Billy Kemper's pride and joy, the Pe'ahi Challenge, isn't going anywhere. Photo: WSL
The Big Wave Tour Will No Longer Be A “Tour”
WSL Commish, Pat O’Connell explains.
It’s 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon.
The phone rings, it’s the WSL Commish (or SVP Tour, and Head of Competition), Dana Point’s Pat O’Connell. This call was scheduled, then pushed back and pushed back again. Pat answers, his voice sounds worn. “I actually had to have someone schedule out my day!” He laughs. “I just got done calling every surfer on the Tour to tell them the news…”
It’s an unenviable position—ringing up the world’s best big-wave hell(wo)men to tell them their tour is essentially canceled. Especially considering someone like Portugal’s Nic Von Rupp had exerted every potential resource to transport himself to the apex of every significant swell last year with sights set on making the BWT, which he did. And that's just one example.
The change isn’t surprising, The Big Wave World Tour has been stripping back year on year since 2015, when seven potential stops were introduced and only three ran. 2016, however, was the height of the BWT: all six potential stops went and Greg Long won his second BWT title. In 2017, they subtracted two. And then in 2018, there were three.
For the 2019 season, the WSL have “reimagined” the BWT.
There are two stops: Jaws (The Big Wave Championship) and Nazaré (A specialty tow event). The focus this year, with their new WSL Studios front of mind, is content first. For the BWT, it’s “Strike Missions”: Where the WSL will send their content creators wherever that Purple Blob lands, intent on capturing what’s going on behind the scenes, as well as those viral moments that stare death into the eye. The goal: To give the Big Wave surfers a larger platform than two/three events a year.
Less prestige, yes. More ability to see and be seen, if well-executed, also yes.
Running Big Wave events, especially with the polish of the WSL's free and quality broadcast ain’t exactly a gilded road. Unlike the CT, where every comp short of Margaret River has a presenting sponsor, no stop on the BWT has one. The WSL’s been chewing on that expense for years and Pat is the first to admit, a good portion of this switch is a business decision.
The following is a conversation with Mr. O’Connell, who was delightful, candid and getting out in front of a press release that will, surely, be read into negatively. He shined on the positives while remaining realistic.
"Jaws has become the pinnacle of modern day Big Wave paddle surfing." – Pat O.
Stab: Okay, so let’s get into the why of all this?
Pat: There are a couple reasons. The easiest, for us being in the business of telling stories, is we wanted to be able to get these surfers in front of people more. Last year, the Big Wave Tour happened one week apart. Then it kind of disappeared off everybody’s radar. Like, big waves pop up around the world and surfers go there, but the media focus is on the tour. It’ll be easy for people to focus on Mavericks not being a part of it anymore as a negative. We feel like we can do a better job telling stories, and we can do that all year round.
Gotcha, so this is a big strip back on the tour itself, and a focus on content that the WSL can produce and own.
Yeah, to be honest, this change might come as a little bit of a surprise, but maybe not a complete surprise. But the reality of this is, it was always going to be sponsor-dependent and selling standalone big wave events is challenging. It has been way before we started doing this.
A while back we jumped in and thought, Okay, maybe we can make a tour out this. Which, bringing the tour back down the line isn’t off the table. But there are too many challenges around it right now. So, we took a step back and thought, Okay, let’s put all our energy into the two contests we are still going to run. Then produce content and do a better job telling stories about the men and women who are on each big swell.
Take Tahiti for example, before the trials on that tow day, I really wanted to see what was happening behind the scenes. And, we feel like this is a great opportunity to shift gears and elevate those stories, whether they’re surfers that our on our big wave tour or not. In doing that, hopefully we can get more interest and more people to invest, and when that happens, then we can start adding more events.
That touches on something I wanted to ask, you guys eat more money than you make running a big wave event, and as the WSL is obviously a business first, which I think a lot of people don’t realize, your bottom line was a deciding factor on making these changes to the Big Wave Tour.
One-hundred percent, man. I don’t want to pin it all on the finance, but throughout time it’s been a challenging space and we definitely were eating the cost. So we looked at that and thought, can we do something that is different and bring more energy into the big wave space?
Will this be a detriment to the Big Wave Surfers who are on tour and aren’t of Kai Lenny, Twiggy, or Billy Kemper status?
Right now, there’s a restricted number of people who get to compete on the Tour and there’s no qualifying series. The hope is to build stories and give a stage to the people who aren’t the same five or six surfers mentioned every year. If you look at the current model, last year we only ran three days. One day at Nazaré and two at Jaws. Even if you’re a big wave surfer on tour, you could have only had two heats and that’s your year. There’s just so much more to big wave surfing, and the amazing surfing that happens outside of the stops.
"Nazaré is usually too big and we are waiting for a swell that is not 100 feet so we can paddle it." Kai Lenny said about the event a few years back. "Nazaré is not really the most ideal place for turns. It is more survival. Just survive. Just trying to prepare myself mentally. If you go to Nazaré, you will probably get smoked no matter what, so you have to be prepared.” Here's a photo of Damo Hobgood... surviving.
So, that’s where the “Strike Missions” come in? Is this content that is going to live exclusively on WSL, or is this something available to other Surf Media outlets?
The “Strike Missions” will sit on the WSL. But the idea is to curate this content and get it to into the world to lift the surfers' profiles. Big moments, the ones that will go viral we want to be shared out as far as possible.
With the new, minimalist event schedule, will the surfers in the two events be held to the previous year's exclusivity contract barring them from surfing non-WSL-sanctioned events such as Red Bull Cape Fear?
No, we won’t have exclusive contracts anymore. We are making a big move away from that behavior with these guys. They don’t make enough from our events to keep them from making money elsewhere.
We've long-heard the permitting process of running at Mavericks is a nightmare, what other factors went into its removal from the tour?
It’s a tough one. If you look at it logistically, it’s a one day permit with nine hours of light during that time of the year in the area; so, the event runs for eight hours straight. In order to run an event there, and have it be at the quality of what the WSL provides, on top of the considerable cost it takes to run, it’s really tricky. Between the swell, wind, tide and time constraint, there’s just not that much room to run a contest. We want to film there and potentially do something this year, but it won't be a WSL event.
With the new format, and Mike Parsons stepping down from his position as Big Wave Tour Commissioner, is there going to be someone taking his place?
Because it’s going to be more content driven, there are some changes we’re going to make but it’s going to be based around the editors and content creators. The fact that we’re having two events, one at Jaws and the other at Nazaré, we don’t really need that level of coordination.
We like that the event at Nazaré is going to be a tow event. From a viewer’s standpoint, watching a Big Wave Event that doesn’t barrel in 2019 is kind of boring. The paddle event at Nazaré is cool and all, but it’s hard to wrap your head around a cascading avalanche that someone is going straight on. Whereas at Jaws, watching someone pull into the most fucked up tube you’ve ever seen is the best show on earth.
Jaws has become the pinnacle of modern day big wave surfing from a paddle standpoint. Waimea at one point might have been but Jaws has taken its place. People are getting barreled out there. The performance level is so high. And, at Nazaré the record for the world’s biggest waves ridden is happening. So we think we can get guys into waves of World Record height there; that’d be the dream. It was really easy to make that paddle/tow delineation against the two events.
How have the surfers been taking this?
I will say, that’s the hardest part. The hope is that once we get past this change, the hard part, it will become more fun for the surfers and more engaging.
A lot of these surfers have put in a lot of time to be on the World Tour. And my message to them is that this doesn’t mean the dream of a Big Wave World Tour is gone. We just have to go about it differently.