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Kelly Slater and Andy Irons

Competitive Surfing Peaked In the 2000s (and It’s Never Coming Back)


The Inertia

William Finnegan is, in my humble opinion, the greatest writer to have ever surfed. Ironically, Finnegan, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, doesn’t actually write about surfing often. His stories focus mostly on international affairs, ranging from wars, poverty, racism, trafficking, and politics. So when Finnegan does write about surfing, I drop everything and find a quiet space to read his brilliant prose.

His most famous surf story (aside from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book) is a story he published for The New Yorker in 1992 titled Playing Doc’s Games, a two-part series which focused on the rather esoteric San Francisco surf scene of the 1980s and, more specifically, his friendship with San Francisco big wave surfer Mark “Doc” Renneker. The story was so good that Finnegan essentially republished it as a chapter in Barbarian Days.

The man knows our sport. And he knows how to tell stories about surfing better than anyone else on Earth.

When Finnegan published a new story for The New Yorker titled Kelly Slater’s Shock Wave, I did my usual, clearing my schedule so I could sit down and read his work in peace. For anybody who has yet to read it themselves, the story focuses on Kelly Slater’s artificial wave in the middle of nowhere (Lemoore, California) and the pop culture buzz that has been created around it. Whether it was Pratte’s Reef, Bournemouth Reef, or the numerous artificial waves popping up around the globe in recent years from other engineers and developers, nobody seems to have equaled the near-perfection that Slater molded in California.

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Finnegan visited the Surf Ranch to cover the WSL’s Championship Tour event, which was being held in Lemoore instead of the customary California stop at Lower Trestles. While I was reading this story about how the WSL had decided to hold a contest in the middle of California’s farm country instead of arguably the state’s best wave, a question popped into my mind:

“When was the last time I actually cared about professional surfing?”

For nearly my entire adult life, I’ve followed surfing with passion. I’ve been following competitive surfing since the late ’90s, and as someone who was an actual surf journalist, covering the sport for various publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, The Adventure Sports Network, and HuffPost, I used to keep up on every detail and nuance of the sport.

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Something changed, though, and I don’t think it was old age. In fact, I know it’s not old age because I still keep track of most other sports I grew up loving. Yet here I am, suddenly caring less about professional surfing than any other time I can remember. I’m simply not that interested in it anymore, and I began to wonder why.

Then the answer hit me like a ton of bricks:

Surfing has peaked.

Surfing has capitulated in every regard. It’s no longer interesting. With the exception of maybe John John, the sport doesn’t have any real star power to keep things interesting. Naturally, plenty of people will scream and yell about Kelly Slater immediately, but at 46 years old, he’s hardly a world title challenger anymore.

In the 1970s we had the shortboard revolution. Turns, big hacks, and big barrels were fresh and new. In the 1980s surfing had a rockstar edge. And in the 1990s, we were introduced to the greatest surfer ever: Kelly Slater. Kelly always seemed to find a way to squeak out close victories in the tightest of heats, giving drama to competitive surfing, perhaps most of all in his 1995 Pipe Masters showdown with Rob Machado.

Slater really did change the game. His style is still so perfect, his appeal is still mainstream, and at one point he was so good at it all that he just up and retired following his staggering sixth World Title. All this happened before the turn of the century.

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Soon after that, surfing peaked. The sport was at its pinnacle in the 2000s and it’s never going to get better.

Andy Irons started the decade as the clear successor to Slater with his three consecutive world titles. The two had a rivalry bigger than anything we’ve seen since, and it wasn’t until 2005 that Slater was finally able to overcome his biggest competitive roadblock and get back on top. Their rivalry featured iconic moments, like the 2005 Billabong Pro J-Bay Final in which Slater won and Irons famously berated the judge once scores were announced.

“Is that what you guys do now, just go with the crowd?” Irons said to one of the judges. “You gave him a 9.5 before he even took off. Fucking ridiculous.”

Surfing’s true decline, in my humble opinion, started in 2011, the same year the ASP awarded Kelly Slater his 11th world title prematurely. The ASP clearly needed a shakeup. What it didn’t need, though, was a bunch of corporate non-surfers taking over the competitive pinnacle of the sport.

That was perhaps the most fascinating revelation in Finnegan’s story. While the piece was supposed to focus on the impact of Kelly Slater’s artificial wave, Finnegan delved deep into the history and organizational structure of the WSL and revealed some fascinating insights into its inner workings:

“In 2016, the World Surf League, a privately held company that owns and operates professional surfing, bought a controlling interest in the Kelly Slater Wave Company, including, of course, its pending patents,” he wrote. “The price was not disclosed, but Surf Ranch is said to have cost 30 million dollars to develop… the newly formed World Surf League took over from a rickety predecessor that had been run by ex-pro surfers and apparel manufacturers. The WSL group bought pro surfing for nothing except a promise to invest in it. The acquisition was fronted by Slater’s manager, Terry Hardy, and Paul Speaker, a former National Football League executive. Speaker, who does not surf, liked to point out that ninety-seven percent of NFL fans have never played football.”

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Finnegan went on to make similar points about Dirk Ziff and the WSL’s grand plan to expand its fan base beyond “the core” surf fans.

But “surf contests are basically impossible for the uninitiated to watch,” he continued. “The judging is incomprehensible, even to many surfers. The waves, moreover, are rarely excellent, and they arrive on their own schedule—that’s why contests customarily include a ten-day waiting period and still sometimes get skunked. Not ideal for TV.”

Finnegan continued with more on “Backwards Fins Beth” and Ziff’s now-infamous speech, admonishing the surf media and its fans for making their coffee each morning while “thinking about what you can write that day that might humiliate the W.S.L.”

“I have a message to the haters, and it is simple,” Ziff said. “Be tough. Call us out. Keep us honest. Tell us what we need to improve. But don’t pretend you don’t know that, when you go beyond constructive criticism and cynically try to rally negative sentiment toward the W.S.L., when you try to take us down, you are not just going after us. You are going after Kelly Slater. . . . You are undermining the hopes of every kid who lives with salt in their hair, dreaming of being a world champion one day.”

Finnegan went on to write “If the W.S.L. succeeds, he said, everyone involved with surfing will prosper—’except maybe a few grumpy locals who have to deal with some new faces in the lineup.’”

This is why competitive surfing is now dead to me. Kelly Slater doesn’t compete regularly anymore and, at 46, is probably done being a legitimate world title threat. John John Florence, possibly the biggest star on the tour, is injury-prone. And while Gabriel Medina and Adriano De Souza are the sport’s first Brazilian world champions and megastars back home, you couldn’t argue they’ve reached the star power Slater once held.

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Kelly Slater Wave Co. had the potential to rock the industry and perhaps bring some interest back to the sport, but the immediate problem with holding major contests at an artificial wave is that it lacks the excitement of surfers waiting for an important wave with seconds to spare. It lacks the natural elements that webcast viewers love gazing at during lulls. It lacks drama. The fact that every wave is the same, and the surfers are essentially pulling the exact same maneuvers on the exact same wave over and over again is boring as fuck. There’s nothing compelling about it.

I’ve brought up this topic with numerous former pro surfers and at least half say they casually follow the sport, trying to watch webcasts for major events. The other half admit they’ve stopped following the CT entirely. And even in that variance, most agree that it simply isn’t that interesting anymore. And sure, as we get older our priorities change. Kids and careers start to take over. At least back in the 2000s, however, people found a way and a reason to keep their attention on professional surfing. Back when surfing was at the peak of its powers.

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