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Gauging the ASP, part two

2/24/2011
The scaffolding and lineup at G-Land that turned the Dream Tour into a reality. Joli

Part One
Part Two

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.

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There was unrest at every level of the ASP ... it needed a massive overhaul.

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--Rabbit Bartholomew

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 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 from Teahupoo, Cloudbreak, J-Bay, Pipe etc directly into the global loungeroom."

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.

In the following years Tahiti's Teahuppo, Spain's Mundaka and Fiji's Tavarua were added to the roster. South Africa's Jeffreys Bay made a mighty return to the schedule, as well. And Reunion Island, Mexico, Sunset Beach, Bali, and Chile all made guest appearances. Pipeline was no longer the only stunner on tour.

But the Dream Tour as we've known it may have been a bubble epitomized by the decade between 1998 and 2008. As surf fans, did we take those boom times for granted?

As Ziul himself warned, "The locations [from which] we deliver this entertainment are tough, remote and difficult (and expensive). Surfing's biggest challenge is to create a financially viable formula capable of supporting such expensive solutions anywhere on the globe."

The perception of safety issues at G-Land curtailed its tour appearances after 1997. A coup within the Fijian government combined with the expense of hosting an event at Tavarua halted Globe's run after 2008. The viability of scoring world-class Mundaka with the European leg's window always presented problems, finally ending the hallowed contest in 2009. The replacements for such heritage destinations, however, may indicate that the ground has shifted under the "financially viable formula" of which Ziul spoke.

In 2010 Quiksilver took an extremely large contingent of surfers, documentarians and staff on a trip to G-land. The waves and performances generated an enormous amount of media attention. Sources close to the company contend that it was a dual-purpose mission, however: Quiksilver intended to measure the viability of bringing a tour event back to the break. A decision on whether or not to host a 2011 event at G-land had to be made by November of 2010. After their mega-trip, a commenter aware of the process said that the company was 75 to 80 percent in favor of the historic return. Then in October of 2010, something changed and the G-land option was dropped from consideration.

Alternatively, in January of 2011 Quiksilver announced that it would be hosting the Quiksilver Pro New York at Long Beach September 4 though 15. The event rounds out Quiksilver's Pro Global series, which includes their events in France and Australia. The press release also stamped "the month of September for a series of demos, films, parties, music concerts and art exhibits that represent the best of surf, skate and snowboarding cultures."

Essentially, the decision came down to holding a contest either in the real jungle, or the concrete jungle -- and though the bushes have eyes, there's a lot more advertisement value in affecting the ones on the street. And so, the Quiksilver Pro New York fits neatly into a revived trend toward the '80s tour schedule of festival-type contests located near large urban centers or large surf markets -- much in the vein of Hurley's recent success with the U.S. Open and Trestles events.

Still, a single change of venue has never hampered the dream. When one takes a look at the tour changes worldwide -- the loss of Mundaka on the European leg, a hole filled by Rip Curl's event at Peniche in Portugal -- the trend is more apparent. Long Beach and Peniche are not bad venues, it's just that they are not Cloudbreak, Mundaka or G-Land. In fact, a glance at the 2011 World Tour Schedule lists only two events that do not hone to the "bums on the beach" near large or emerging surf markets trend: Tahiti's Teahupoo and Rip Curl's Search.

By year's end, it just may be that we'll be left with but one troubled vestige of what was once known as the "Dream Tour." The engineers of the ASP's financial formula have had 30 years to figure out the best value for their marketing dollars. As one source said, "The event sponsors host events in places like Huntington because they know it works."

But does this mean the Dream Tour doesn't?