Opinion: Want to Sell Surfing? Go Big

Grant "Twiggy" Baker
If surfing really wants to gain mainstream traction, it needs to continue cultivating and repackaging big-wave surfing. Grant "Twiggy" Baker's XXL Ride of the Year.

By Zach Weisberg

A lot of attention has been given lately to the retooling of the “ASP World Title Race” and the doubtful emergence of a prospective Rebel Tour. I suppose those are important things for professional surfing to consider, but such alterations are relatively inconsequential when it comes to the inspiration for most of these changes: drawing mass appeal. If surfing really wants to gain mainstream traction (which, no doubt, many surfers have no interest in accomplishing), it needs to continue cultivating and repackaging a phenomenon that dedicated watermen and landlocked civilians find eternally fascinating — big-wave surfing — something that Gary Linden has known for twelve years and Billabong’s XXL initiative has only recently begun to fully realize.

In the winter of 2009, renowned San Diego shaper and accomplished big-wave surfer, Gary Linden, launched the first incarnation of the Big Wave World Tour. Just last week he crowned the Tour’s first World Champion, Carlos Burle, at a private ceremony held at San Clemente’s Surfing Heritage Foundation.

It’s not just about attracting attention to big-wave surfing – but surfing, per-se,” says Linden, 61. “I think that’s a conduit; you can understand it. It’s life or death. There’s no intricacies. There’s no nuances. What is a stale-fish air or whatever? You can’t understand it. Once we get involved and are captivated by surfing then we’ll start to understand the intricacies…like golf. Golf is boring to watch unless you play golf, but there are so many people playing golf that it has a big audience. We need to get to the same place in surfing.”

Agree with his intentions or not, Linden has a point. There’s little room for misinterpretation when watching a human being scale a 70-foot wave face. Despite the apparent risks involved (read: mortality), the image provided by such a superhuman endeavor is startling. “A grandma in Michigan can understand: Little human. Giant wave,” Laird Hamilton told me during an interview last year. “That would cover the conversation pretty quickly.”

That’s why Linden’s Big Wave World Tour, which links together pre-existing events located in Chile, Peru, Mavericks, Todos Santos, and at Nelscott Reef in Oregon fills such an important void in the world of professional surfing. While tailoring the contests’ packaging for mainstream consumption remains nebulous (live webcasts and post-event television edits currently lead the pack), The Big Wave World Tour presents an organized opportunity for surfing to showcase itself at its most extreme. The X-Games certainly couldn’t do that, which is probably in part why surfing got cut from ESPN’s annual tribute to action sports in 2008. A well-timed hack in shoulder high sandbars doesn’t exactly offer the same compelling treachery as a late drop beneath a two-ton curtain at Mavericks.

And Linden isn’t alone in his efforts. The Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards, now in its tenth year, pioneered recognition for big-wave surfers’ value and courage. Billabong most recently awarded Grant “Twiggy” Baker $50,000 for his “Ride of the Year” at Mavericks this winter, and while Billabong may be the surf industry’s champion for big-wave surfing, clairvoyance couldn’t come quickly enough.

Consider the career of the world’s most respected contemporary big-wave surfer, Greg Long. An Eddie Champion and multiple-time winner at the XXL Awards, Greg Long was just another surfer without a major sponsor, literally living out of his vehicle two years ago. It wasn’t until he had the financial backing of Billabong that he could afford to pursue his passion to the extent he deserved – and we deserved. His brother, Rusty, fought a similar battle, finally acquiring sponsorship with Quiksilver this year, which makes it apparent that so many of the surf industry’s resources have been directed at serving the nuances of the ASP World Tour, that we’ve neglected to cultivate surfing’s most marketable (or at least gripping) subculture: the giant-slayers.

But right now, in late April of 2010, big-wave surfing looks to turn the corner. Just a few months ago, the world watched Greg Long win the 2009 Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau. (The New York Times even ran a story last winter surprised that the Eddie didn’t run on its expected day of the waiting period…since when is the Eddie not running news?) Carlos Burle just claimed the first-ever Big Wave World Tour Championship, and The Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards dished out over $100,000 to the world’s bravest hell men. Right now, it’s safe to say that momentum is in big-wave surfing’s favor.

Now, it’s up to the surf industry to keep it rolling.