. The Kelly/Irons rivalry, played out before us on our 15-inch monitors. The showdown in Japan. The last-minute nine in J-Bay. The title-deciding duel at Pipe. The Dream Tour was undeniably that, and we got to enjoy it at 30 mbps instead of three months later in Surfer Magazine.
But all good things grow stale if they don’t evolve. And the Dream Tour, locked into the same venues and same dates (save The Search) year after year, unfortunately grew stale. You saw it in the webcast numbers (little to no growth) and you heard it from the surfers themselves. As silly as it sounds, they were bored of surfing in paradise to an invisible audience. They were ready for a fresh approach to an event, and it occurred at the least likely of places.
The 2009 Hurley US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach reminded everyone what had been missing in surfing for almost a decade. In the largest swell in years, we watched the world’s best – in the flesh – attempt the unthinkable in 12-foot closeouts. Online, we might have yawned and checked our email in between sets. In person, in an environment where we could see, smell, hear and actually touch our heroes, it became unforgettable. 500,000 people attended the event that tied in the best in surfing along with music, art, fashion, skate and BMX. We called it a Youth Culture Festival. Others called it the best US Open ever.
Whatever it was, it got others dreaming and planning their own spin on the Open. Overall, ASP World Tour prizemoney increased more than 45 percent year over year. The word “festival” is being thrown around a lot more than the word, “contest.” And the media are paying attention. What’s generated the most buzz this year? The event with potentially the worst surf: the Quiksilver Pro New York. But that’s the beauty of it. We as an industry are acting bold again, and we’re taking chances. That’s when things get exciting and magic happens.
A big-crowd event in mediocre surf is not the model for all World Tour stops. In fact, it shouldn’t be the model for most of them. But there are some places, like Huntington Beach and maybe even New York, where environment transcends surf conditions. Where the stadium atmosphere is so electric, that the world’s best surfers can’t help but surf beyond their own limits.
That feeling can never be replicated at 30 mbps.