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Wednesday, July 25, 2012
ASP board meets over media rights

By Jon Coen
ESPN.com

J-Bay sunrise
Could decisions made today be the dawn of a new era of professional surfing or the beginning of the end of the sport as we know it?

Surfing's international governing body could be on the verge of some game-changing decisions. The Association of Surfing Professionals board of directors will meet in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Wednesday to hear a proposal from an unnamed company regarding media rights as the ASP tries to adjust to the changing landscape of viewership.

"We will be looking at a plan that will determine the future of the ASP," said Randy Rarick, executive director of the Vans Triple Crown. "No one's going to take over the ASP. It will still maintain its regional offices and personnel. It will be a proposal for media rights. We had an events council meeting [Tuesday night], and at [Wednesday's] meeting, we will discuss our options."

The ASP has not technically owned its own media rights. Traditionally, event sponsors have owned the rights to webcasts, and the numbers are significant. Last year, the Triple Crown boasted a record 10.4 million streams. The idea of a single entity owning the media rights would be a very different model for surfing. On one hand, there is the potential to bring surfing to much larger audiences. On the other, there is the risk that surfing is homogenized into easily digestible packages for mainstream consumption, hence muting surfing's true colors.

Webcast Director Jeff Doner handles many of ASP webcasts. Here's the little box he spends most of his time in on Oahu.

"There's been a lot of talk and focus on media rights over the past couple of seasons, and I think all stakeholders -- surfers, events, ASP staff and the fans -- are in agreement that a consistent platform is what we should strive for," ASP spokesman Dave Prodan told ESPN earlier this year, "whether that be through organic agreements between the events under the current paradigm or a third-party media-rights activation or the ASP reclaiming the media rights and activating this initiative themselves."

Although Surfing Life Australia reported that Kelly Slater's manager Terry Hardy, who had been a financial backer of said Rebel Tour, is one party involved in the proposal, there is little information about what media are on the table. Other sources have indicated that Nike may be involved in these discussions. As owner of Hurley, Nike technically owns one of two ASP World Tour events in California, both Prime events, and half the Australian Open.

What is public knowledge is that sanctioned surf contests are extremely expensive and footed by an industry that has not been immune to global economic struggles. Each of the 10 ASP World Tour events costs approximately $2.5-$3 million to run. Some estimates of Quiksilver's New York Pro in 2011 are as high as $11 million. Much of that cost goes toward webcast production, which becomes more complex (HD broadcasts, water angles, more staff, multiple towers, wireless cameras and, in one case, the Goodyear Blimp) as each company tries to outdo the others. Billabong and Quiksilver's, who combined own 50 percent of World Tour event properties, have both had public difficulties in recent years.

Recent conversations have turned toward pay-per-view webcasts and talk of a subscription-based system where viewers can buy a single event or get a discounted rate for an entire season.

"My personal and professional opinion is that we wouldn't likely see the free webcasts halted 100 percent," Prodan said. "If there was a decision to move to a pay-per-view model, then you would likely see a version of the free webcast running, perhaps the low stream or the audio, and the high-quality version would be pay-per-view."

Could a big media deal bring surfers like John John Florence to a bigger audience?

The ASP has not had an umbrella sponsor since Fosters in 2007. Since the news of the Rebel Tour in 2009, the ASP itself has been embroiled in controversy. There was the revamping of its entire tier and prize-money structure in 2010. There have been events pulled off the schedule, fines levied and no-show competitors. Recent years have seen the highly publicized early retirements of Dane Reynolds and Bobby Martinez as well as the death of former ASP World Champ Andy Irons. Then there was the premature crowning of Kelly Slater's 11th world title in 2011 and the subsequent resignation of CEO Brodie Carr, a position that has yet to be filled. 2012 has been relatively quiet with most of the news focusing on the surfing.

The meetings being held in Huntington Beach are in conjunction with the Hurley U.S. Open, which starts July 30. Speculation is flying about, and the only certain thing is that Wednesday's meeting will be very important to the future of pro surfing. ESPN Surfing will have more as this story develops.