The Slump, by Nick Carroll – Part One, The Legend

15 Jul 2019 19 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Screenshot from Busting Down The Door.

Screenshot from Busting Down The Door.


A CW series on what’s happened to Aussie fortunes on the men’s world tour — and what might turn it around. (Read: Forget The World Title)

Rabbit’s been watching, and he’s worried.

Just before the beginning of the recent QS10,000 in Ballito, South Africa, Rabbit Bartholomew heard something that blew his mind.

“Someone told me a special chartered flight had just left Sao Paulo (in Brazil). Everyone on that flight was a young QS pro, and they were ALL heading to Ballito.”

At the other end of our call, I can almost hear Bugs shaking his head. He sounds equal parts horrified and amused. “That’s how far behind the eight-ball we are,” he says.

Rabbit has been watching the slow decline of Australia’s pro tour fortunes for years. Watching so closely, in fact, that a year ago, he helped instigate a summit meeting.

This was at Surfing Australia’s HQ in Casuarina, not long before then-CEO Andrew Stark announced his departure for a role with the WSL. Stark got Bugs, along with crew from the Surfings (Surfing NSW, Surfing Victoria, Surfing Qld etc), and a few other interested parties, and sat down with them to map out the issue.

Rabbit’s thesis is a lot broader than some simple bagging out of a young surfing generation as being too sooky, or lacking mongrel, or whatever. Right now, he notes, we’re well into the school holidays and two mega-grom events are about to unfold, the Skullcandy Oz Grom Open at Lennox and the Occy event at Duranbah. Kids and parents will gather en masse, frothing to get into it.

The question is, where will those kids go next?

“There’s been no erosion of surfing talent, I’ll maintain that point,” he says. “It’s not mongrel they’ve lost, it’s hope. They’ve lost the hope.”

Why? Let’s go to the top of his list: Without any big qualifying series events, we’re cooked from the start.

Australia’s the most CT-rich nation on earth. With three here and one in Bali, over a third of the Big Tour is on our doorstep. That’s a big advantage to our CT pros; though as Bugs says a bit dryly: “The fact that we didn’t manage to win any of ‘em, that’s a worrying sign right there.”

Our QS presence is another matter. All the big qualifying events — the QS10,000s, the ones that get you over the qualifying line — are in other countries. And to get into qualifying for them, you’ve gotta surf a lot of 3000s and 6000s, all but three of which are also overseas.

This means Australia finds itself stranded — too far away from the big QS events for a CT pathway to form.

There’s a lot of QS1000s here, for sure. But 1000s are what they say they are — one tenth of the big ones. They might be OK training runs, but they don’t make a difference in qualifying. To see what a 10,000 does to the QS rankings, just look at what happened at Ballito. It was like a bowling ball smashing through the tenpins. Winner Deivid Silva moved up 126 places, from off the front page to 7th. Jack Freestone jumped 340 places. Wade Carmichael 261 places. And so on.

All three mentioned above are CT pros, by the way — well funded and intent on securing CT spots, picking up points and prizemoney on the way.

The economics for a young Aussie up and comer are nothing like that. The prizemoney at his home QS1000 events is just $10,000 — the same money that was up for grabs in Rabbit’s own domestic tour events in the early 1990s, the ones he and Peter Whittaker geared up to replace a suddenly defunct APSA.

Chasing 1000s, you’ll almost certainly spend more than you earn. It’s no way to save your bucks for the real task — chasing 3000s and 6000s here and there around the world, trying to get a start in the 10,000s.

But even if you find the cash to do them, these events aren’t structured like a tour. You can’t go to a country, or even a region, and surf six of ‘em back to back, say. They happen at semi-random, from one side of the world to the next.

Thus, says Bugs, “Australian surfers are having to save up their coin to do these one-off hits to 3000s in, say, Costa Rica, to no real purpose.”

It’s made more complex by changes in the surf industry. In the past, the big surf companies drove surf teams, QS travel, training, engagement with high quality surf — all the ingredients that work to create pathways for pros.

Today, that kind of spend is no longer available. Companies aren’t just run on passion anymore. Their marketing dollars are precious. They don’t see much value in paying a kid to vanish off the radar into low-level QS-world, scoring a few points here and there in Japan and Europe, when he or she could be getting clips at home and pumped on social media.

“The model is still based on a world where a surf industry exists,” Bugs says. “There’s one golden child at each company and that’s it. 

“You’ve gotta make it happen now, yourself. Work two jobs, dig ditches, save up, make a plan, nobody else will. It’s totally up to you. And you can do that for a while, but for how long?”

Saving up $20,000 to do eight QS events and maybe make the top 100, dropping sponsors in the process, while your mates are spending a quarter of that to go to Indo? That’s how you lose hope.

Rabbit stresses he doesn’t believe this is anyone’s fault. “It’s just crept up on us. There’s a whole big picture, all these different things combining.”

I mention the broader change in surfing, the widening of its appeal to so many different people, who may not see it as a sport so much as a recreation — an escape from busy lives and the business of the world. Are these people even interested in surfing, the sport? 

Rabbit grows animated at the thought. He sees opportunity here. “Years and years ago I pictured these kinds of people getting into surfing: Prime Ministers, Premiers, CEOs, brokers, people on big company boards. That’s how big sports get funded. There’s someone on the board of a company who has the passion, who drives the company to put marketing spend that way.”

He says those doors are being knocked on. But right now, it’s a pretty big maybe.

Meanwhile, following the summit, things have begun to shift. A significant investment by at least one surf company, Vissla, has kept the first QS6000 of the year in Sydney and pushed a QS1000 at Avoca up to a 3000.

Rabbit says he understands that an expansion of the QS program is on the cards, geared toward pushing the number of 10,000s from six to 10 globally, so the top end of the QS becomes more coherent and easier to plan for if you’re a super-kid on the rise.

But that’s generic stuff. That could benefit any kid, anywhere, not just here.

I quote something Martin Dunn, ex-head national coach and technical adviser to a couple of Aussie pro generations, told me in another conversation on the subject. “You go to a 10,000 now and there’s 50 guys who could win it,” Martin had said. “All these other countries have learned from our success. Australians will probably bounce back, but they’ll never dominate again the way they once did.”

Rabbit chuckles for a second at that. Then he says: “Well I tell you what, no other country’s going to be crying for us.”

Next: Part Two: THE COALFACE. What it’s like taking on the QS.

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