If you were given a blank piece of paper and told to go off and design pro surfing, what would you do? What type of glorious Mister Squiggle/Jackson Pollock abstract masterpiece would you sketch?
It's a favorite exercise of people who claim to have absolutely no interest in pro surfing whatsoever, people who then sit for days and furiously scribble 25,000 words on how they would run the show, usually involving the removal of all sponsors, the wholesale sacking of the entire Top 34, and putting Bruce Irons and Dane Reynolds on a boat full of beer in Indonesia. While this last measure is not without its merits–and we'll get to them later–it's technically closer to piracy than pro surfing.
Before we start, let's just acknowledge that if you gave this exercise to 10,000 surfers, you'd get 10,000 different ideas, so let's agree you'll never reach a consensus. If consensus is your goal then the camel of a pro tour you presently see, designed by a committee with competing interests over a number of years, is your surfing Valhalla. Instead, we need to focus on one blindingly brilliant, enlightened, dangerous idea–for instance, err, mine–and run with it.
But while my blue-sky exercise is a fantastic home for ideological thought bubbles and Jamie O'Brien on a unicorn, it does have to operate in a real world, the real world we currently inhabit, and we need to acknowledge a few home truths when pulling this thing together. The first caveat, and it might come as a shock to you, is that pro surfing exists to make money. That a world champion rolls off the conveyor belt at the end of the year is largely a happy accident. Pro surfing will always make sacrifices on the altar of the free market. Pro surfing will eternally be at odds with itself. There's a business model, there's a surfing model, and somewhere between the twain lies pro surfing. Good waves cost money, so let's find a way for good waves to make money.
OK, let's get dirty. First up, let's stop losers winning. Having someone lose twice then get handed a trophy defies a million years of human evolution. It's a hard enough concept for the surfers themselves to grasp, so trying to sell this idea to Johnny Punter is a stretch. The Heat/Broncos/Rafael Nadal just lost the title? No worries, let's come back next week and give 'em another go. This is what happened when the surfers themselves designed the Tour a few years back, the lunatics running the asylum. Man-on-man, go to whoa, two men enter, one man leaves. By doing this you'd also immediately fix the other great problem all Tour events face…trying to shoehorn four or five days of surfing into just three days of swell.
The Top 16. Math has never been the strong point of the ASP, but they need to make 16 their magic number, not 48, not 36, not 34. Give the top 34 a haircut at the neck–it's been a bloviated mess for too long–and let's get it back to the good ol' elite Top 16. Think back, those guys used to be gods, if only because there weren't 50 of them.
Make the trials a real show. Make it a single-day shootout but give it a waiting period of its own the week before the main event. Expand the field: add the top 34 guys you just made unemployed, and throw them out among a Star Wars bar of locals, legends, space monkeys, and Dane Reynolds. Guys with stories. Dangerous, desperate men. Then pit 16 of these lunatics against the Top 16 and you immediately have some badass theater on your hands. You also have a 32-man event that can finish in a day and a half of great surf, instead of the current format that needs three full days and some change. Punters suddenly don't have to pan through days of slag TV to find moments of gold, and events finish quickly, on one swell, with real momentum.
Loosen this thing right up. From my experience people do not surf–and do not follow pro surfing–because it makes them feel safe, or it reminds them of their favorite mainstream sport. People don't want mainstream, their lives are already mainstream. They want counterculture, they want anti-establishment, they want all the things surfing used to represent. They don't want surfers they can trust. They don't want a cheese coma. Add color. Shock people. Make them laugh. Let Dave Wassell commentate, basically.
Bring back the floating "Search" license. Having attended most of Rip Curl's Search events, I can personally attest to their cavalier and exotic nature. And most of the time you even got surf! How good was Puerto Rico! Bali! Chile! Don't even get me started on Barra. Surfing events suffer from fatigue, plodding along year after year, but here's a chance to splash hot sauce on the Tour every year.
In saying that, can we bring back Mexico and Indonesia. Like, um, now? I don't care where you put the events–Puerto and G-Land will do just fine–but if you're going to tap into the romanticism of what surfing used to be you need to get out to the fringes. You need to sell escapism, and American and Australian surfers escape respectively to Mexico and Indonesia.
Finally, going back to the boat trip with Dane and Bruce. I might have shitcanned the idea earlier, but seriously, it would work. Get a sponsor, dream up some wack abstract scoring system, film the whole thing and make it an art project. But most importantly throw an ASP logo on it. It's hardly a revolutionary idea, but bringing it under the umbrella of "pro surfing" is. While you're at it, hold a skins event, a prog-rock aerial showdown, and run a big-wave world tour…which the new ASP seems to already have covered. None of these count for a world title of course, but it sure as hell validates the world title among the broad church. If you acknowledge that surfing means different things to different people and you bring them all into the tent, you'll find it's far better having them inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.