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Thursday, May 12, 2011
The crowd factor


Cluttered as it may look, crowds may not be the bain of surfing after all.

Something strange happened to top-tier surfing between the close of the Bells Beach at the end of April, and the opening of the Billabong Pro in Rio today. Surf fans have been granted a virtual leap between power surfing past and present. The big arcs drawn on Bells' slopped walls immediately gave way to aerial-punctuated combos at Lower Trestles last week and in Brazil now. But as celebrated as both the rising Brazilian talent level and the ever-progressive Lowers comps are in terms of pushing performance forward, there's something that's equally influential: cash.

Until recently, performance evolution happened at a very slowly pace -- in the grommet filled shadows of pier pilings, on celebrity boat trips, on nameless beachbreak sandbars. There is, however, a way to place advanced orders for specific tricks.

For instance, at the Lowers Pro organizers offered a specialty "Most Valuable Performance" award. At the end of every day of competition the three "sickest" moves were selected, posted online, and the world was allowed to vote via Facebook. It's where Dane Reynold's inverted slob and Kolohe Andino's stalefish were made famous. At the end of the contest the most dynamic and progressive maneuver was elected and the "MVP" winner took home a cool $10,000 (ultimately won by Brazil's Caio Ibelli).

And harkening back to the glory days of Air Shows, Nike 6.0 has also just announced their "Cash for Tricks" mini-tour that will hit Europe this summer. 72 surfers, five stops, 80,000 euroes on the table, best "trick" wins. What's going to come out of that (besides some late nights)?

But things can get much more granular. In November of 2007 the marketing brains at Volcom issued a call-to-action and prize for the first surfer to land a kick-flip and capture it on film. The challenge held for nearly three and a half years, but in March Zoltan Torkos of Santa Cruz, Calif., posted a clip of a real-life surfing kick-flip at Steamer Lane and eventually collected Volcom's $10,000.

What inspires today's top surfers? Pure performance is part of it, but money is an underlying factor.

The importance of this event isn't the kick-flip, but the very fact of employing this particular form of innovation inducement in the first place. When it comes down to it, we have very few establishments we can count on to solve broad social and technological problems. When government fails to deliver, and when certain problems can't be solved or innovated in corporate or university labs, there is another, wide reaching option sometimes presented by third parties: an open challenge fueled by a cash-money prize. Crowd sourcing.

Theses contests differ from say, the XXL awards, because they're open to anyone, anywhere, who can perform a specific task that's never been accomplished before. And they work.

Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight over the Atlantic was spurred in part by Raymond Orteig, a New York hotel owner who posted a $25,000 challenge in 1919 to the first Allied pilot to cross the pond. Despite attempts, Orteig's challenge went unmet for eight years. Then an unknown, 25-year-old Lindbergh soloed into Paris on a plane built in San Diego, Calif.

The idea of cash for solutions is much older, however. Ever hear the phrase: "My kingdom for a horse ... "?

Obviously, the World Wide Web has kicked the phenomenon of crowd sourcing into overdrive. And because of it, some formerly big technological hurdles now look like tooth pick constructions. In the mid-'90s the X Prize Foundation offered $10 million to the design and flight crew of a reusable, civilian spacecraft. And Innocentive.com connects open calls of action backed by cash prizes with minds around the world. Some recent calls include $100,000 for "Compounds to Combat Citrus Greening Disease," or "Humanitarian Air Drop," a $20K call that asks for the innovation of a safe way to air-drop food and supplies into heavily populated areas. Innocentive has an impressive history of linking regular people with ideas to problems.

The herd mentality at Snapper Rocks.

Now that big-time action sports brands like Nike 6.0 and Volcom have opened their successful volley into surf-inspired crowd sourcing, I say regular surfers honor the spirit of innovation with calls of our own.

For example, wetsuit manufactures have been patting themselves on the back for years, but I am quiet under whelmed. Why can't I get a suit the lasts more than a season or two? Where's the custom blow-molded suit? Why can't I get a seamless, millimeter-thick suit that withstands arctic temps? Think that's too much to ask?

How about surfboard materials? Polyurethane foam began its commercial life in surfboards by 1947. Despite the closure of its main purveyor Clark Foam in 2005, polyurethane is still king. What? You think EPS or carbon fibers are solutions? What is this, 1948? Where is our environmentally sound, lightweight, uber-flex machines made of wheatgrass composites?

Now, the surf industry has never really been asked to perform. You dopes are still buying the same cotton T-shirts with stupid logos on them that your parents wore. When Clark Foam shut it doors, industry insiders were spinning in tight little circles as if the sky had fallen.

This is my suggestion: you, me, and the millions of board riders out there all pitch in a dollar each, we post up our desires to the internet, vote on those desires, and then we match the top desires with our money to put out the challenge. I want a waterproof radio in the deck of my surfboard, not ear buds, because I want the entire line-up to hear my righteous tunes. I want a telescoping, collapsible mini-gun for travel. I want a blow-up, bacteria fighting dry-room for my wetsuit and booties. I want environmentally sustainable everything ...

I want SUP's to disappear overnight.

Here's my dollar. Where are you?

In the future, we will not be looking to the traditional sources to solve our problems or innovate the future of surfing either.