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40,000$ richer and 10,000 points stronger is... Alex Ribeiro (But you didn't know that and you haven't watched this). Photo: WSL

Alex Ribeiro is $40,000 richer and 10,000 points stronger. But you didn’t know that and you didn’t watch this—Quicksilver Pro Saquarema. Photo: WSL


The Inertia

Part 2: Follow the Money

It’s every kid’s dream of growing up and becoming a professional surfer. Most of them, however, will never have a chance at that dream. Maybe it’s for the best because surfing, of course, is not all about competition. But for the kids who do choose that route, there are many hurdles to overcome.

Surfing, like all competitive sports, requires much more than raw talent. You must have the will to win and work hard at it every day to achieve success. Having determination may get you far, but as we all know, it requires much more than just dedication. Having success in the competitive realm requires money. A lot of money. Just to get into an event requires event fees, insurance fees, and regional fees (if you’re surfing outside your country). And that’s only a small amount of money compared to the cost of flights, food, accommodation, and the host of other things that demand cash.

Somtimes, dreams really do come true. Photo: WSL / Laurent Masurel

Somtimes, dreams really do come true. Photo: WSL / Laurent Masurel

Of course, things are easier if a surfer grows up in a professional surfing environment. About a month ago, I explained in detail how much a young surfer’s career is determined by his place of residence. Competitions in some countries can bring a surfer far more QS ranking points and money than competitions in other countries. With local surfers receiving extra tickets to compete, a country that hosts larger competitions will usually have more surfers situated in the top ranks of professional surfing.

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Brazil only hosts 8% of competitions yet awards 20% of the ranking points in the QS.

Who decides where to hold the contests, which will ultimately determine the future careers of over a thousand young professionals? Who decides which countries will host the QS6000s and QS10000s? The simple answer is the WSL. Surfing’s governing body has to review and approve of all the locations and schedules nominated to appear on the qualifying series. But in reality, there is another, much more arbitrary mechanism to determine what competitions will be worth major points. That mechanism, of course, is money.

(Hold on, haters and conspiracy theorists. I’m not talking about dirty, under-the-table money. I’m talking about clean, organized and regulated money, right here in black and white on the WSL rulebook).

Strangely enough, the WSL rule book does not state the conditions for entering a new event to the tour schedule. Instead, it states, “Only events that have complied with article 27.04 […] will be place on the WSL schedule in WSL’s absolute discretion.” And what is the all-important article 27.04? It’s the article which refers to when and how license fees for events should be paid.  According to the rule book, the only thing you need to do in order to have your own QS event is to pay the license fees—half upfront, 180 days prior to the event, and the rest 90 days prior to the event. Surely, in real life, a lot of hard work and politics go into creating and scheduling events. I will not go into the importance of creating rules for these actions, instead let’s focus on the bottom line: The size and ranking points value of any WSL event is determined by the amount of money invested in it. How much money? Buckets of money!

Want a QS10000? Better have the money + 10% licensing fees, 180 days upfront. WSL Rulebook Appendix C

The key to the WSL pricing system is the prize purse of the events. The larger the event, the larger the prize money. Licensing fees are a derivative of prize money. They are 10% of the prize money total for the relevant event’s rating. And who decides how much prize money goes into an event’s relevant rating? You got it, the WSL. Prize money sums are detailed in Appendix C of the WSL rulebook and they are a fountain of knowledge.

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For example, QS1000s sometimes have prizes as low as $45, and it costs $250,000 in prize money alone to host a QS10000. Add 10% ($25,000) and hand everything over to the WSL 90 days prior to the event just to get things rolling. That’s a significant amount of investment for an event that may or may not run based on something as unpredictable as the ocean. Now add to this, the cost of production, accommodation, judging, and so on. No wonder it’s so hard to find sponsors for a surf contests.

Viewers want to see big waves, not big names.

The WSL system is based on other competitive sports. Big contests draw big athletes, who, in turn, draw big crowds, who bring more big money to make the contests even bigger. The WSL can claim to prove this plan works. In Brazil, local state governments spent big money to host QS10000s and QS6000s, making Brazil the biggest source of qualifying points on the QS. This translates into more Brazilian surfers on the QS and eventually more Brazilian world champions. Brazilian crowds, passionate and loyal, idolize these athletes and create a marketing platform for sponsors. Stickers of car manufacturers and cellphone companies crowd on the top, (the bottom and on the sides) of the surfboards used by Brazil’s top athletes and on the beaches of Brazil, closing the cycle and funneling the money back to competitions.

The Brazilian model seems to illustrate the WSL’s pay to play strategy, but can it be a case study for the future of surfing as a sport? I wouldn’t count on it. Brazil has a very unique relationship with sport and sport fandom, which is fierce, yet geographically restricted. In Brazil, Adriano de Souza and Gabriel Medina are household names and big time celebrities. How many Americans know how Kolohe Andino is?

Going over international search results for surf athletes from 2004 to the present, only one name registers significantly into the statistics. Can you guess who? Yes, Mr. Robert Kelly Slater. The current big three (Fanning, Medina, and de Souza) hardly make any impression on global search results with these three exceptions: Mick had a huge spike wrestling a shark, Medina and ADS had smaller spikes in search statistics when they won their world titles, and even Slater is insignificant compared to fellow extreme superstar Tony Hawk.

Kelly, Mick, Medina and ADS compared to Tony Hawk 2005-2016. Far right Mick V Shark

Kelly, Mick, Medina, and ADS compared to Tony Hawk 2004-2016. (Far right is Mick vs. shark).

When pro surfing does make it to the news it’s usually when the ocean puts on a show. If you look at mainstream media publications, the term surfing translates to two things: shark attacks and big waves. Since the WSL is not yet the World Shark Wrestling League (Hmm…), the conclusion is simple: People want to see big waves, not big names. This premise has laid the foundation of what was known as the “Dream Tour,” the basis of modern professional surfing, and for good reason. Think about it. Unless you are a diehard pro surfing fan, which events do you remember from the last ten years? Code Red in Tahiti, giant Fiji, and all-time Pipeline come to mind. When viewers are not surfers the picture is even clearer. Just ask the WSL. 1.9 million people watched the Eddie, breaking the record held by the Tahiti Pro from 2014. How many watched Snapper?

Barrels or Ranking points? whichis the real moneymaker for the WSL

Barrels or ranking points? Which is the real moneymaker for the WSL?

What works for the big guys should work to greater effect on the QS (going back to the search results graph). Though all QS10000s have regular pulses of interest around their running dates, events from Brazil hardly register next to similar events from Hawaii. Even a QS3000 event like the Volcom Pipe Pro is towering way above the Quicksilver Saquarema QS10000 in Brazil. Just a few weeks ago, the WSL PR machine bombarded surf magazines with news of its dreamy new contest in the Mentawais. QS frontrunner Zeke Lau was quoted on Tracksmag to be frothing to surf crystal clear barrels with only two guys out. “I’m going!” big Zeke stated. “They should make that a prim, bra!”

What the headlines failed to mention is that this is a QS1000 event, a detail that was kept for the fine print. Usually, QS1000s mean no broadcast, and $15,000 in prize money at the very most. Tell me how many surfers will fly to Indo for zero media coverage when anything under 3rd place doesn’t even cover the cost of flights? And even if it’s firing, who’s going to care about a QS1000 anyway? Think I’m wrong? Without using Google, who won the last event in Uluwatu and when was it was held? Exactly. Jared Hickel, last August. To quote Zeke again—”They should make that a prime, bra!”

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Thanks for visitng the Mentawai Islands, here's your 50 bucks. WSL Rulebook Appendix C

“Thanks for visiting the Mentawai Islands, here’s your 50 bucks.” WSL Rulebook Appendix C

To sum things up, if you want a big event you need to pay the WSL big money up front. And the amount you pay is decided on the WSL. So if you live in America and you’re wondering how come there are so little American surfers on the CT, learn this lesson: Be like Brazil. Brazilians are hardworking surfers with a hard working support structure that understands the (weird) way the WSL works. That is what aspiring pros and surfing associations around the world need to do for the sport of surfing to grow. I know a lot of fire is directed towards the WSL, and frankly they are making almost every mistake in the book. But if you live somewhere near an ocean, and you care about your local pro surfers and grommets, invest in big events. If it takes bringing in local sponsors outside the surf world, or shaking hands with politicians, for until the system is changed, gaining a place on the world stage of surfing means buying your way in. So event organizers better start saving.

The WSL is responsible for the success of pro surfing.

Coming back to the WSL, they are not off the hook. Quite the opposite, actually. They roll the responsibility of creating big events to event organizers, while clearly it’s almost impossible to bring sponsors and spectators to an island in the Mentawais. The surf community there will probably never have the $150,000 for a QS6000 anyway. It’s up to the WSL to subsidize events in remote tropical islands with no infrastructure but with barreling waves. It’s up to the WSL as an international sports entity and broadcasting rights holders to sell broadcasting rights for these events to international sponsors. It is up to the WSL to find ways of bringing better waves to a webcast near you, not settle for the comfort of broadcasting from a large city like Rio. If the WSL wants to make surfing a mainstream sport that non-surfers are involved in, it has be about the beauty and power of water, not the determination and talent of athletes. Believe me, people are going to learn how to pronounce Teahupo’o must faster than Kolohe (sorry Brother).

It is true that in a media environment sporting organizations need stars. But before Ronaldo and LeBron, and even before Maradona and Jordan, there was a game and a passion, something kids on the streets could relate to. The WSL built their branding from the roof down, focusing on the athlete’s almost nonexistent star power while ignoring the very heart of surfing: big, powerful, beautiful waves. Now let’s go back to waves. Back to basics. That should get those mainstream land rats squeaking, and that mainstream money flowing.

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