Friday, July 22, 2011

Don’t Blame The ASP: The Real Game Is Elsewhere

Words: Nick Carroll

While Kelly Slater has been missing beautiful morning scenes like this, Mick Fanning has his game face on and wants to win at J-Bay to keep his championship title hopes alive, no matter how small the waves have been in the first week. Photo:ASP/Kirstin.

Even die hard fans would have to admit the ASP World Tour has been taking an absolute PR shellacking over the past week or so.
It’s not that good a look, hey – sitting on small J-Bay while one of your top drawcards just sorta withdraws, and your defending World Champ is half-way around the globe in the midst of 15 foot tropical reef barrels, tweeting about how sick it is. (Though I am not totally sure KS got the best of it, by the way – he seemed a bit late to the lineup on the two epic morning sessions, while Healey, Kohl Christiansen, BI, Hippo, and crew were picking off the mega pits. And I bet he will be watching the J-Bay webcast, and perhaps slightly grinding his teeth at not being in some quarterfinal death heat with Parko. But we digress.)

Some people are inclined in these circumstances to slag off at the ASP management, but that just seems too much like shooting fish in a barrel … and a red herring, at that. Pro surfing’s survived a lot worse than this malarkey, if not often much more embarrassing.
The real game is behind the scenes, where the ASP is juggling corporate needs that look increasingly in conflict with each other.

Kelly was all smiles in back in Brazil, but it has been a while since the World Tour has seen Dane in a competitor's rashie. Photos: ASP/Kirstin

Four powerful entities fund the elite World Pro Tour. Three of them have been around from the start. Each of these three have slightly different takes on the worth of professional surfing. Rip Curl is an unabashed fan. Co-founder Claw can tell you what wetsuit Tom Curren was wearing in his third round heat at Bells in 1984. Global marketing head Neil Ridgway has been on the ASP Board for years and is a long-term devotee of the pro scene. They believe in competition as a key part of the surf culture.

Billabong is almost as unabashed – it’s been in the company’s DNA since Gordon Merchant started plus-funding his big North Shore events in the mid-1980s. But it comes with a caveat; also in their company’s DNA is a bias toward wave quality at major events. That’s why Gordon took his money to Hawaii and rolled out the Desert Challenges of the 1990s; that’s why they were the biggest fans of the old Dream Tour ideal; that’s why their key events are still at Jeffreys, Teahupo’o and Pipeline.

Quiksilver is a different story. The US wing of the company has never been completely enamoured of competitive pro surfing. They’ve tolerated it over the years, mainly because it’s been KS’s big gig and because the Australians and Europeans passionately believe in it. But CEO Bob McKnight has never made a secret of his scepticism as to its value to his key market. That’s one reason why he was quick to back Kelly’s management’s play for a super elite TV-oriented tour in 2009 – its big mission was to bring the scene home to Americans in a way they could understand. One detects his influence behind the bold move to NYC; one also suspects Kelly and Dane will both be in the vicinity of that event, no matter what’s up at Cloudbreak.

The fourth is Nike, the surf industry’s very own elephant in the room. And given that company’s fairly short track record in surfing, who knows where they might take things…though the re-branding of the US Open from Hurley to Nike – pure Nike at that, not the 6.0 spinoff – might be a guide. They don’t see surfing as a stand-alone sport. They’re fans of mixing it up for the crowd.

In the midst of this, the ASP is a bit like the current Federal Labor government. It’s trying to implement a policy direction that might pay off down the track. But in the meantime, it’s doing a shit job of demonstrating the pluses, while shock jock commentators and angry old white men take potshots at it, and even the true believers are scratching their heads and wondering what the fuck’s going on.

Pro surfing can’t stand still – it’s needed to go somewhere new for a while, whether it be the Moon or New York City. It couldn’t just stay hanging on the fringes, out there in La La Land waiting for miracle swells and feeding to 30,000 hard core fans on a webcast. It needs new TV, it needs new stars, and it needs new fans ... all the fucken time.

But it also needs to go ahead with a sense of full commitment and togetherness -- a sense of common purpose, you might say. That feels very much like it’s missing right now.

source: Australia Surfing Life

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