Wavepools Are Not The Future of Competitive Surfing
It's been a month since the Rip Curl Pro, held in Tullamarine's URBNSURF tub and historic by a few measures, was run and it's passed almost without notice.
Did you watch?
One of the main selling points of a wavepool comp is to make it easy for you to do so. No fumbling around with time zones and date differences, or endless on hold calls finishing in 'competition off for the day' because the wind came up.
You just clock in at the appointed time and tune in for the action.
In this case a Saturday morning; glorious in Melbourne.
My thoughts on wavepool comps are easily summarised and well documented. In short: dire, disgraceful, boring, a blight on the sport. Which is well matched to the tenor of surf fan commentary, and even inline with Rip Curl's Marketing Manager for Australasia Angus Forrest who said the Surf Ranch comp at the KSWC “lacked excitement”. You know when a marketing guy says that the situation is terminal.
But he also assured us Rip Curl was full bore into the “wavepool space” and that the URBNSURF comp would be different, more exciting etc etc.
Jessi Miley-Dyer, the Wozzle's SVP of Tours and Head of Competition assured me prior to the event that, “wave technology is at an inflection point”.
I don't normally take marketing guys or Wozzle spin at face value but after Forrest's candid assessment of the Surf Ranch debacle I tried to watch the Rip Curl Cup with an open mind.
URBNSURF charged $10 for spectators to get in and watch the action. That will have to be scrapped. Free entry will have to become a baseline for these events. No-one is paying to come and watch a wavepool comp. They'll have to rig up a free bus from the domestic terminal at Tullamarine and offer a courtesy drink to get bums on seats.
The atmosphere was dismal. The lowliest club cricket game will get a slow clap from a boundary or a bouncer. I swear the heats I watched lacked even that. Just a few random people wandering around in the sunshine like stunned mullets totally oblivious to and disconnected from the action.
The commentary was perhaps the hardest propaganda job in world sport. Parsing one three-turner and a weak finish from the next one over and over and over must have tested their mental fortitude to the limit. I hope, because it is a modern workplace, there was a debrief and counselling session available to them.
You think I'm over-egging the omellete here? You think, Oh, I'm sure at least a fair chunk of the millions of global surf fans must have enjoyed it?
The Official WSL stream, which is still playing on YouTube a month later, has only clocked 56K views. A minute and a half highlights package featuring Olympic Bronze Medallist Owen Wright was watched by 1,400 people. World-wide.
That's after a month.
By contrast, the latest Surfers of Bali clip featuring unknown people surfing Bali in the off season captured 23K views less than a day after being uploaded.
Nathan Florence's latest clip of him getting banged up at giant Jaws – 99K views a day after being uploaded.
Five years into the wavepool-as-competition-venue-era we can now definitively say this: Wavepool comps are not a draw, they do not attract eyeballs, and this problem is getting worse not better. The fans have spoken. The reaction now to wavepool comps spans the negative space from dull rage to complete indifference. Even the most optimistic marketing guy or smoke and mirrors Woz top brass can now no longer ignore the signal from the market.
Yet they will. Such is life.
It's not going to change. Wavepool technology is not at an “inflection point” because physics and material reality have not changed. Waves, as we see them break every day, are an emergent property of solar energy striking the Earth's surface and atmosphere.
That we live on a mostly watery planet filled with waves is one of the great miracles of existence. Wave generation is an incredibly energy hungry process, but luckily for us solar energy from the sun is an abundant source of this energy. Across the globe, 173,000 Terrawatts (trillion of watts) of solar energy is, at any moment, striking the Earth, heating air masses and ocean basins and creating revolving bands of wind, interspersed with intense storms. The friction of this wind on water creates waves.
The hallmark of this process, like all bio-physical systems, is variation. Variation creates the uniqueness of swells, of surf spots, of individual waves. Variation creates a difference between what we expect, what is modelled by even the most advanced algorithms, to what we see, ride, and experience.
What magic there is in competitive surfing lies mostly in the mystery of this variation.
It's why, despite a dismal Pipe forecast a week out from last year's comp, a compact storm that ran exactly down the right pathway created some of the best Pipe ever seen. Why we thrilled to see Kelly Slater pick off an insane buzzer beater ride on the hooter against Barron Mamiya. That variation, which creates anticipation, can never be modelled out of existence.
And it's why the wavepool comps became so boring, so quickly. The variation of a purely mechanical, human created and mediated wave basin is not sufficient to create anticipation.
The other material reality which will always impede surfing in a tub is the physics at play. Water is incredibly dense. A cubic metre weighs a ton. Shifting this mass, whether by plough or compressed air or plunger takes immense amounts of energy.
“Wait till we get six or eight foot waves,” has been a common refrain.
Scaling up wave size is not linear. Creating a six foot wave does not take twice as much energy as creating a three foot wave. It takes eight times as much, and you can make fewer of them.
Short of tubs building their own mini-nuclear power plants, that kind of energy expenditure on a warming planet where energy use is more likely to be constrained than expanded defies plausibility.
Some things scale easily. A snowboard half-pipe can be built twice as big with little problem. Same for skateboard half-pipes and parks to use two common examples from similar board sports. Waves do not. And the great and insurmountable problem for wavepools is the ocean, with its essentially limitless energy inputs and wave heights and infinite variation. By comparison, the tub is always going to seem lame.
No, wave technology is not at an inflection point. It has reached its current limits according to physics and those physical laws are brutal, expensive, and inflexible. Even more so when the audience rejects the product they are producing.
How long the WSL decides to walk down this road, accompanied by slow claps and awkward silences and embarrassing numbers, when even industry marketing people can't produce a kind word for it is anyone's guess.
We've learnt that the Woz, with its deep-pocketed benefactor does not conform to the usual laws of business and sport.
But even billionaires can't beat the laws of physics.
// STEVE SHEARER