Why Andrew Stark Is the Man in WSL’s Brand New Hot Seat – Nick Carroll

25 May 2018 1 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Soon to be former top dog at Surfing Australia, Andrew Stark lining one up at Sunset recently before he takes his seat at the WSL table. Photo: Supplied

Soon to be former top dog at Surfing Australia, Andrew Stark lining one up at Sunset recently before he takes his seat at the WSL table. Photo: Supplied

"I’ve turned associations into businesses"

When Andrew Stark was invited to ride the World Surf League’s prize possession, the KSWC pool in Lemoore, CA last year, he had no idea they were watching him. But they must have been.

Two months ago, the CEO of Surfing Australia was offered a trickier, but possibly more glamorous job: head of the WSL’s operations in Australia and Oceania. Special task: get the KSWC system up and running, right here.

“We’re going to build one in Australia,” he says simply. “That’s why they offered me this, because they wanted a leader to make it happen.”

KSWC’s team is looking at projects around the world, including Florida, Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Stark believes whatever is built here will have the advantage of learning from earlier projects like Lemoore.

“People are underestimating wave pools. The skill acquisition will go through the roof, as to what they’ll be able to transfer to the ocean. We’ve seen it happen with dry land,” he says, referring to the SA Hurley High Performance Centre and its associated skate air training facility.

“It’s never going to replace the ocean, it’s an addition.”

Starky has been at Surfing Australia for around eight years, and still recalls arriving at its Casuarina, NSW HQ back then to find a tin shed and four other employees. He’s delaying his transition to the WSL until September, he says, to finish the job of expanding the HPC and help bring in the new CEO, whomever that may be.

So how does a person find himself in this kind of position? Stark has deep Sunny Coast roots. His dad, David, was a member of the Moffateers, the club Ma and Pa Bendall started at Caloundra back in 1966 to give the local kids a way into competition. That meant Andrew spent his childhood surfing. “I didn’t have a choice about being a surfer,” he laughs.

Sadly, David died when Andrew was just 11, which got him further into surfing, if anything. (He’s highly competent and spends as much time as possible each year on Oahu, surfing Sunset and Waimea Bay.) “I think surfing saved me in a way,” he says. “It connected me with my dad when nothing else might have done.”

At Queensland Uni, he met up with the university boardrider’s club. At the time it had 30 or so members. Andrew was soon president. “We grew the club to about 300 members. That’s when I got the passion for organising and just getting things going.”

He finished a business degree, went on a world trip, came home in 2000, and saw an ad for a job at Surfing Queensland. That led to around a decade at SQ, running the Quik Pro at Snapper among other things, and building the resource base for Australia’s most visible state surfing body.

Surfing Australia was a much bigger challenge. People have questioned SA’s rep team performances in recent times, but you can’t question Stark’s ability to gather resources and get seemingly very disparate people on board to make shit happen. SA now has 30 full-time employees and a wide range of programs, and it oversees millions of dollars in funding, courtesy not just of government support but of a highly varied sponsorship blend, including companies like nudie, Nikon and Sanitarium.

He’s instinctively managed the operation through another key transition of the past decade, as competitive surfing has grown less reliant on the surf industry and more focused on the WSL model, and of course on the glittering charm itself — Australia’s bid for Olympic surfing glory.

“I’m passionate about surfing and the opportunities it creates for people,” he says.

“I think it’s about applying good business principles to sport. Understanding what success looks like, and what failure looks like. At the end of the day, what it comes down to is that I’ve turned associations into businesses. I’ve said, let’s create sustainability for this, and do it by making it a business, something that generates funding to allow it to advance and improve.”

I use the word “mainstream” on him, and he grows animated. “It’s more this: how do we get to a larger audience? How do we share surfing with that bigger audience? Surfing Aus’s slogan is to share the stoke. That’s why the Olympics is so important.”

That’s the other word here: the O-word. Stark says the biggest sticking point for him in taking the new job was having to dislocate himself from direct involvement in Australia’s Olympic effort. Yet indirectly, you can see how the ties will continue to bind. Surfing Australia has been working with the KSWC since it became a WSL property. The Australian Olympic train-on squad will spend five days in Lemoore in mid-June in private sessions, with coaches and boardmakers in tow.

Stark says there are no plans for SA to link with any other wave-pool company. “If we’re tuning athletes to compete on the world stage, and you’re the national body preparing for the Olympics and so forth, that’s the only wave pool we need to be working with.”

In the meantime, the WSL’s executive structure – way more business than association – means Starky will be Australia’s main voice at the pro-surfing table. “I’m going into (the WSL) to create more opportunities – for people to get into surfing, and for the athletes too. I’d like to see them as international superstars, inspiring kids to surf.

“There’s huge growth potential here.”


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