Nick Carroll On: Plan C, Ideas For The WSL

13 Feb 2017 8

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Fred Hemmings, Photo by Singletary

Fred Hemmings, Photo by Singletary



Some ideas for the WSL, from people who’ve learned the hard way

That's It For Plan A
Now For The Controversy That Is Plan B 

Remember that great saying, “History is bunk”?

Henry Ford gets the credit for it. No, not the surfer! The car guy! Ford’s thinking was that if you depend on history as a guide, you’ll never create the future — never try the big stuff, like a car assembly line in Detroit.

Maybe…though Ford wasn’t the first to create a car assembly line, and he wasn’t the first to sell cars en masse either. Maybe along with the iron will and the fascist tendencies, he was also a bit of a bullshit artist.

The WSL tried the history-is-bunk theory for three years and ran an excellent, possibly best-ever world tour at the greatest financial loss in the sport’s history. Now it’s going to try to meld reality (reduce and focus the CT) with more history-bunking (the wave pool hypothesis).

But what if they asked the people who made that history in the first place? We went back to the future with some of pro surfing’s old school, and here’s their suggestions:

CHUCK THE FORMAT: I had lunch with Fred Hemmings the other day, and it was all time. Fred is pro surfing’s original spear-chucker. He ran the show before it even started, including the Duke Classic in the 1960s and the Smirnoff Pro from 1970 onward, and invented the Pipe Masters and Triple Crown concepts, selling them to US network TV in the process.

Among many other things, Fred told me he thought the WSL was addicted to an event format that’s just become tedious. “Everything’s the same now! You’re in France at a beachbreak and this guy gets a wave and it’s an 8.9! Then this other guy gets a wave and it’s an 8.7! It doesn’t have to all be the same.”

He had two suggestions, both so showbiz I couldn’t help laughing. Number one: “Do you think the number one woman could beat the number eight man?”

Yes, Fred, I totally do. “OK then! Top eight women versus top eight men. Pick a spot they can all surf well. Specialty event showdown, year’s end, big money. Team them up. Let’s go!”

Number two? Again, a specialty event: Drop all interference rules and see what happens. “Combat competition! Two man teams, and they can interfere as much as they want. One surfer could block for the other. Imagine that at big Pipeline!

“Now I’ve told you this, it’ll get printed and they’ll probably go and do it. But…” And he shrugged his shoulders. Then cracked up laughing again at the idea of guys dropping in on each other at Pipe. No holds barred!

CUT STUFF NOW: I sent an email to Ian Cairns, the former super-pro who took control of the whole show through the newly formed ASP in late 1982, setting in motion everything from the once legendary Op Pro to the priority system which lies at the heart of modern pro surfing competition.

Kanga was pretty cagey — I suspect he didn’t want to give good ideas away free — but he was bemused that big cuts hadn’t already begun. “Why are they not making cuts now?” he wrote. “Admin expenses. Event expenses. TV production expenses.

“But that is not enough. They have to address revenue. Where’s the revenue?”

Ian thought it was smart to disentangle the regions — and that it wasn’t so smart to try to take charge of the QS in the first place, the way the WSL did in the halcyon days of 2015, when all seemed possible. “The various promotors had a vested interest in making their events viable. The WSL only needs the media rights.

“Unwinding those deals and empowering the regional offices is a good idea. But economics of these offices key.”

THE BEAR GRYLLS APPROACH: This one comes from Graham Cassidy, former ASP head guy and the promotor behind the 2SM-Coca Cola Surfabout, which debuted in 1974 with the biggest prize purse in pro surfing at the time.

Cassidy was relieved of his post as ASP CEO at the end of 1994 and swiftly got back into event promotion. He lined up a massive whole-tour deal with Rupert Murdoch’s then sports conglomerate Sky/CSI, but it was shot down in flames by the ASP Board, which chose the surf industry instead.

He still believes in the idea underpinning the CSI deal, but tunes it up a bit for the modern day. Basically: an Adventure Tour. Pick a bunch of hard core wild coast locations (Shipstern was his first pick in 1995), put each one on hold for a month, and shoot the entire thing: surfer prep, success and failure at mastering the location, the lot. Let everyone watch the first stages for free. Then at year’s end, have the showdown at Pipeline - but THEN, make viewers pay to watch the rest: highlights from all event finales, the whole Pipe showdown, the lot.

Oh, and never go back. Like pick new spots every single year, so the challenge of the tour constantly renews.

“The WSL has done well when they’ve had an epic event in a good place,” Cassidy told us. “But often there’s not the drama, and it’s not enough of a surfari. Bering on surfari has a lot of appeal.

“It’s the Bear Grylls approach. The environment is always changing and he’s always got to adapt and come up with new ways to get through it. And you never know just how it will turn out. Hectic wipeouts, incredible scenery, surfers gearing up to take it on or go under.”

Good Lord.

CW’S HUMBLE SUGGESTIONS: Who knows if any of the above thoughts above will be taken up? But what the hell! Here’s a couple extra.

- Number one: If the wave pool event ever does get up and running, use Terry Fitzgerald’s Slalom Surfing format.

It’s TF’s idea and it was used in his old Pro Junior event at Narrabeen a couple of times. It’s crazy simple and it’d fit a pool perfectly. It runs like a half pipe snowboard event: Competitors line up and go one by one for a ride, low seed first, high seed last. They then re-set and go for a second run. Their best run counts; the second ride splits a tie. Bang.

Terry’s format was best three rides of five, in order to absorb the unpredictable nature of surf, but there’s nothing unpredictable about a pool wave. So you can reduce the whole thing to its hard essence. And it would be hard. Way harder than the current system. Way better for viewers.

- Number two: Embrace your viewers. Forget about the most recently mentioned figure of 120 million, or even more fabulously, 1.6 BILLION, which was claimed as a viewership in the wake of the 2015 Margaret River event. Our sources make it clear that in three years of full on CT event production, the WSL has discovered a stable viewership market for pro surfing of about three and a half million people worldwide — coincidentally perhaps, a pretty good match for the core global surfing population.

They’ve never really got beyond that core. It’s part of why the big NYC corpo sales evaded them. And the fact that they’ve never copped to it and continue to use massively inflated numbers in PR suggests to me that maybe they’re actually a bit ashamed of it.

But three and a half million passionate core fans is not a cause for shame. It’s a gigantic opportunity. HUGE. Hell, that number pretty much turned the recent US Presidential election.

Your core can help you, WSL! You’ve just gotta figure out how. Because until you do, everything else is just hot air.

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