SURF INDUSTRY: ESPN AND SLATER BREAKING AWAY FROM ASP
FROM FRED PAWLE’S THE AUSTRALIANcolumn
Dubbed ‘Kelly’s Tour’, breakaway system rolling ahead
Nine-time world surfing champion American Kelly Slater is backing a rebel pro-surfing tour that will start as early as next year, with or without the support of the sport’s existing sponsors and administrators. The breakaway world surfing competition has the potential to affect broadcast rights, sponsorships, advertising and significantly boost the earnings of the world’s best surfers.
Organisers of the rebel tour – Slater’s manager Terry Hardy and former American boxing promoter Matt Tinley – have an in-principle agreement with US pay television sports network ESPN to broadcast it and claim to have enough financial backing to get the tour running without the imprimatur of the surf industry or peak surfing body, the Association of Surfing Professionals.
“In a year there is a possibility that there will be two world champions, but obviously that’s not what we want to happen,” Quiksilver International event director Rod Brooks says. Quiksilver, a surf clothing company, is Slater’s long-time sponsor and has been involved in developing the rebel tour for at least the past month.
Early this month Quiksilver chief executive Bob McKnight summoned leaders of other surf labels to meet Hardy in California, to inform them of the rebel tour and invite them to be involved. According to various reports, Hardy told the meeting the tour would proceed whether they supported him or not.
ASP chief executive Brodie Carr waited three weeks before he could get a meeting with Hardy, which happened this week in Los Angeles. Carr is not saying what was discussed but one rumour in the surfing world suggests Hardy was bullish about his ability to steal the sport away from the ASP. Other sources say the rebels have employed a team of lawyers to head off any legal challenge from the ASP.
Neither Hardy nor Quiksilver International in the US are prepared to comment on the new tour or on rumours that McKnight and Slater have invested heavily in the breakaway group, saying a press release will be issued soon. This much is for sure: the rebel tour will consist of 16 surfers (eight permanent, eight wildcards) in eight events run during five months in the latter half of next year.
Each event will have a prize pool of $US1.5million ($1.8m). This would be a huge payrise for those lucky enough to be invited on the new tour – the biggest existing events on the ASP tour have only $US340,000 in prizemoney, which is shared between 45 competitors.
Representatives from the pro-surfers union, World Professional Surfers, also met Hardy in Los Angeles this week. The WPS is partly financed by British businessman Greville Mitchell, who didn’t return emails or calls from The Australian regarding the apparent agreement between surfers and Hardy.
Brooks says Quiksilver’s role has been greatly misunderstood. “The perception is that we want to control things,” he says. “I just want to make it clear that we really support the ASP and that we’re continuing business with them as usual. We’ve got a big event on the Gold Coast as usual in February and our big event in France next month.
Those events cost us over $2m to run. We don’t see anything wrong with the ASP, this is just a media opportunity to take surfing to another level, particularly to the US mainstream.”
However, Slater’s disillusionment with the existing tour was apparent in an email he sent to fellow competitors this month.
“ESPN has signed on to support and fully back a tour to potentially start next year,” Slater wrote. “This is huge news and opportunity. This would include a ‘new’ tour based on what the surfers want to have in terms of judging, locations, formats, etc … It would also include a dedicated, full-time web team and signature look to all events.
“Basically they are looking to present a fully professional sports package of surfing to the world with dedicated prime-time TV and the best live webcasting available.”
On the Australia’s Surfing Life website this month, surf journalist Tim Baker quoted Slater saying, “Basically, if there’s a way to create a much better situation for surfers and a tour and this is it, I’m in. Does the ASP cease to exist if this goes forward? No. Not necessarily … Has ASP failed pro surfing? I don’t think so but I also don’t truly feel it’s done the best job that can be done.”
In a reflection of how much influence Slater has over some surf journalists, and how sensitive this issue has become, the quote was pulled from the site within 24 hours.
One of the anomalies of top-level surfing is the existence of professional “free surfers”, who are paid not to compete in events but instead travel the world surfing the best waves and recording the action on video.
These include former world champ Andy Irons, his brother Bruce, fellow Hawaiian Jamie O’Brien and Californian Clay Marzo. These videos often reveal a gap between the best free and contest surfing. In an attempt to close that gap Slater has, according to surf insiders, proposed that no ride on the rebel tour could score a perfect 10 out of 10 unless it includes an aerial manoeuvre.
“That would be more exciting to watch,” says 2009 world title runner-up, Queenslander Bede Durbidge.
Durbidge is a good example of the existing tour’s problems. Last year he earned less than $200,000 in sponsorship. This year it will be much less. His main sponsor, Californian surf label Mada, dropped him a couple of months ago, despite him still being rated 11th in the world. Durbidge says he will consider the rebel tour, but only if the rest of the title contenders also defect.
So have any been personally approached? Australian Joel Parkinson, who is leading this year’s title race, says he is unable to comment on the rebel tour. “I don’t know enough about it, and I’m just focusing ont he next event,” he says.
Calls to another high-profile Australian, Taj Burrow, were not returned. Former world champion Mick Fanning, of Queensland, who is also the new surfers’ representative on the ASP board, was on a flight home from California when The Australian tried to call. While in California he met Hardy to discuss the rebel tour.
O’Brien, an obvious contender for the rebel tour, says he hasn’t been contacted by Hardy.
Such a challenge to the status quo has been increasingly inevitable during the past two years. For the past two seasons, the rights to the footage of each pro-tour event has been bundled up with the licence agreement with the sponsor.
Instead of the action being produced by one dedicated TV production company, the event sponsors have had to do it themselves. This has been largely successful – surfing has raised the bar in the broadcasting of sport over the internet – with good-quality events attracting a million unique browsers on the internet during the course of each event.
However, the presentation of the overall tour is disjointed, going through various sponsors’ websites, and the commentators change from one event to the next. It is this inconsistency that Slater was referring to when he told his peers the rebel tour would have the “best live webcasting available”.
That, and the rebel tour’s promise of prime-time broadcasts in the US, is what the sport needs to attract a mainstream audience. John Mossop, spokesman for leading Australian surf label Billabong, says his company has met Hardy but is still waiting for more details before committing to anything. Billabong remains allied with the ASP.
“The surf industry has always been very competitive, so we don’t fear competition. Indeed, it is healthy,” Mossop says. “We have been competing with the newer players in the industry such as Nike and Red Bull for some time, but they haven’t changed the landscape too much. But, ultimately, surf is our heritage and we will continue to be involved regardless of the direction any new competitors may want to take it.”
That new direction is into the mainstream. For four decades, surfing has remained an essentially fringe sport, appealing only to those who are surfers themselves. Brooks says the rebel tour is all about making the sport more profitable. “There are some compelling reasons this has come about,” he says. “There is an opportunity to make some money.”
A more mainstream audience would also attract bigger companies from outside the surf industry, potentially pricing the surf labels out of the market for event and athlete sponsorship deals. “Quiksilver has no problem with that,” Brooks says. “It’s market forces taking place. We don’t mind others stepping in and taking the load. We’ve carried the load to get the tour where it is today.
“We’d be happy if other people benefited from it. The sport would be pushed to a higher level and the image of the sport and the athletes would be enhanced. Quiksilver is a major player and we think we’d benefit by growing the pie.”
Slater’s reputation has taken a hit over all this. He is out of the running for this year’s world title and the perception among some fans is that he’s taking his bat and ball and going elsewhere. Not so, says Brooks.
“A cynical person would come to that conclusion, but if you knew him as well as I do, you’d know that he has had these ideas ever since he started on the tour. He just feels he’s arrived at a point where he can make a difference and, unless he makes a difference, it won’t happen.”
The rebel proposal will be considered by the ASP board at the sport’s head office on the Gold Coast on Monday or Tuesday. There is no set proposal on the table yet, although what the rebels offer is open to speculation. It will be somewhere between a conciliatory offer to amalgamate the rebel tour with the existing one, making them complementary, and a demand to endorse the rebel tour willingly or otherwise.
Would the rebels offer to buy out the ASP? “I don’t think buy out would be the correct term,” Brooks says. “It would be to bring them together so they complement each other.”
Hardy’s partner in the rebel tour is Tinley, whose departure from boxing in 2002 involved lawsuits from boxers and claims of unpaid debts. Brooks says Tinley’s past had been brought to Quiksilver’s attention only in the past 24 hours, but it doesn’t affect the rebel group’s reputation. “I think he’s done a lot of successful projects since then,” he says.
Durbidge says the potential for a better tour is considerable.
“The ASP needs to change its ways and go outside the industry to get sponsors,” he says. “Maybe look at Target in the US; they just signed a big sponsorship with (top female surfer) Carissa Moore and are getting into action sports. Once they get on board, others will follow. I know LG is interested in action sports, and Mountain Dew.
“Everyone is really curious about what will happen and excited about taking the sport to the next level. Even if it went sour for a year, it would eventually work out in a year or two and it would be better for everyone.”
Veteran Hawaiian contest director Randy Rarick says the surf companies will use their control over the sport’s best athletes to stymie Hardy.
“I don’t think the companies are going to let their riders go to a tour that is detrimental to the tour they have always supported,” he says. “You could wind up with a bunch of guys saying, ‘we’re going to take our ball and play over there (with ESPN)’, but none of them is going to be a world champion.
“It would not have any meaning. It would be a great promotional tool, but does ESPN care about developing the sport? Heck, no. They only care about making advertising revenue.
“In three years it will be a flash in the pan. Some guys will make some money but its legitimacy will be questionable, and it will fall by the wayside. I’ve been doing this for 35 years, I’ve seen these guys come and go.”