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Friday, December 17, 2010
Updated: February 24, 12:51 PM ET
Architecture of the dream

By Kimball Taylor
ESPN Action Sports

Pipeline, the wave that launched a world tour.

Part One Part Two

The Association of Surfing Professionals will soon turn 30 years old. Odd to think that Dane Reynolds and Jordy Smith weren't even born when Ian Cairns, Mark Richards and Rabbit Bartholomew were first battling it out, but in actuality, the reasons for the ASP's existence -- and the challenges it faces in accomplishing its goals -- remain the same as they ever were. The ASP may be the longest-standing organizational body in action sports, but it's emerging from a tumultuous two-year period that saw potential rivals force significant changes. Whether those changes have strengthened or weakened the organization remains to be seen.

"Fred Hemmings and I birthed this thing in 1976," says Triple Crown Of Surfing Executive Director Randy Rarick. "And back then if I'd stopped to think about it, I would have imagined that pro surfing would be a grown man by now. But, it's still a kicking baby."

Back then, if I'd stopped to think about it, I would have imagined that pro surfing would be a grown man right now. But it's still a kicking baby.

--Randy Rarick

In 1971, Hemmings -- a world champ of the longboard era and reputedly one of the first surfers to attempt a wave at Pipeline -- set a card table out on Banzai Beach and orchestrated the original Pipeline Masters. This one event established several precedents that hold today and spawned both the Triple Crown and the first unified world tour. On the success of the initial Pipe Masters events, Hemmings took on the Duke Kahanamoku Classic and Smirnoff Pro as a promoter.

In 1976 Hemmings recruited Rarick to help create the International Professional Surfers world tour (IPS). The idea for the IPS was that by bringing disparate contests held in Hawaii, South Africa and Australia under one ratings system, Hemmings and Rarick could create a comprehensive draw that would lead to the crowning of an undisputed world champion. In the 35 years since, the tenants of professional competitive surf organization have remained the same: an international tour financed by marketing dollars, a points-based system, and one champ (per gender), all in the service of growth as measured by both prize money and media attention.

Although prize money more that quadrupled in the six years of the IPS' existence, dissatisfaction over its rate of growth led West Australia's Cairns to stage a coup by convincing an important contingent of competitors to hop onto a new system: the Association of Surfing Professionals. In fact, the speed with which this system shift took place, revealed how few cogs were involved in hurtling surfers around the world, judging and then ranking their performances. There were no arenas, coliseums, parking structures, or vendors to contend with. It was, and remains, a machine based more in mutual cooperation than physicality. And because of this, though professional surfing has reached a ripe old age (almost that of the NBA), it has proven itself susceptible to even passing threats.

1997 Quiksilver Pro at G-Land. Luke Egan (in the tube) would finish first, Kelly Slater (on the shoulder) runner-up, and the "Dream Tour" concept was born.

For example, under pressure from 1990s progressive competitor Shane Beschen's theoretical "IS" tour, the ASP grudgingly relinquished its long-held judging philosophy that favored the number of manuevers on a wave over all else, regardless of how critical or creative they might be. In the early 2000s Brad Gerlach's team-themed "The Game" format also caused waves in the ASP administration and provoked threats of fines for any ASP surfer who competed in them. So it went without saying that in 2009 when an alternative tour was proposed by Kelly Slater, rumored to be offering 1.5 million dollars in prize money per event and extensive coverage on ESPN, there was a major reshuffling of the ASP deck -- all without so much as a single "rebel tour" event being staged.

Despite the apparent collapse of Slater's initiative and the significant restructuring of the ASP's rating system, event format, and Board Of Directors, the elements that keep the organization weak in comparison to other major organized sporting associations remain in place.

Some of the reasons for this are the very reasons surfers love the beach in the first place. It's open to the public, and in many places, its use is a civic right. This means there are rarely gate fees required in viewing competition, and certainly no tickets sold. Likewise, there is no controlled environment within which to inflate the price of sporting staples like beer, popcorn and hotdogs. This keeps the ASP perennially broke and overly reliant on the marketing budgets and organizational skill of the few companies that have consistently supported it. Still, event sponsor dollars have not always sufficed. At one point in the 2000s, the ASP forced it's surfers to loan the organization as much 4,500 dollars each, interest free, and the ASP dictated the terms of repayment years later.

Four-time world champ Mark Richards establishing himself -- and the tour -- at Bells Beach in 1981.

This financial instability has led to further poor deals for the ASP as an independent association. More traditional organizing bodies like the NFL own their events and generate revenue by selling sponsorships to companies like Budweiser or Ford. But at surfing's World Tour level, it's those "sponsors" (Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl, and Hurley) that own the events. They control the message, they own the media rights to the surfers' performances, and they own any revenue they generate by selling lesser sponsorships. Further, an "events council" made up of representatives from the event sponsoring companies elects two members who sit on the ASP Board. When disagreements on the board arise, their main opponents are the two representatives of the very surfers these companies sponsor. Whether or not it's fair, It generates the perception that the event sponsors control the ASP.

Indeed, as Rarick puts it, the goals of the ASP today are to "Create heroes, interest and design innovation, while getting the message of the sponsoring brands across."

Yet few continue to consider the broader questions of priority and purpose that the Rebel Tour challenge drew to the surface. The ASP is said to be "owned" 50/50 by the competitors and the event sponsors. What exactly do these parties own? Who are the real power brokers? And can the ASP, in its current form, ever fulfill its promise to raise surfing's profile in the larger sports world while taking its own place alongside the major businesses that other organizing bodies in traditional sports have become? Stay tuned to ESPN Surfing as we investigate these questions in preparation for the 2011 ASP World Tour.