Kelly Slater turned 42 this week. Mick Fanning is 32. Parko’s knocking on 33’s door. Taj is 35. That’s four of the ASP’s top-five, right there, all north of 30. This, as you may be aware, is unprecedented. Remember when Occy burst out of his mummy wrap to win a title at 33? The oldest world champ ever. 33! It was unfathomable. Or at least it used to be. For the past four years, every world champ we’ve had has been either well over-the-hill, or at least peering over the summit. In just a couple years, all of these guys will be welcomed into the ISA Masters Division. Kelly would qualify for the senior, senior tour, the Grand Masters, a division that, no offense to current Grand Master champ Sunny Garcia, deserves that title only if it includes the grandest master of them all.
For the last nine years—a decade, really—the world title trophy has been passed around by Kelly, Mick, and Joel, and my God is that little circle getting stale. What happens if a 42-year-old Slater wins the belt this year? Is that what we want? Is that good for pro surfing? As recently as a couple years back, I thought it was. In 2011, when Kelly clinched his eleventh title (both times), I wanted to see how long it could continue. It made perfect sense that he could reel off three, maybe four more championship runs in a row. It seemed possible, it seemed likely, and it seemed cool. Kelly Slater, winning his 13th, 14th, 15th world titles, well into his mid-40s. Greatest athlete ever, and all that.
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I guffawed when Matt Warshaw implored Kelly to call it a career in his “Hangs Ten” piece in the New York Times. I argued that it was crucial to the sport of pro surfing for Kelly to continue. He was still the best surfer on the planet, and his winning added legitimacy, even objectivity, to the judging. He was clearly the best surfer in the world and he was easily winning contests. See—the judging works. At times he hoisted the entire ASP onto his back and provided the only real drama to a Tour that has lacked it in the wake of the Slater/Irons rivalry.
But that drama is fading fast. I’m trying, but having great difficulty imagining anything more boring than Kelly vs. Mick or Joel for the title in 2014. A guy in his mid-40s slugging it out with a bunch of guys in their mid-30s? At all the same waves we’ve seen them surf a zillion times? It’d be like if the Broncos and the Seahawks played in the Super Bowl year after year after year. How entertaining would that be? And don’t forget, that’s the point of pro surfing—it’s just entertainment. That’s all. When it ceases being entertaining, it loses it’s reason for being. ASP/ZoSea is, I’m sure, desperate for Kelly to compete full-time in 2014, since he’s still the only surfer on earth that non-surfers consider something of a celebrity. For all we know, Kelly and ZoSea have long ago inked a financial arrangement to ensure it happens.
PHOTOS: Volcom Pipe Pro Finals
I am well aware that Kelly may still be the best competitive surfer in the world. I watched the Volcom Pipe Pro too, and yes, that was an impressive performance. I’m in no way suggesting that he’s lost a shred of his dominance or ability. Nor am I suggesting that he calls it quits while he’s still on top, in some kind of grand heroic sporting gesture. But I am arguing that it would be much more fun to watch Nat and Medina battle it out at Pipe for the ASP crown. I wonder if it wouldn’t be more entertaining to have Kelly in the booth than Kelly in a heat. And I’m wondering how much Kelly, Mick, and Joel really have to push themselves to get high scores anymore; Parko’s now getting 10s when he blows stock-standard cutbacks (see: 2013 Oakley Pro Bali). And I wonder how fair that is to the rest of the Tour.
Mostly though, I wonder if having a 42-year-old as its poster boy can possibly be good for the ASP, and what that says about surfing as an “action sport.” You know what other sport has 40-year-old stars? Golf. That’s not a good parallel for pro surfing.