Nick Carroll On: Now For The Controversy That Is 'Plan B'

6 Feb 2017 24

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Kelly Slater and his creation of artificial wave perfection

Kelly Slater and his creation of artificial wave perfection


And Now For Plan B

Wave Pool tournaments in Korea anyone?

Last September, during the Hurley Pro at Lower Trestles in California, the WSL held a three-day Partnership Summit. The summit was headquartered at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Salt Creek, 15 miles or so up the coast from Lowers. (At Lowers, the entire VIP area was closed at one point, so that WSL executives and their guests could visit the site unencumbered by the riff-raff.)

The attendees we’ve spoken to found a lot to enjoy about the Summit: a great keynote speaker, a beach barbecue at nearly Three Arch Bay, all the trimmings. A couple of ‘em were also a bit baffled at the evident social divide. “It was nice, but it was weird,” said one. “We’d go for a drink and all the surf (industry) people sat at one table, and all the WSL team and their (corporate) clients sat at another.”

But they all got one very clear message: the people behind the WSL no longer see professional surfing as a deal on its own. If it’s going to work, it has to become a vehicle for something else — something capable of turning a profit. As my attendee mate put it: “It (the tour) is not the main game any more.”

So what is the main game? What’s Plan B?

Since Paul Speaker’s resignation — which took effect last week — CW has spoken to a range of sources to get an idea of pro surfing’s yet-to-be-revealed future. In the carefully crafted PR around Speaker’s departure, you can see a couple of hints. Namely, the mention of Kelly Slater Wave Company’s amazing and much-clipped pool, and the actual outing of Dirk Ziff.

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Dirk was named in the PR as the WSL’s new CEO, and this alone was a real moment. As far as I can tell from my embarrassingly large collection of epic WSL press releases, this is the first time the very private Mr Ziff’s name has EVER been mentioned in public by the organization he has effectively owned for four years.

Indeed — such has been the silence around the Ziff family’s investment in professional surfing that for quite a while, using their name earned surf journos a very cold response indeed from WSL staff.

When somebody this private lets his name appear in PR, let alone takes the public reins, you know it’s all about to get real.

To wit: cold reality is coming to the WSL’s operations, later if not sooner.

One source spelled it out pretty clearly. “I think you can expect some real reductions on the CT next year (in 2018). It’s funny, because surfing itself is growing right now, but (pro) surfing might actually be gonna shrink.”

The source foreshadowed a move to a reduced CT event list of perhaps eight events, with a reduced surfer roster and a two-day format, tuned to social media rather than onsite crowds. “No more big crowd events. Maybe Bells will make it as a legacy event, but others, Rio, maybe the Hurley Pro, will go.”

You might expect the surfers to kick back at a reduction in CT numbers. But what are their options? They don’t own this show any more. Only one surfer sits on the WSL board, and only one surf industry rep, Pat O’Connell. The need to cut back won’t be coming as a surprise to them.

There’s also likely to be a change in the WSL CT’s sales focus. Plan A’s minimal success in luring the global megabucks promised in the original WSL plan means that at least in the short term, the tour will need to look more locally for its funding. This would shift more responsibility to the WSL’s regions; smaller sums of money, but more of ‘em. A couple of our sources noted that local CT partners offering up to half a million dollars had been knocked back in recent years, in case the partnerships disrupted potentially bigger deals in the works in NYC. Trouble was, the big deals failed to materialise. “I don’t think they can afford to do that in future,” said one event promotor.

The general goals: limit the losses and earn where you can.

This gives the WSL some time to work on the longer term part of Plan B — and according to our attendees at the September Summit, this is somewhat of a doozy.

This chunk of the main game is all about Kelly’s wave pool, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and the doors that the WSL board thinks will then open up to wave pools and associated events in both traditional and “new” surf markets. By “new”, read places where there isn’t a surf culture yet – Korea, China and the like.

They see opportunity in allying the pool concept with holiday resort development, and using the CT as a glamour marketing tool to help make it happen. “There’ll be a couple of wave-pool events on the CT for sure,” one source told us. “It’s only a question of when.”

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And the “when” might be sooner than the Olympics. A Summit attendee told us about a presentation from a key WSL executive, who told the room he’d visited Korea and seen resort development in action: “It’s amazing!” the exec reportedly explained. “They’ll put the whole thing together in months. Not years — months.”

Think of the appeal to people without a surfing background! A great wave pool takes care of the cursed unreliability of the ocean. It creates the controlled environment that allows schedules to be drawn up and stuck to, that opens up set-piece camera work par excellence, and that lets you charge a crowd for admission (cue hotdogs, chia seed pods and Corona beer on tap).

Kinda like every other pro sport, in fact.

We sent an outline of Plan B part two to the WSL hoping for somebody to comment, but got no reply, which in my experience, usually means it’s not far off the money.

Such a pro surfing world was forecast 14 years ago, in fact, in none other than Pipe Dreams, Kelly’s ghosted autobiography of 2003. Kelly’s vision of the future as outlined in the final chapter of the book — wave pools across the US Mid-West, introducing millions to the sport — sounds remarkably similar to Plan B, if you swap out the Mid-West for eastern Asia’s economic powerhouses.

And if it sounds pretty mad to you, remember it’s got this going for it: nobody’s tried it before.

Everything else has been. Every single thing. NYC-based corporate backing? Hawaii’s former arch-promotor Fred Hemmings was leveraging US network TV deals against mainland sponsors via New York sports sales agents in 1978. Crowd Theory? Ian Cairns and Graham Cassidy were pulling tens of thousands of people to weekend-climax city beach events, and selling space to the likes of Coca-Cola in the process, in the mid-1980s. Adventure Surfing? Bruce Raymond’s Quik International crew were running clunky box videotapes out of Grajagan’s ultimate dream event on overnight planes to Singapore for news broadcasts in 1997. The Internet? The hilariously named B.I.G. — Broadband Interactive Group — were burning millions in investment cash on a spendathon extravaganza complete with webcast from Teahupoo in 2000.

Each of these ideas had its day, was born, flared up, and sorta fizzled out. But nobody’s tried multi-million-dollar barrelling wave pools in Korean holiday resorts.

I mean! What could possibly go wrong.

NEXT: Plan C!

Malia Manuel, just cruisin' in a dream land, Photo by @toddglaser

Malia Manuel, just cruisin' in a dream land, Photo by @toddglaser

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