Nick Carroll: Where the Money’s Coming From These Days

27 Nov 2019 2 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: Surfing NSW/Smith

Photo: Surfing NSW/Smith

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

Friends In High Places

“Did you ever think you’d see surfers in Parliament House?” Harry Hodge asked.

Hodge, Surfing NSW board member and ex-Quik Europe founder, looked almost as surprised as I felt.

This was a few weeks back and we were in the NSW Parliament’s Strangers Dining Room, attending a breakfast on behalf of a group I’d had no idea existed: the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Surfing.

Strangers Dining Room indeed! Was a time when you’d have looked far and wide to find a surfer in the NSW Parliament — or indeed, anyone even remotely sympathetic to the surfing cause.

Clearly things have moved on from the days when surfing wasn’t even allowed to be a school sport.

The Friends were first convened a few months ago by Manly MLA James Griffin, a witty clean-cut gent who takes some delight at gently ribbing fellow pollies from other beach areas vis-a-vis Manly’s status as surfing’s point of origin in this nation. James has recruited a range of such folk to the Friends, mostly people who, like him, are planning to rise in stature in the near term.

Now we were all sitting in this big dining room, almost 200 of us, being served a very nice breakfast by Parliament House staff and listening to various speakers extol the wonders of the surf, which at that moment we were all in fact missing.

But why were we really here?

The answer’s easy: networking.

Organised surfing needs governments. Not only are the organisations themselves a lot bigger and more salary-laden than they once were. The fact is that a system once reliant on a booming surf industry for its funding has had to look elsewhere for support.

And in the taxpayer, by and large, they’ve found it. Indeed, governments — through various tourism and event agencies — have now replaced surf companies as the biggest supporters of organised surfing in Australia.

This was brought into sharp focus by a Surfing NSW presser last week.

It announced a major step-up for the Sydney Surf Pro, to be held at North Steyne next March.

A SYSTEM ONCE RELIANT ON A BOOMING SURF INDUSTRY FOR ITS FUNDING HAS HAD TO LOOK ELSEWHERE FOR SUPPORT.

The event, formerly a QS6000, will now open the WSL’s new Challenger Series for 2020, making it the biggest pro contest in Sydney since the demise of the old Coke Classic 20 years ago.

It’s a massive financial uptick — an extra $130,000 in prizemoney alone, plus a significant boost to the promo and execution budgets.

And the whole thing is being underwritten by Destination NSW — the State Government’s tourism arm.

The Sydney Surf Pro joins all three Australian WSL CTs, every Aussie QS event, and the whole Surfing Australia Olympic high performance program in being dependent on serious levels of local, State and Federal funding.

It’s hard to figure out how much of our taxes are going into all this, but put it all together and you wouldn’t be too shy of $10 million.

WSL Oceania CEO Andrew Stark says government support is nothing new to the sport. “You look at Snapper and Bells, and the Margaret event, they’ve had that kind of backing involved since the turn of the century,” he told CW. “It’s part of any sport’s partnership mix these days.”

Stark also points out that other sports carry government funding that makes surfing’s look extremely minnow-like by comparison.

He’s right about that. How much is that new NRL stadium in Moore Park costing the NSW taxpayer? That’s right, we don’t know anymore, because the amount is so huge everybody’s scared to say.

But what’s really changed in surfing is the balance.

The Sydney Surf Pro is a near perfect example. Once sponsored by Hurley and Billabong in tandem, it now bears no sign of surf corpo involvement. The event’s most recent headline sponsor, Vissla, has had to step away from a contest that’s now grown too rich for its blood.

The Vissla team plans to re-distribute their funds through a range of smaller Surfing NSW events.

Meanwhile, the down-home “core” features of their former North Steyne headliner are likely to undergo a bit of a renovation. The Sydney Surf Pro licence is now a WSL property and will be overseen directly by the League, which Stark describes as “a big change … It’ll change the scale and presentation of the whole contest.”

All this has been aided by a fortuitous turn of the times.

The rise of government tourism and event agencies has almost exactly paralleled the decline in surf industry fortunes, both here and overseas.

Destination NSW, for example, was founded in 2011, just as the post-GFC retail slump was beginning to undermine surf apparel sales.

Surfing’s odd status as a sport that’s also a lifestyle has allowed it to cash in nicely on that shift — or at least cover the balance.

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