Toweling Off At The Tub
Did you spend much time watching the tub over the weekend?
Me? I tuned in for a short while both Saturday and Sunday morning, each time hoping to see something new, or at least something entertaining, but each time switched it off after a few rides, more out of disinterest than disgust. I was bored.
There was more entertainment in the comments. More insights too, even when that wasn’t the intention. A pattern emerged whereby the negative comments would pile up, and then a positive comment would try to counterbalance the ledger, but it was a hopeless cause.
The best argument the positrons could provide was that the tub was a marvel of human ingenuity, therefore criticism of it was tantamount to sacrilege. As far as arguments go it’s a non sequitur: toil and gumption will get an invention on the table, but the market decides if success will follow.
Besides, in December 2015, every surfer marveled at Kelly’s first glimpse video, but six years and five events later, it’s clear the wave is a turkey for contests.
The initial promise of the tub was that it would fast track progression. Yet as has been written elsewhere, the wave doesn’t advance creativity but stifle it. More on that point later.
Those defending the pool also assume the Woz is acting in good faith by holding an annual CT at Lemoore. However, the Surf Ranch isn’t just another stop on the tour, it’s a marketing tool for the Woz to sell their wavepool technology. The whole thing is an advertisement - an on-site trade show booth. Other operators flock to Surf Park Central while the Woz just turns on the webcast.
This point was made clear by no less than Ian Cairns, one of the pro surf founders invited to attend the Future Classic back in 2017 and collectively fawn at the promise of a greater tomorrow for pro surfing.
“The event is a marketing vehicle for the pool,” wrote Kanga on Facebook this morning before delivering his verdict on the Wozzle’s strategy, “As far as the WSL CT product is concerned, it suffers by being in the pond.”
There’s a long list of dissenters, which now also includes Kanga, but how representative of the surfing audience are they? The risk of a limited survey lies in the echo chamber of social media. More tellingly, traffic to the Surf Ranch contest tracked at around a third of a CT average over the weekend, rising to approximately half the average today.
The market spoke and they also said the contest is a dud.
The way it currently stands, the tub hasn’t delivered on its promise of accelerated learning. Take today’s men's winner, for instance. Last year, Filipe Toledo launched airs on the first section of the right - a daring risk on a 45 second ride - but this year he reined it in and launched on the end section only. It was performance devolution.
Also, in today’s final, two-time winner Gabriel Medina twice tried to launch airs in the middle section of the left and twice failed. Don’t expect him to make those mistakes again. Surfing at the tub is reminiscent of the old Round 4 three-man ‘no loser’ round, which was designed to encourage risk when in practice the surfers simply played it safe.
There’s barely any point bringing other male surfers into the equation, as of the four man-on-man contests at the tub*, only Gabriel and Filipe have made the finals. That stat points to consistency, not unpredictability, as being the winning formula.
Around the same time Gabs was testing the limits and failing, I was reading a Facebook post by coach Martin Dunn - yeah, apologies for the social media journalism. In it, Martin was explaining how to ride the left at the Tub.
“The left at the Surf Ranch can be broken into four distinct sections, requiring four different approaches to maximimise scoring,” writes Martin, and by way of encouraging engagement in the action continued, “The surfing becomes much more interesting when you judge a ride by how a surfer negotiated the different sections, depending on their surfing ability.”
He also included the following infographic. The numbers are positions on the clock if you're wondering.
It bears repeating that the Tub was designed to take surfing to the masses. Indeed, other tubs - WaveGarden, BSR etc. - are doing that outside of the competition environment, but the Kelly Slater Wave Company stands no chance of broadening the appeal of pro surfing when repertoire is effectively narrowed making less room for improvisation and surprise.
By way of comparison, consider Gabriel’s semi-final at Newcastle. On a right hand bank he unexpectedly rode back towards the rockshelf, hitting the oncoming whitewash for the biggest air of the contest and a near-perfect score. No-one had yet done that, and the creativity, the sheer difference to what came before, was apparent to everyone watching, surfer and mug punter alike.
When the ride gets reduced to a single choreographed path, as it does at the tub, the difference between turns becomes so subtle as to be imperceptible. When core surfers need explanations then pity the non-surfing rubberneck looking to fill his Saturday arvo lounge time with surfing. What does he or she see on the screen? I can’t say, though it doesn’t matter as they’ve voted with the remote. The traffic ain’t there.
It’s possible, perhaps very likely, the contest will pivot into a novelty venue. A new format to dial up the entertainment. Something that can deliver eyeballs without surfers worrying about end-of-season points. Stab High and Red Bull Foam Wreckers have set the precedents. But then again, who knows when it comes to the Woz?
Since Dirk Ziff bought pro surfing back in 2013, it’s become impossible to forecast the future of the sport. The traditional markers for commercial strategy - profit and loss, market success etc - mean little to a multi-billionaire who at times shows the same regard to the audience as he does to his bottom line.
Today’s winners at the Surf Ranch Pro were Joanne Defay and Filipe Toledo.
The Men's and Women's Top 5 are as follows:
* Three seasonal CTs plus the Future Classic.