Surfing’s Trouble in the Waves

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After 23-year-old Brazilian surfer Alejo Muniz won the $100,000 grand prize at the U.S. Open of Surfing in July, hundreds of fans left the Huntington Beach, California, pier, walked up Main Street, and began rioting through downtown’s stucco shopping district. Teens threw chairs and jumped on vehicles. Two young women pulled each other’s hair and wrestled on the ground. A guy ripped up a stop sign and hurled it through a bike shop’s front window. As the sun set, police in riot gear confronted the mob, firing rubber bullets and tear gas for hours until the surf fans scattered. At least 10 people were ultimately arrested and several officers injured.

This wasn’t the type of event the newly revamped Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), the sport’s governing body, had in mind after announcing its 2014 overhaul of the sport. In January, former Quiksilver board member and NFL marketing executive Paul Speaker – along with Kelly Slater’s manager, Terry Hardy – will relaunch the financially struggling ASP in a bid to take pro surfing to a new level of mainstream exposure (bowling currently gets more TV coverage). The move has pro surfer support – at a union vote over the buyout, representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new format. The ASP has long struggled to attract TV audiences to competitive surfing, a multiday sport at the mercy of the elements that doesn’t fit neatly into a one-hour TV event. But Speaker claims that more than 100 million global fans either surf or watch pro surfing – a “massive footprint” for the sport that he can use to broaden its reach. With Speaker’s experience in helping to form the NFL into a $9.5-billion-a-year behemoth and Hardy’s insider clout – his client Slater is competitive surfing’s lone superstar – the ASP is hoping to finally win over new fans in Middle America.

But to sell the longtime anti-authoritarian sport to a national TV-viewing audience, the ASP will first have to overcome a deluge of recent bad headlines. In August, pro surfer Jamie O’Brien punched fellow competitor Ricardo dos Santos in the face during a non-ASP Tahiti tournament, while in 2011, pro surfer Sunny Garcia threw a local man into a headlock and beat him during an Australian tournament. In 2012, pro surfer Anthony Ruffo was sentenced to two years in the Santa Cruz county jail for using and dealing meth, little more than a year after world champion Andy Irons was found dead in a Dallas hotel room with a laundry list of chemicals in his system, including cocaine and methadone – a synthetic drug used to treat heroin addiction. In March, 11-time world champion Slater told Australia’s Courier-Mail that drug use was still “rampant” in the sport, before amending his comments to say he was describing the sport’s “colorful history” and not the current pro tour.

“In mainstream sports like football and baseball, you have guys on trial for murder, constant drug scandals, and rioting fans,” Jess Ponting, San Diego State University’s Center for Surf Research director, says. “I don’t think it’s fair to paint surfing based on isolated fringe incidents. But I do think the ASP will have to deal with those image problems of surfing being a rock & roll sport, even though I don’t think it’s an accurate depiction of where the sport is today.”

In addition to addressing surfing’s image, the ASP will take unprecedented steps to draw wider audiences and score lucrative TV deals. After a relative peak of mainstream interest in the 1980s, pro surfing was deemed too old and established for the 1990s’ “extreme sports” boom and lost its national footing. Now the ASP will streamline its TV marketing strategy. Speaker is filling out his roster with media-savvy pros like former Visa marketing guru Michael Lynch and Fox Sports’ Jed Pearson. A huge selling point for the ASP will be the surfers themselves. “The pro surfers have incredible stories to tell,” ASP spokesman Dave Prodan says, “and there hasn’t been a consistent centralized organization to do that in the past. The ASP hasn’t driven the public’s perception of surfing yet, and I think that’s going to change.”

But there is no guarantee that even the most polished packaging of pro surfing will attract new fans. The economic downturn has decimated the sport. In February, Quiksilver cut many of its pro players from its sponsored roster. The following month, Nike canceled its annual Lowers Pro competition in San Clemente. As sponsors pull back on pro surfing, the ASP is ramping up efforts to sell the sport to an American audience that has largely never stood on a board. “I think the key learning at the NFL was that the fan was always at the center of all thinking and strategies,” Speaker says, explaining that he hopes to grow the sport’s fan base the way the NFL did, by appealing to those who already surf as well as those who just like to watch. But some surfers contend the individual aspect of the sport doesn’t translate well to mass viewing in the same vein as team competitions. “Whether surfing will be viewed as a legitimate sporting industry is a big question,” former pro surfer Cori Schumacher says of commoditizing competitive surfing. “I just don’t think that surfing itself fits easily into a concept of sport.”

Yet most insiders agree the former system wasn’t sustainable. When Speaker and his investors – Florida billionaire Dirk Ziff has reportedly given upwards of $30 million to the venture – purchased the ASP in 2012, pro surfing was struggling to stay afloat as sponsors quit financing competitions. “The ASP was looking a little creaky,” Ponting says. “A couple of major contests were canceled.” That financial uncertainty led most pro surfers to ultimately champion the new management, with its promise of increased prize money, athlete pension plans, and a guaranteed place at the table – a pro-surfer-appointed tour commissioner will have a voice in approving all ASP decisions. “There wasn’t a whole lot of consistency between each event,” current pro surfer Kieren Perrow says of the former setup. “Sometimes the sport wasn’t taken seriously by the fans.”

In the end, pro surfing’s best shot at success may be with Slater. While he has remained outside the formal negotiations – at one point reportedly stating he was “pleading the Fifth” in regard to his involvement in the deal – Slater has deep business ties with new ASP honcho Terry Hardy. One venture Slater and Hardy are promoting is the Kelly Slater Wave Company, which is creating posh artificial-wave surf parks. Slater is also competing on the full 2013 World Championship Tour – a move indicating his commitment to help the new ASP achieve commercial success. Insiders speculate that the new ASP title of tour commissioner was created especially for Slater, who is 41, to assume whenever he decides to retire. In the best of possibilities, pro surfing could grow in TV ratings as surf parks begin to dot the Middle-American landscape. “Not every person watching the NFL has ever played a football game,” Ponting says. “If people outside surfing can get a sense of its freedom, then they can take on that attitude. That could be a good thing for surfing.”

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