In 1975, Californian salesman Gary Dahl came up with a multi-million-dollar idea called the “Pet Rock.” For those of you who weren’t born yet, myself included, it apparently spread like wildfire. Dahl was an instant millionaire. You could talk to it or dress it up and your rock would love you and be there for you forever. “Yeah. But come on, it was a rock,” you’re thinking. But in 1975, the Pet Rock, bought at toy stores by millions of people for actual money, turned into $6 million in sales. I know it sounds absurd now, but believe or not it happened.
So why, when there are free rocks all around us, would anyone buy a rock from a store, (or talk to it for that matter)? Put simply, Dahl marketed the f-k out of the thing, tricking gullible consumers everywhere into thinking the Pet Rock was somehow better than an average rock. He created a fad. And today, as millions of 27-year-old Pet Rocks gather dust on shelves or live out subterranean lives in landfills, a surfing lesson can be learned. Without validation, our professionals risk becoming Pet Rocks, destined to pass out of public interest like pebbles in felt clothing. Professional surfing needs authenticity to create lasting and relevant stars. That authenticity can come in many forms, but its best form is the surf contest. In six-inch or 60-foot surf surf contests, give professional surfers a real reason for stardom and popularity, and they give aspiring surfers a stick to measure themselves by.
Essentially, professional surfers are “professional” because they do things that the average surfer can’t or won’t. Big-wave riding, incredible free surfing, and 10-foot 360 airs are important aspects of the sport that speak for themselves, but they’re not concrete like the surf contest. Contests provide a current set of standards where these aspiring and existing professionals can measure themselves against each other. At the end of a heat, generally speaking, the best surfer is the one that’s best in all aspects of surfing-paddling, wave judgement and wave riding-on that given day. Contests help to weed out the one-trick ponies, and provide us with an accurate, real assessment of who is best. Think of it this way: Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world, and it’s not because he can drive the ball the farthest or bounce the ball on his sand wedge 50 times in a row. It’s because he consistently wins tournaments at the highest level of play.
It’s human nature to want to know who’s best and to accurately determine that we need proof. In a world without surf contests, what would you say if a major media outlet wanted to do a story on surfing and they asked who the best surfer in the world was-Tell them who’s in the most ads? Tell them who did the biggest air or caught the biggest wave at Maverick’s last year? Today, the answer would be the guy who’s won a record six world titles, Kelly Slater. Even if he isn’t your favorite, he is the best because he beat the best when it counted, and he may just do it again this year. Surf contests take out speculation. Granted, the judging format is flawed at times, but so was the referee at the Raider/Patriot playoff game last year, where a questionable call cost the Raiders the game and the season. Without competitions and an eventual winner, that media story is getting put on the shelf, right next to the dusty old pet rock.