This week the calendar ticked over to July, we've entered the second half of the year, and under normal circumstances - meaning if COVID never happened - the CT surfers would now be in Jeffreys Bay awaiting the start of the J’Bay Open.
A quick look at the WSL website and despite all five previous contests being postponed or cancelled, the J’Bay Open is still optimistically listed as ‘upcoming’. But of course everyone knows it ain’t coming, nor are the following events, Tahiti, the Tub, then Europe, so the season is a write off, and with the pandemic again ramping up in Victoria and parts of the US, it’s becoming hard to imagine professional surfing being run next year either.
Unlike domestic sport leagues such as the NRL and AFL, who’ve lobbied to continue their games with restriction rules in place, the WSL can make no overture to government. Not till a vaccine is found or the virus eradicated does the WSL have a chance of running in a manner similar to what we know.
This leaves the WSL in neutral, engine running, costs mounting up, but not moving anywhere, no tours to run - not Championship, Challenger, or Qualifying - and the only activity is endless reruns of old comps or studio shows lost amongst the social media morass. They may be WSL branded yet the content is commonplace; without contests the Wozzle loses its exclusive standing and becomes a content farm like every other social media entity.
Another difference between leagues such as the NRL and AFL, as opposed to the WSL is the response to cancellation from fans. Even deep into lockdown and against all medical advice, many football fans argued for the return of their code. Paraphrasing fans across all codes and countries, it was “essential for a return to normality”.
I’m yet to hear a single surfing fan make the same emphatic appeal.
Some surfers may miss the office diversion, or the opportunity to ogle great surfers in great waves, but a necessity? Not on your life.
This is the first year since 1975 that there hasn’t been a surfing tour. That’s 45 straight years of contests - one of them was abridged due to terrorism, and a few in the eighties followed the financial year - but for a great many surfers it’s the first year without any competitions. The forced absence has brought pro surfing's place into sharp relief.
You see, almost since the inception of pro surfing, its administrators have packaged it, not at the readymade audience of existing surfers, but at the mainstream. That’s where the eyeballs were, which attracted the big sponsors, and in turn the big money. Yet time and again, from the IPS, to the Sid Cassidy-era ASP, to the new believers at the WSL, the play has failed. Surf contests are too slow, too complex, and in the world of extreme sports, too safe.
Yet while organised surfing stumbles and falls, surfing….just surfing, no heats or singlets, has succeeded in cutting through. Like it or not, surfing is mainstream; it's used to sell incontinence pads, credit cards, and retirement villas. The last ten years has seen more people start surfing than ever before, while the COVID lockdown saw a number of boardmakers smash their monthly records.
So what to make of this asymmetry?
I'm not entirely sure but stand back while l give it a swing.
The first surf boom came on the back of the beach lifestyle and set the template for how it's marketed: young, footloose, and healthy. The Endless Summer ticked all those boxes. Bruce Brown tested the film’s qualities with a mid-winter screening in Wichita, Kansas, where a sold out two week run saw punters queue around the block.
Ten years later, pro surfing was born and competition became the sole means to elevate the sport. Despite The Endless Summer being so successful, peak athleticism and hard-nosed competition provided the new route to expansion, and since then almost every mainstream play has been via the contest medium.
A year after the WSL bought the ASP, Swellnet ran a series of articles tracking viewership numbers during season 2014 and the results confirmed what we’d long suspected: the people who watched surfing contests were a fraction of the overall surf audience. There’s no reason to think the ratio has changed much since then, especially not when corporate sponsors - who would know traffic numbers - keep exiting the gates.
What became obvious in the wake of that finding is that, unlike most other televised sports, surfing is more fun to do than to watch. And that’s a conundrum for people invested in selling pro surfing.
In a recent piece for Swellnet, Gra Murdoch envisioned WSL head Erik Logan visiting the fictional town of Toonalook, which could be any surf town in Australia, seeking surf content for the WSL. Logan leaves disappointed, opining: “Surfing plays a large role in many lives here, yet no-one feels the need to convert it into any useful currency.”
What is clear is that surfing...just surfing, no heats or singlets, has gone mainstream in Toonalook and also in the real world, but it’s become successful in spite of pro surf administrators who sold one vision of surfing. Not all of surfing’s newcomers are young, but they are footloose and healthy.
They’ve been rumours the WSL is for sale, but as yet nothing concrete has been reported. Assuming Dirk Ziff - net worth $4 billion - holds onto it, there are a few takeaways from the enforced cancellation.
The first is that contests mean very little to most surfers. Administrators of all stripes need to accept that reality and stop talking up the bullshit viewer numbers - social media metrics are so 2010 anyway.
Second, is that surfing is already mainstream. If you’re wondering why organisations such as SIMA and Surfing Australia claim there are upwards of 30 million surfers worldwide, yet fewer people than 3,000 watch Rd 1 at Saquarema, then see point one.
While the third is that long term denial wont hide the fact that pro surfing is inextricably wedded to surfing, yet surfing isn't wedded to pro surfing. Pro surfing could keel over tomorrow and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference - just as many boards would be sold while just as many people would surf - and that’s a very humbling place for pro surfing to find itself.
// STU NETTLE