It's time for longboarding to dance to a different tune
Every time the WSL runs its new ad it's like a bad joke, and the longboarders are the butt of it.
“It takes a tour to make a title,” proclaims the flashy promo, but what does this say about the longboard world title? For the last four years the world title was decided on just one competition. This year they have two competitions. Is this enough to constitute a tour?
All the longboarders I know take it in good humour; they’re all too aware of the obstacles in making pro longboarding viable.
The Championship Tour is home to spearpoint surfing and it’s sold on that premise, while the Big Wave Tour is held in waves that impress the man on the street - it has the most potential for mainstream crossover.
Performance longboarding, however, is a version of who can whisper the loudest. The equipment restrictions negate high performance aerial surfing and a nine foot noserider won't work at forty foot Jaws.
So what’s the unique appeal of performance longboarding? Or, to put our marketing hats on for a moment, how can competition longboarding be packaged and sold?
Last month the World Longboard Championship - the first of two contests in their ‘tour’ - ran in Tupira, Papua New Guinea. The pre-contest media mentioned a daily press release but I didn’t expect to be running much in the way of results. Past experience shows they’d garner little traffic.
Swellnet isn’t alone here, very few surf sites run any pro longboard results and I’d wager their reasoning is the same as mine.
When the first WSL press release came through, however, I cut and pasted it straight to our site. I then pored over the accompanying photos to see which would look best on the homepage.
And the reason? The opening ceremony featured locals in colourful traditional dress carrying handcarved wooden boards. It was a cultural exchange, and of the thousands of photos and stories that flashed on my computer screen that day, that event stood out.
After the opening ceremony, Swellnet ended up running all the news and results from the PNG World Longboard Championships because when you begin telling a story you’re obliged to also finish it.
Tom Wegener was also up in Tupira during the contest. It was the third time he’d been there, the previous two times he’d been working with the locals on those handcarved wooden boards I saw in the photos. Wooden boards have a long tradition in PNG, and Tom being a wooden board boffin...well, you can see the link.
Tom also has an extensive history in longboarding being among the first kids to rediscover longboards after the shortboard revolution deemed them redundant. He’s had over forty years on the glide and now he’s got an idea for selling longboard contests to the world.
“My suggestion to the WSL,” Tom tells me during a recent conversation, “is that at each stop on the tour they tell some sort of story. Like we did here in Papua New Guinea with the wooden boards and the traditional ceremony.”
He believes the idea can be replicated around the world. “It can be applied to other nations of the Pacific,” says Tom. “Around the Indian Ocean too. India has its own story...even Malibu in California.”
“You tell these great stories and combine them with the contest to turn people onto it.”
The process isn’t alien to the WSL. In 2014 their VP of Communications, Dave Prodan, spoke to the Huffington Post and what he said sounded very much like what Tom Wegener is proposing:
“We need to do a better job of telling the story of the athletes and providing a better context for the fans. Fans can get involved in a personal story or biography. Once they are invested, they can then tune in on a time delay if they’re in a different time zone, and champion our athletes outside of the water.”
Acting on the above, the WSL kitted out a warehouse in Santa Monica and turned it into a production house where they churn out stories on their major athletes. They’re also heavily invested in a coming documentary on Laird Hamilton. The WSL is already in the business of telling stories.
“It sounds unreal,” said one unnamed pro longboarder who was at the Papua New Guinea contest when I ran the idea past him, though he concedes there might be resistance. “I don’t think some guys would like to see longboarding cast as a regressive sport. I’m sure they think it’s much more progressive than that.”
“But then,” he counters, “they also don’t like longboarding being neglected for the sake of the Championship Tour.”
Like the ad on television, Tom's idea just makes sense. Using longboarding to tell cultural stories may even attract that rare and treasured species: the non-endemic sponsor.
Though it has less dazzle than shortboarding, and (thankfully) less machismo than big waves, longboarding is more genteel and respectful of the past. There’s a timelessness to the longboard dance. It has, in other words, mainstream appeal.
It’s time, says Tom Wegener, for longboarders to dance to a different tune. “Every island nation with surf has a story. Longboarding can tell those stories.”