Tahiti Cancellation Symptomatic of a Deeper Malaise
The news came in last week.
The Woz's Tahitian Dream has been scuttled by the 'rona and now, absent surf stars being shot out of those gorgeous blue funnels, a very long month's work ensues for the marketing team in Santa Monica to keep interest high (or existent) before the much-hyped Finals Day at Trestles.
I know, predicting the long, slow death of the Woz has become a cottage industry all its own. If I had a buck for everytime I'd heard or read “she's cooked” I'd have the 42ft Beneteau parked up next to Larry Page's mega-yacht in the Yasawas, hoping for the whistle-up for a sundowner while the smartly dressed cabin boys kept the Mai Tais and yacht-rock flowing.
Nonetheless, despite the Teahupoo cancellation and the prospect of more disruption on the near horizon, calling time on the WSL seems a foolhardy exercise.
Backer Dirk Ziff has this thing called 'bottomless money', sometimes termed 'fuck you money' in the USA. In his case, a net worth of around five billion USD. Imagine a suitcase full of cash to the tune of a million dollars. He has five thousand of them.
A recent Forbes article came to the conclusion that running the CT added up to around $36 million. Let's round it up to $50 million.
For that price Dirk could run it for a hundred years before he exhausted his capital.
Of course, even a hundred years ain't the Pax Romana and there are reasons that Dirk is captain of a very leaky ship, even if the Corona Iceberg isn't a total Titanic event for the Woz.
I see the danger far more at the base of the pyramid, not the apex. The CT schedule for next year looks solid and there's every chance the fan base will expand. A mid-year cut followed by a heap of red meat events: G-Land, Tahiti, J-Bay, even Trestles, with a rumoured Indonesian Finals Day. Even the hardest of the hardcore G-land regs will find it hard to not tune in for a quick hate-watch of John John, Kelly, Gabe, Jack Robbo, Italo etc etc at throaty Speedies.
No, the talent and the venues will be a compelling proposition at the elite level, and Dirk will not begrudge a single cent when global eyeballs keep the digital turnstiles revolving.
However, to get the CT talent you need the ramps leading to the top and that is a thornier problem to solve.
Putting comps on costs money, and the Woz, nee ASP, has always been happy to shakedown the Aussie taxpayer to underwrite the costs. The Australian government has been, and is now, a significant partner with pro surfing at all levels. Not every country is so willing; Fiji was considered the best comp on tour by surfers and fans, yet it was dumped one year into a three year deal with Kelly Slater's Outerknown because support (read: money) from the Fijian government wasn't forthcoming.
With the new three-tier structure that funding model just got a whole lot more complex, especially in the current age of COVID. The Challenger Series (CS) 2021 is much truncated, but fully inked in. Likewise the 2022 CT. Eight comps listed on the WSL site. All 34 CT Male and 17 Womens surfers are pencilled in, suggesting the CS will be pitched as a CT-Lite, with starpower being used to do some of the heavy hitting to promote the tour. Will surf fans tune in and justify the cost of the tour?
Thats a very big question. I offer no answer, just a mild scepticism based on history.
Audiences for QS events, excepting the most spectacular like the Volcom Pipe Pro, have traditionally been miniscule. No-one is tuning into Day 3 Rd of 128 to watch a 4 man heat of no names do battle in onshore 2ft slop. Case in point: The online audiences for the recent Tweed Coast Pro, with a finals day in barely rideable onshore two foot surf were below a thousand when I checked in. No-one on the beach due to COVID, less than a thousand people watching online. For all intents and purposes it barely existed as a sporting event. Will governments keep stumping up for that?
Also, I've seen no local evidence of a post-Olympic bounce in surfing enthusiasm amongst the local kids. It's skateboarding that has them enraptured. Thirty-something-year old Owen Wright and his advanced hairline did not capture the kids imagination the way that 18-year old Keegan Palmer did.
What did light 'em up like Christmas trees for weeks was the big international Grom Comp, The Skullkandy Open, formerly the Rusty Gromfest. COVID killed that in July. Currently it's still listed on the Woz website for November. Chances of that happening? Somewhere between nil and a snowball's chance of rolling down the point.
That comp is a lynchpin of the Girls and Boys Junior Tours. Number of comps listed for that category next year?
Number of comps confirmed for next years Qualifying Series?
Four months out from 2022 and the base of the pyramid...that vast bulk of numbers to be whittled down into the surf stars of a successful tour, does not exist.
The traditional method used to get on the CT by Australian surfers: nail an Aussie comp, then storm the Hawaiian comps, is over. For good.
Now they have to negotiate a flukey, practically non-existent QS, lets call it 'provisional' to be generous. Make the top ten in that and then find the funding to take it to the established CT surfers and squeeze through another, even more competitive, funnel.
Morgan Ciblic would not be on tour by this method.
Nor would Jack Robbo.
Erik Logan's solution to this problem is the Olympic bounce. According to Logan, “The exposure and the attention we’re now driving from a media perspective, actually gives you what you need as a surfer to go get the media deals and sponsorship deals so you can make a living on the road just like every other professional athlete”.
Quick questions. Can you name an Australian qualifier for the Challenger Series? If you get one or two, see if you can get five?* My point being: has their profile increased because surfing was in the Olympics? Are they now worth more?
Would a hypothetical Morgan Cibilic, who couldn't even make the first string team at Merewether, get a media or sponno deal, pre-CT results?
Can you see the problem for Ziff and the Woz? It ain't the top. A fit John Florence, and Gabe, Italo etc etc will always draw the eyeballs.
How we get the next gen through without a massive money boost from Ziff into the base is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.
While the Woz pumps money and time into integrity sapping ventures like Ultimate Surfer the real grassroots needed for any professional sport is dying on the vine.
Helluva time to be a pro surfing aspirant or a surf dad.
// STEVE SHEARER