Last week, the WSL announced that they’ll be reviving a little piece of the ’90s this year—no, Joe Turpel isn’t trading his shaggy mop for frosted tips, although that would be great to see—by bringing back competitive aerial exhibitions. Back in the ’90s, Surfing Magazine created a competitive format that brought together the best aerial surfers of the time to out-punt each other (interestingly enough, former airshow-er turned ‘CTer, Josh Kerr, will be acting as event director). The reboot starts in September with an air exhibition during the Surf Ranch Pro, followed by an Air Invitational at Hossegor during the Quick Pro France in October. Invitees include sky boys Albee Layer, Chippa Wilson, Filipe Toledo, and Mikey Wright, along with 14 others yet to be announced.
Following this news, SURFER editor Todd Prodanovich and features editor Justin Housman sat down to discuss whether or not this will follow the same path as ’90s airshows, eventually petering out, or if it has the potential to have a deeper, longer-lasting impact on professional surfing in the modern era.
Todd Prodanovich: So I saw this passage in Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing and thought it was pretty interesting: “Surfing aerials—first attempted in the late ’70s, then given a boost in popularity in the early ’90s by Christian Fletcher and Kelly Slater, among others—were inspired by airborne moves performed by skateboarders. Aerials were long thought of as too high-risk to perform in traditional-format surf contests, which tended to reward consistency over progression.” Sure, men and women are doing airs in World Tour events now, but the “consistency over progression” bit is as true today as it ever was, no?
Justin Housman: Yeah, rewarding consistency over progression as a complaint about pro surfing hasn't changed, that's for sure. But, then again, Filipe's doing three full-rotated alley oops on one wave these days, so maybe we're impossible to please.
TP: But let’s think about that for a second: If a full-rotation oop is easy enough for Filipe that he can land three on one wave, is that even progression? I’d argue that’s a perfect example of a surfer not pushing themselves to their highest level. If he’s landing three full oops on one wave, then I have no doubt he could drop a single 540 oop instead—if he really practiced that move and was willing to put it all on the line in a heat. Can you imagine how many more views the WSL would get if the audience believed there was the potential for something like that in competition?
WATCH ALBEE LAYER’S GROUNDBREAKING DOUBLE OOP FROM EARLIER THIS YEAR:
JH: Well, it's progression compared to a decade ago, but I take your point. Thing is, a sporting contest is always going to favor consistency over progression, whether it's baseball, basketball or surfing. Progression happens, but if you're Dane Reynolds and you're hucking near-impossible airs during a heat and making maybe 10 percent of them, of course you're going to lose—and you should. Expecting progression during a contest doesn't make a ton of sense. Unless the criteria shift to cater toward pushing the limits.
Plus, I'm not convinced airs are even the most progressive part of surfing. I don’t think adding more twists or spins is the only way to define progression. I know this makes me sound like a dead-ass mummy, but, to me, airs like that are just generic boardsport trickery—we’ve seen that outside of surfing, so it’s not that unique. Gimme Ryan Burch laying a freaked-out 5'0" asym twinnie on rail at hairball Desert Point, doing a turn we've never seen on a board we've never seen. That's real progression, not adding another twist to make something a 720 instead of a 540.
TP: Sounds like someone’s very excited for these Air Show events. I do see where you’re coming from, but for the sake of this debate, let’s pretend that progression can only be defined as innovation above the lip. That said, do you think that airshows in the modern era will move the needle as far as pushing the best surfers to be more inventive with their airs? I know that Josh Kerr said that if he’d had the option to have a successful career just doing airshows, he wouldn’t have ever tried to get on the World Tour. Do you think we would have seen Josh innovate more in the aerial arena if he’d had that opportunity?
JH: I don't know. It's a good question. Would Matt Meola or Albee Layer be more inspired than they already are if there was substantial prize money on the line? They're already pushing shit pretty far in the world of airs with nothing but fame and precious ankle ligaments on the line. But yeah, why not? Big air guys have to be competitive or else they prob wouldn't be trying to one-up each other all the time. So, sure, with dedicated events and prize money, there's potential there for us to see some off-the-wall stuff. Whether or not there's a big audience just waiting around for that, though, remains to be seen. I think there's a big part of the general public who watches snowboarding once every 4 years and “oohs” and “ahhs” when Shaun White turns into a human helicopter at the Olympics, so maybe Joe Six Pack in Nevada will too when Filipe launches stratospheric airs at a wave pool somewhere.
WATCH CHIPPA WILSON GET TECHNICAL ABOVE THE LIP:
TP: Yeah, audience is another question entirely, isn’t it? I have no doubt that random channel flippers and Instagram scrollers who have no knowledge of surfing or surf culture would be way more interested in watching an airshow than the world’s best surfers doing three to the beach at Bells or even getting stand-up tubed at Pipe. The latter might be what we hold in highest esteem in surf culture, but for Joe Six Pack, it’s just a guy disappearing behind some water and reappearing. Without understanding the context, it’s gotta be a total snooze. So I’d bet that airshows or even a full Air Tour would have equal or better viewership than the World Tour—if the WSL put their full promotional muscle behind it. But how do you think dyed-in-the-wool surfers will embrace it? I mean, airshows didn’t exactly revolutionize pro surfing in the ’90s…
JH: I don't know why it would be any different in 2018. Although, if memory serves, ’90s air shows were at dribbly Lowers or weak beach breaks and were unwatchable. Italo trying to escape orbit at 8-foot Hossegor could be different. But, yeah, I kinda doubt genuine everyday surfers will give it much of a sniff. Though some kind of expression session with Burch and the gang and their weird boards? Oh hell yeah, mainline that good stuff right into my veins.
TP: Ha! Maybe that will be the fourth phase (after big-wave and air events) of WSL’s cultural takeover. But in the meantime, I actually do think a modern Air Tour would fare better than it’s ’90s iteration. For one, the WSL has way, way more promotional firepower than Surfing Magazine did when hosting the original airshows. Also, I’d think that this generation of core surf fans understand airs better than those in the ’90s did—like you said, more airs are already happening today on the World Tour—which means that the average surfer is much more likely to be enthralled by it now. If these first airshows at Surf Ranch and Hossegor go well and somebody sticks something massive, it’s going to be a big deal and surf fans are going to gravitate toward it. Honestly, I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t evolve into a full-blown Air Tour. And quickly.
JH: Mountain Dew probably can't get to their checkbook fast enough.