For the better part of his 15-plus years of competing on the ASP World Tour, Kelly Slater has remained remarkably reticent to assert his influence in the name of change. Not any more.
The big story in J-Bay at this year’s Billabong Pro isn’t the swell forecast, Kelly’s funky new board, local boy Sean Holmes playing giant killer again or even Tom Curren and Occy reigniting an old cold war, but rather the earth potentially crumbling beneath the ASP World Tour. That’s because Slater and his management team are dead set on drastically reforming pro surfing. At a closed door meeting at a swanky Orange County hotel in early July (while Kelly was down in Brazil rescuing his season from disaster) Slater’s manager Terry Hardy addressed the matter with the pro surfing industrial complex; read: Billabong, Rip Curl, O’Neill, Volcom, Hurley and Bob McKnight of Quiksilver (who sent the invites to industry players). It was all very hush-hush on the DL kind of stuff, and as one marketing director told me before going, “It better be one hell of a presentation.”
You’ve probably read the details by now, about ESPN giving the whole pro surfing thing another shot, but with real money and a completely new format that will culminate in an eight-event summer tour, ESPN coverage, live webcasts and a three-year commitment. But there is a significant rub. The tour will feature only 16 surfers, and allegedly, those surfers will be comprised of the top 8 rated surfers in the world, and 8 hand-picked wild cards.
The rumors surrounding this whole ordeal has several the world tour stars and ASP officials in a state of confusion. So much so Slater was apparently compelled to send an email to his fellow competitors in order to address many of their concerns. Though Slater claims to be in the dark on the matter, like everyone else, there’s little doubt he’s driving things. To think ESPN would be considering it without Kelly’s involvement is laughable. To that end, Slater will be committing to three more years of competition if it all comes to fruition.
“It all sounds pretty heavy,” says Peter Townend, who knows a thing or two about starting a new tour. Townend was a key player in the surfers coup of 1982 that helped form the ASP. “These things come with drama, but it’s about time something get done, because the ASP has reached a plateau with the webcasts. It needs TV.”
Depending on how things transpire, history could be repeating itself. It was big crowds, press coverage and decent prize money that convinced the entire cast of world tour stars (and event sponsors) to abandon the old IPS for the ASP after the success of the first Op Pro in 1983. But the transition was filled with drama. The Hawaiian leg of the tour, which was still controlled by IPS founders Randy Rarrick and Fred Hemmings, was not a part of the ASP World Tour in 1983. What’s more, Hawaiian powerhouse Dane Kealoha, also a former runner up to the world title, dared to surf in the Pipe Masters against the ASP’s strict rules. Kealoha lost his world tour seed for good as a result, and his career was over.
Slater has been understandably critical of the way the sport has been governed for some time. His dissatisfaction stems from the fact that the ASP is a toothless body, which it is. It has no real assets. It acts merely a sanctioning body that’s controlled by the owners of its events: Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl, Hurley, Vans and O’Neill.
These brands, not the ASP, call the shots in pro surfing, not just because they have the money (which they do) but more importantly the athletes and the media rights, which has far greater implications. Controlling the media rights of the world’s best is the only real asset any sporting league has. Without them, leagues can do very little to raise the kind of revenue required to leverage the sport and push it forward. Exhibit A of this is Major League Baseball. Around the time of the 1990s Major League Baseball strike, one of the most contentious issues between owners and league officials was over the rights to digital media. MLB prevailed in keeping those rights. In the end, that was the single best move MLB has ever made, as it resulted in billions of additional revenue for the league, which continues to thrive despite the economic meltdown.
In surfing there are no team owners, only event owners. Those event owners control the rights to all their own media. Each is responsible for its own web and television distribution, and getting them to give that part up is one hell of a tough sell, especially considering how poorly that experiment went the first time around. In the mid ’90s, Coca Cola was the umbrella sponsor of the ASP tour. As part of that arrangement the ASP controlled all the media rights. The problem was they weren’t able to do much with them at the time. There was very little TV exposure in the United States, which is where most of the big bucks come from in surfing, something Ian Cairns and Peter Townend were very aware of when they were getting the ASP off the ground in Southern California.
Then, in the wake of the Op Pro riots of 1986, control of the ASP went back down to Australia, where it has remained ever since. It was the Australian division of Coca Cola who spearheaded the ASP arrangement. Coke’s American counterparts weren’t even aware of the fact they had any skin in the pro surfing game.
In a perfect world, the ESPN tour (which has been called Kelly’s Tour, to his dismay) would be able to exist within the ASP’s system, bolstering the long running body that–despite all its self-inflicted wounds–has made strides in recent years. But doing so would require great sacrifice from sponsors and surfers. For starters, what would become of the rest of the tour? Which events would stay and which wouldn’t? Would the ESPN surfers be forced to surf on the rest of what’s left of any World Championship Tour? What about the other 30 surfers on the ASP World Tour? Where will they go if the industry does buy in and simply let the rest of the schedule go?
The risks are serious to the ASP, not to mention hundreds of young kids hoping to follow in Slater’s footsteps some day. If the ESPN tour puts an end to the ASP system, there goes the entire engine that feeds talent and dreams. But ultimately, for the ESPN arrangement to work it will need more than Kelly Slater. That was the point of the industry gathering. Some of the talent (Parko, Mick, Taj, Andy, Jordy) would need to be green lighted from their sponsors, who obviously have big stakes in the ASP in its current form. Others (Dane, the Hobgoods, Bobby) are in easier positions to make the leap due to their sponsors either being on board (as in Dane’s case) or free agency status. Will the brands take one for the team and surrender media rights? Will they continue to support a tour that feeds a pipeline of new talent? These are all questions being mulled over right now, and the answers will be interesting regardless of what happens.
Slater’s mind is made up though. While in Jeffreys Bay he responded to my request for comment via email, stating, “It’s not ‘my’ tour by any means but I support the direction it’s going. Please make that clear… Without a proper foundation anything is bound to have issues along the way and the ASP has had some major repair work necessary for a long time. Whatever comes out in the wash here will ultimately create a better platform for the surfers and the fans who want a good production to watch and and exciting format. I guess we’ll find out shortly the support this has internally and how it’s being percieved by everyone.”
Perhaps most telling, according to sources, is that Terry Hardy wasn’t asking for the surf industry to step up and sponsor events at his presentation meeting. While they’re more than welcome to put up the 1.4 million dollar price tag for an event, he can pull this off with or without them. Translation: clean up pro surfing, or we’ll clean it up for you.
This will get interesting.