Nick Carroll: The WSL Had Big Plans for Florida, Instead They Were Kicked in the Teeth

9 Jun 2019 20 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: WSL/Cestari

Photo: WSL/Cestari


How Come They Never Heard of the Deadman

I have a mate who lives in central Florida, USA.

For a while my mate was employed by a swimming pool contractor. He was fascinated to discover that putting in a swimming pool anywhere near the Florida coastline is a far trickier gig than he’d assumed.

You start digging, and anywhere from half a metre on down, sometimes less, you suddenly discover water.

This is because much of Florida is basically afloat on its water table. Sandy soil, seepage, etc..

Swimming pool guys have to use a pump drainage system they call a “deadman” in order to keep the water out of the hole they dig for the swimming pool because, if they don’t, sometimes the swimming pool shell will just pop clean out of the ground from the sub-surface water pressure.

All of which makes you wonder: How come nobody at the World Surf League thought of this? How come they didn’t know about the deadman?

Last week’s announcement by the WSL that it was unable to proceed with building a Kelly Slater Wave Company wave pool in Palm Beach, Florida, on land that cost them millions, thanks to those very same water table issues, seems to have slipped by the surf media half-noticed.

In fact, it is a serious kick in the teeth for the future financial viability of the organisation, and surely an indictment of the decision-making around this particular project. It’ll be a real surprise if at the very least, a few heads don’t roll at WSL HQ.

I feel for the WSL crew, I truly do. After five years and many many millions of dollars, they really have the work of running CTs down to a fine edge. The surfers are killing it, the events are on show more completely than ever, and while behind the scenes it’s almost the same circus it ever was, the whole thing looks smooth as butter. This is the best pro surfing has ever been, pretty much.

More than that: Something about this year feels a bit special. Maybe it’s the King’s touching and quite vulnerable coda, maybe it’s the girls ripping, maybe it’s the return of JJF and the threat of a full tilt title race in the offing – it all suddenly feels very human. Even the grumpiest old locals seem to have grudgingly opened a door to their withered old surfing hearts, at least judging by the number of WSL nicknames I read on grumpy-local website comments. (“Wozzle” etc.)

You don’t give nicknames to strangers. Right?

But also – you don’t make money from running surf contests.

That’s why the WSL’s Plan A didn’t quite work. That’s why back in 2017, the group switched its attention to the stake it had acquired in the Kelly Slater Wave Company. 

Its Plan B was to slash some of the costs involved in Plan A, get the CT as close to break-even as possible, and make the KSWC franchise hum – turn it into a real business, a backbone for its continued investment in professional surfing.

You could see why this strategy was developed. Kelly’s pool tech –its crazy wave quality, the star-power of its creator, and its extraordinary appeal to wealthy Americans, who kick down tens of thousands of dollars a day to say they’ve ridden it – is the most original thing in surfing this century. It’s not weather-dependent. You don’t have to take malaria pills in order to visit it. No horribly skilled local surfer can paddle out and take all the set waves. And maybe most of all, it can be owned – and therefore, sold.

One could imagine a hell of a business being built around such a thing. More to the point, the WSL board could imagine it.

So Plan B got off to a flying start. New CEO Sophie Goldschmidt said she expected “six or seven” pools across various continents, in fairly short order. Land was acquired in Palm Beach, Florida, and in Japan, and noises were made about maybe building one in time for the Olympics. Paris was discussed. Surfing Australia’s CEO, Andrew Stark, was head hunted specifically to develop a pool project in Australia.

Now it’s two years down the track. CT running costs have been cut, and continue to trim back – though the $1.4 million investment in women’s prizemoney equality has pushed things a bit the other way.

But the pool business?

It’s proving a lot harder to run than a world tour. Japan’s been a non-starter; the land earmarked there for a KSWC lies fallow, and it turned out the Olympics weren’t really interested anyway. In Australia there’s been plenty of talk behind the scenes, including with Village Roadshow, owners of the Worlds out the back of the Goldie. But nothing’s in concrete yet, figuratively or literally. Paris? Crickets.

Now it turns out Palm Beach, Florida is unviable – something it seems the local city council, who approved it, didn’t know, but every swimming pool contractor in Florida coulda told you in a single phone call.

Yeah, I guess the best laid plans can go astray, etc..

But the Palm Beach pool was gonna be special. For over a year now, everyone in the top layer of the WSL, from the owners on through, has been privately talking it up.

Six million dollars was spent acquiring the land. It would host an enhanced version of the KSWC tech, producing a bigger and better wave, linked to a mix of slick, low-impact, expensive surf resort, and elite pro training facility. They’d even planned to send ex-Billabong VP and former ASP CEO Graham Stapelberg out to Florida on a full-time basis to show-run the project.

In short, it was the future of the business. Not anymore. Right now the only new thing on the WSL pool front is their purchase of the failed WaveGarden project in Austin, Texas, which it is understood will be retro-fitted with the KSWC system.

If Plan B’s gonna work, it’s got a looong way to go.

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