State of the Association

How government learned to love pro surfing and stop fearing drugs

A Margaret River lineup in Western Australia, an ironic host to pro surfers in the annual Drug Aware Pro. Photo: Joli

Once upon a time there was no pro surfing…it’s true, I read it on the Internet.

Then one day, after a long time passed…

A greyhound-thin figure stood in front of a huge crowd. Behind dark aviators his eyes scanned for danger while a walrus-like man explained the operation of pro surfing's first man-on-man final. With the accuracy of hindsight we can date the birth proper of pro surfing back to that moment in March 1977, when Mark Richards and Michael Peterson prepared to battle it out at perfect Burleigh Heads. It marked not just the realization of something new--the Glorious Dream of Pro Surfing--but also the end of the Noble Outlaw as surfing's treasured template and moral compass.

Peterson was high, as he often was, when he took out straight-laced Mark Richards in the Final. His pre-heat rituals included sitting in a Kombi pulling bongs and shooting up. Surfing’s paranoid Prince of Darkness would no doubt squirm at the irony that the thing he helped birth was now being used as a poster child for a drug-free sport and tourist chum by Government agencies.

In the same decade as the Stubbies man-on-man triumph, World Champ and Australian surfing super-star Nat Young was the subject of routine shakedowns by the local police. Surfers as high-profile sportsmen and public role models, let alone as “bait” to attract tourists to an area, would’ve been seen by police, polite society, and the media as some kind of sick joke. Vile, drug-taking scum who needed extermination was not just theory but accepted policy and practice in the era when Youth Against Establishment was more than just a marketing slogan. It almost sounds romantic now, but for those who lived through the period it was a major buzzkill.

Fast forward 35 years and after an anus horribilis, which saw a botched title calculation and a Tour hemorrhaging events as a crippled surf industry sought to shed costs, it looked like the Dream of Pro Surfing was fated to disappear back into the ether. But while pundits and Internet trolls were giddy over the imminent demise of pro surfing, an intriguing counter-narrative was taking place--one that would throw a lifeline to the beleaguered sport and see a historic decoupling of pro surfing with the industry that grew fat on its back and threatened to suffocate it as it went down with the ship.

I got a sniff of it at the Snapper comp this year. Following the press conference I was enjoying a soothing ale on the makeshift verandah when I became aware that Rip Curl co-founder Doug Warbrick was beside me. I asked him about the state of the industry and the Tour. He was blunt in his assessment: The industry was facing tough times and would for some time. There was no going back to the glory days. Budgets would be cut, events were in jeopardy, sponsored surfer rosters would be trimmed, and so on and so forth. The million-dollar prize purse that Quiksilver had posted for New York was looking increasingly like an aberration, a final spasm of excess from the dying days of Rome, and not the green shoots of a sport on the ascendancy.

I asked him about outside brands coming in and the industry relinquishing its grip on the sport. I’m paraphrasing but his meaning was crystal clear and can be summed up by the following: Over our dead body. The industry built pro surfing, they knew it better than anyone and they would fight to keep control of it. This was the message coming from surf industry HQ.

What is Kelly Slater without pro surfing? What is pro surfing without Kelly Slater? Photo: Ellis

Natural selection though states that the sick and wounded are picked off by predators while the strong survive. And pro surfing’s current structure was nothing if not sick and wounded. We know now that a rebadged Rebel Tour lead by Kelly Slater's manager, Terry Hardy, and Quiksilver board member Paul Speaker was being pitched opportunistically to the leader-less organization at the time. Warbrick's comments are the strongest indication that the ZoSea deal was resisted, at the least by Rip Curl. Slater was making noise at the post-heat interviews about the structure of the sport and the insane situation of a global sport not having control of its most valuable assets--that is, the media rights. It’s obvious now that a coup was, if not taking place, then being planned and the ASP and brands would be helpless to defend itself. But then again, would they want to?

Another crucial development has been taking place in pro surfing, almost by stealth, in the last couple of years. I speak of the influx of government money and, more importantly, support for the sport. In Australia, this support had been given a massive boost after the 2009 release of the Crawford Report into sport. This report identified surfing as a “whole of life” sport and recreation, and as such deserving of being the beneficiary of taxpayers money, which is normally funneled into other mainstream sports. Politicians in Australia, including the Prime Minister, Treasurer, and Minister for Sport have been falling over themselves to become associated with pro surfing in recent months. That's one arm of the lifeline: the backing of the government to support pro surfing.

The other funding stream comes from a slightly different channel of the same river. This is the funding by government at the state and local level for pro surfing as a bait to attract tourist spending in coastal regions. In Australia this process is well advanced. All Australian events on the World Tour are supported by the government, as well as other events globally.

How big is the bet that the government has laid on Pro Surfing? That's a tricky one to answer. I spent a day on the phone talking to politicians and spin doctors and people with silky voices who normally wouldn’t give a bum like me the time of day. Sure, I skinned one up beforehand, to make the time spent listening to muzak while on hold bearable. What these people told me was kind of shocking.

A spokesman for WA Tourism (who have backed the Margaret River event since 1985) told me that the pro contest at Margaret River supplied an economic impact of several million dollars and an international media impact of over 20 million, most of which he seemed to ascribe to the presence of Kelly Slater. They don’t give a shit about webcast stats or numbers of boardshorts sold. Their return on investment is based on fluffy buzzwords like “vibrancy” and increases in visitation to a region. No one wanted to talk hard numbers but Mark Lane, CEO of Surfing WA, indicated the government was bankrolling the Margaret River event to the tune of more than 50 percent of the event budget. Considering an event costs between 2 and 3 million, the figure is a lot more than chump change. He agreed that the business model for pro surfing was evolving globally to include taxpayer support via government agencies and cited Rio, Portugal, and China, places where this process was already in place.

Events QLD, who back the Quiksilver Pro as well as smaller events, couldn’t confirm the amount of financial support given to the Quik Pro due to it being Commercial in Confidence but confirmed it was substantial and ongoing.

Venues like this come with a sizable price tag. An expensive vision of a dream tour, Dusty Payne in Portugal. Photo: Ellis

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Depends on your position on the historical question of whether surfing is a sport or a lifestyle/art form. No doubt surfing presents an attractive option as a healthy recreation in the age of obesity, but government money is being channeled exclusively into pro surfing and that can be a bitter pill to swallow for your average recreational surfer. The ultimate destiny for pro surfing must be to have a rapprochement with the recreational surfing community that supports it and hosts it.

The game has changed, with no discernible architect and pro surfing somewhat decoupled from the surf industry, hitching its wagon to government agencies who care more about tourism than boardshort sales. That's reflected in the Tour schedule next year. Notions of a Dream Tour will be subsumed into the economic reality of having a government body to underwrite the costs of an event. That makes a location like Margaret River, smack in the middle of a tourist/wine region a perfect fit. While Margaret River might seem too chubby and archaic to be considered world-class, the rights into the wind offer serious potential for massive airs. John Florence’s Finals display in this year's event should dispel any remaining doubts about its performance potential.

Of course the big question is what happens when ZoSea takes over. Finding out information there is harder than getting access to the vaults of the Vatican. Is it an opportunistic takeover of a weak and wounded organization, or is there a vision involved for the sport? And if so, why the veil of secrecy and silence surrounding the intentions of ZoSea and their plans?

It's clear now why brands were persuaded to relinquish control of events. With government and outside sponsors underwriting the costs, they get a free ride while maintaining branding. Who wouldn’t accept a deal like that? Especially with willing governments like Indonesia keen to get a piece of the pie.

Well, not everyone apparently. An unnamed source inside the boardroom suggests there is still a serious snag in the deal from one of the main players who would like to maintain control of the events they sponsor and the governments that partner with them. Somewhere Michael Peterson is spinning quietly in his grave.