The most talked about topic in the world of surfing is without question the formation of a new eight-stop tour, which will feature events organized and broadcast by ESPN. According to reports the new tour is being spearheaded by Kelly Slater’s agent, Terry Hardy and cable TV sports promotions guru Matt Tinley. There have been literally dozens of speculative pieces attempting to tackle the subject, but none have really been able to answer all the questions surrounding the topic.
That could be due in part to Tinley’s hesitance to confirm certain details of the tour. He told Surfline earlier in the month that: “It’s best if we have a view of the whole system rather than piece bits of it out — it’s best to lay it out to everyone in detail all at once.” He also said that a formal announcement on the new tour would be made later this month.
But the rest of parties involves haven’t been as tight lipped. In late July Australia’s Surfing Life published the most comprehensive story on the topic to date on its Web site. The article included the following quote from Kelly Slater, which outlines his frustrations with the Association Of Surfing Professionals (ASP).
“Basically, if there’s a way to create a much better situation for surfers and a tour and this is it, I’m in,” Slater was quoted saying in the article. “Does the ASP cease to exist if this goes forward? No. Not necessarily … Has ASP failed pro surfing? I don’t think so but I also don’t truly feel it’s done the best job that can be done.”
The quote, however, was pulled from the site within 24 hours, and the article’s author, Tim Baker, added this Editor’s Note:
“NOTE: If you’re returning to this page, you may notice this story has been updated following new developments, and several quotes have been removed. ASL would like to apologize for publishing what we appreciate now was a confidential bit of correspondence.”
Soon there after The Australian published a piece that included this excerpt, which apparently came from an email Slater sent to several other ASP surfers.
“ESPN has signed on to support and fully back a tour to potentially start next year,” Slater wrote. “This is huge news and opportunity. This would include a ‘new’ tour based on what the surfers want to have in terms of judging, locations, formats, etc … It would also include a dedicated, full-time web team and signature look to all events.”
In a recent interview with TransWorld Business, Quiksilver CEO Bob McKnight offered his two cents about the potential benefits and downfalls of the new tour. According to McKnight, the sport of surfing—and in turn the industry surrounding it—would benefit from the exposure of televised tour events. “I don’t think the ASP has done a very good job looking after the surfers, getting it out to more eyeballs, and enlisting big, balloon sponsors,” he said. “It’s really a cool show for everybody in the monastery. Everybody that surfs and follows the ASP can follow the tour in surf magazines, but nowhere else. No other outside magazines, no outside Web sites, no other outside type of anything follows the tour. Why? When they follow professional bull riding and professional poker for God’s sake? There’s all these stupid things out there, but we can’t get surfing out of the freaking monastery.”
McKnight also said the idea that Kelly Slater has been a principle organizer of this newly proposed tour is a misconception. He offered this statement about Slater’s involvement:
“Kelly is one of these surfers that thinks hard, and is very intelligent. He’s watched it and seen other sports and how they’re blowing by his sport. How people in other sports have much more fame and persona than him—being the nine-time champion and—his sport. He sees other sports with balloon sponsors, and he sees other sports where the athletes have benefits. In professional golf, the guy who finished dead last makes more than the guy that finishes second in an ASP contest! Are you kidding me? So he sees all of this and he’s frustrated. And, although he admires his nine titles and would love to win a tenth, that has taken a second position to him being frustrated with the ASP. He’s gone to ASP many, many times and expressed these concerns and nothing happens.
“In the meantime, Terry Hardy [Slater’s manager] has sensed his frustration. ESPN—who came to the ASP years ago [to work with them] and has tried multiple times and has been pushed aside—kind of went to Kelly and said ‘Let’s just do a new tour.’ So Kelly said, ‘Well tell me about what your ideas are and I’ll tell you what some of mine are.’ So they got together, discussed ideas, and sure enough ESPN went off on their own. It’s not the Kelly tour. Kelly just kind of told them what is frustrating him about what’s going on at ASP. So ESPN started cooking this thing up because they love surfing.”
According to McKnight the new tour would bring in large non-endemic sponsors, and ESPN is going to be covering the travel expenses of those surfers selected to be on the tour. The contests are also reportedly going to be offering considerably more prize money than the current ASP World tour events. In addition, McKnight said that the new tour events will cost substantially less to sponsor for endemic companies. “They’re going to have big, balloon sponsors, and the surfers are going to have all their airfare and accommodations paid for by the tour,” Explained McKnight. “So these guys can fly around the world and they don’t have to go negative for the year. Because [the way it is now] maybe the top five guys are positive at the end of the year, and the rest of them are negative because of expenses.
“Also, the price of the events [on ESPN’s tour] are much cheaper [than ASP events for endemic sponsors]. If you talk about the eyeballs we get in the monastery now compared to what we’ll get on ESPN’s live web coverage, and when a week later there’s a program produced on ESPN 2, which will be shown multiple times, the whole thing is really exciting because it’s new and it’s fresh and it’s different.”
But there are still dozens of questions about the new tour that have left the opinions of surfers, fans, event sponsors, and media divided. Currently the event sponsor owns the media rights to the event, but the proposed new tour will give those rights to ESPN. Who will ESPN be selling these sponsorship packages to? And will those deals cause conflicts with endemic brands? How many surfers will be on the new tour? Will they be selected based on ASP rankings or by subjective means? And Finally, if there are two world tours then who will be the undisputed World Champion at the end of the year?
Brodie Carr is the CEO of the ASP. He said in a recent interview with TransWorld Business that the organization is open to discussing ways to work together, but that there could be inherent problems with two tours operating autonomously. “We remain open to always looking for improvements we can make to ASP, the World Tour, and benefits for our surfers,” Carr said. “So we’re open to listening to these guys to see what they can bring to the table and offer. We haven’t made any decision on whether we think it’s good for the tour or bad for the tour, our surfers, and the ASP because we don’t have enough information at this stage.
“I met with Terry Hardy on the week of the US Open and then the following week I met with Matt Tinley. They’ve given us some information. We’ve had a board discussion—not a board meeting but a discussion— and coming out of that there was a consensus that we should talk to these guys and see what they’ve got to offer.”
Carr stressed the point that the ASP is always looking for what’s in the best interest of the athletes and the sport. “I’m not protective of ASP. I’m protective of what’s best for the sport,” he explained. “So we won’t protect what we currently have as the best thing because it might not be. If they have something better than what we’ve got then we’ve got to talk to them and make that available to the surfers and the events, and the fans.”
Carr said that what could prove to be difficult for ASP is transitioning away from its qualification system if that decision were made. “Once you have an organization that has been established for as long as we have, we have rules, we have qualifying, and this is all communicated to the world and to the surfers,” he said. “If all of a sudden we tell fifteen guys from the WQS who thought they’d qualified for the World Tour next year that none of them have qualified. And then if we tell 27 of the guys from the World tour that thought they re-qualified that they didn’t re-qualify either—we can’t make a change like this in one year. Not to say the change can’t happen, but ASP couldn’t make that change in one year because we have qualifying, history, and legitimacy. That’s what ASP is for. For us to make a change to go down to sixteen guys would take a minimum of two years.”
Perhaps the biggest question is how the surfers will be selected for ESPN’s tour. If they are subjectively picked based on what the network thinks will lure viewers to tune in, there will inevitably be backlash from those top-ranking ASP surfers who are not included. “The surfers will call that it’s not a fair system and therefore not a legitimate World Champion,” said Carr. “The guy that gets crowned World Champion wants to be able to say he’s the legitimate World Champion. For the top guys it means something to be the undisputed World Champion, so I think if they kind of just pick guys that’s when the surfers will call a bit of BS on them.”
According to longtime Vans Triple Crown Director Randy Rarrick, he sees fundamental flaws in ESPN’s plan. “I don’t think the companies are going to let their riders go to a tour that is detrimental to the tour they have always supported,” he told reporters in July. “You could wind up with a bunch of guys saying, ‘we’re going to take our ball and play over there (with ESPN)’, but none of them is going to be a World Champion. It would not have any meaning. It would be a great promotional tool, but does ESPN care about developing the sport? Heck, no. They only care about making advertising revenue. In three years it will be a flash in the pan. Some guys will make some money but its legitimacy will be questionable, and it will fall by the wayside. I’ve been doing this for 35 years, I’ve seen these guys come and go.”
So where does that leave us? TransWorld Business wants to know what you think. Weigh in below, but keep your comments productive and above the belt.