Kelly Slater, local wildcards, and the future of the Big Wave World Tour

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)

On the weekend the ASP announced the roster of invited surfers to each Big Wave World Tour (BWWT) event on the 2013/14 calendar. The formula is simple enough: The Top 12 BWWT surfers are invited to each event, as are 6 local wildcards plus 6 international wildcards to make a 24 man field. Each event is run in one day.

Of interest is the number one wildcard in all six BWWT events – Kelly Slater. Earlier this month Swellnet ran an article that detailed the viewing pattern of the 2014 ASP World Tour thus far. All of the peak viewing times occurred when Slater was in the water. From the article: “Typically the figures would rise 25%-30% just before his [Slater's] heat and drop off soon after.” It was clear Slater was a huge drawcard, so, the article went on, “for the ASP to succeed they need to heed that information and somehow harness it into their brand building.” In short, they needed to push him into the limelight even more. Which is what they appear to have done with the BWWT announcements giving the 11-time world champ a golden pass. Expect to see his name being used in all pre-competition press releases.


Another development of the BWWT is the qualifying system. Unlike the ASP World Tour which has a feeder system providing surfers with a clear pathway to the top – national junior series, international junior events, World Qualifying Series, and then the World Tour – the BWWT has no supporting infrastructure. The Top 12 surfers are ranked from the previous year but the turnover is reliant upon unranked surfers getting enough invites to score the requisite points. At present it's a loose method of compensation that relies on the awareness and impartiality of the ASP Commissioner's Office.

To address the issue the ASP announced a video competition that would allow unknown surfers to score wildcards. This system, the ASP has said, “will give the lesser-known big wave surfers an opportunity to argue their case for a trip to the main events.”

“Applications should include the five biggest/heaviest waves and must include performances from a total of three different locations. Special consideration will be awarded to videos taken at BWWT event venues.”

The submissions will be shortlisted by public vote before being decided by an ASP panel. It remains a loose system, and public voting in any capacity is fraught with problems, but it's one step toward addressing the issue of wildcards and qualifying. And that's an issue the BWWT has to sort out, both to provide a pathway to qualifying but also, and very importantly, to appease local surfers.

Last year BWWT founder and Vice President, Gary Linden, visited Australia to meet with the Streaky Bay surfing community. A BWWT competition had been earmarked at a nearby reef and Linden told Swellnet he'd “really like to include Australia on the BWWT calendar.” The proposal however was met with fierce opposition from local surfers. Linden flew in to hear their grievances and decide upon a course of action. After the meeting the plans for competition were cancelled.

Australia only has a few legitimate big wave spots, none of them consistent in the way Mavericks, Jaws, or Todos Santos are. And each wave is protected by a committed group of locals who regard the media and competition with deep suspicion. Linden did well to get a meeting at Streaky Bay. At another famous big wave spot, best left unnamed here, the plans would've been shut down well before that juncture.

It's not hard to imagine the lesson Gary Linden learnt while here in Australia. If the BWWT wants longevity then it needs to maintain harmony with the young surfing communities that feature on its tour: Pico Alto in Peru, Punta Lobos in Chile, and Punta Galea in Spain, and that means including as many locals as possible in the mix. As much as the ASP would want to fill the roster with crowd pulling names like Kelly Slater – these comps will be webcast around the world after all – the security of the BWWT rests with the development of good local relations.


prg1972's picture
prg1972's picture
prg1972 Wednesday, 28 May 2014 at 2:26pm

I'd hesitate to call the two forces conflicting though you've put a fine point on the strategies the Big Wave World Tour must employ for success. In your last ASP article you theorized concurrent live viewers as the key, an argument I don't disagree with, however the Big Wave World Tour requires a different business model. At most they have six days of competition per year (since it began the tour has never run a full season - at least one contest p/y has been cancelled due to lack of waves). This is simply not enough air time for World Tour-style sponsor packages.

What the ASP will have to do is package each contest for delayed telecast, similar to what they've done with the World Tour contests in America on ABC, except not on ABC as the audience is limited. ESPN is the obvious one. Keep your ear to the ground for further announcements.

The Big Wave World Tour has the foundation for mainstream appeal. Developed correctly it could well be Zosea's golden egg.

PS: I hope Kelly Slater takes every wildcard.

wayneoz's picture
wayneoz's picture
wayneoz Saturday, 31 May 2014 at 12:15pm

Personally I love riding big waves the most. But I think the biggest challenge is the fact (at least for me) that, nothing is more boring than watching a big wave contest 'online'.