The New ASP: Surfing’s Golden Dawn
Four short years ago the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) was facing the total failure of its World Championship Tour concept. A “perfect storm” of declining global economies, many of the sports biggest names turning their backs on competitive surfing, and the sport’s greatest of all-time, Kelly Slater, even attempting a breakaway Rebel Tour of […]
Four short years ago the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) was facing the total failure of its World Championship Tour concept. A “perfect storm” of declining global economies, many of the sports biggest names turning their backs on competitive surfing, and the sport’s greatest of all-time, Kelly Slater, even attempting a breakaway Rebel Tour of his own had led many within the surf industry to believe the ASP’s competitive surfing experiment might be over. “There was a stage there where you’d hear this sentiment,” recalls Stirling Howland, then-Global Creative Director at Billabong. “It was really weird hearing it too, that pro surfing was dead.”
Dane Reynolds, the world’s most exciting surfer, had just announced he was retiring from competing, aged 26, citing apathy towards the ASP format. Three-time World Champion and all-time great, Andy Irons, had recently made his underwhelming return to the World Tour before passing away later in the season due to a drug-induced heart attack. World-leading freesurfer, Jamie O’Brien, was posting videos of himself burning the ASP insignia on the internet. And competitive surfing as a whole faced becoming largely irrelevant as it struggled to integrate modern surfing styles and attract the world’s brightest new stars. “The media was saying that surfing wasn’t cool anymore,” recalls Stirling. “And internally, people within the brands, were starting to believe it, like, ‘Maybe it’s not cool, maybe we need to diversify, maybe we need to be doing something else and seeing what other people like.'”
Taj Burrow has been around to see plenty of changes in pro surfing’s governing body. And he’s evolved with it. And, he still kills. ASP/Cestari
The problems were many. But at the top of the list: Finding a way to run surfing events at the exotic, wave-rich locations that surf fans had become accustomed to, while at the same time providing a cohesive broadcast and viewing experience that stacked up against other sports. Since the Dream Tour concept was coined (in which the World Championship Tour spared no expense or mileage in getting the world’s best surfers to the world’s best waves), under the tenure of then ASP president, Rabbit Bartholomew, surfing had set itself the audacious task of running live broadcasts from some of the most obscure locations on earth (among them; rural Tahiti, a tiny reef-pass off the coast of Fiji, a point break off southern Africa, fiercely tribal Polynesia, and Mexico in the middle of a drug war). It was expensive, the cost being shouldered by individual surf companies like Billabong, Quiksilver and Rip Curl. As such, they assumed complete creative license over event production and broadcast quality, an agreement which worked spectacularly in some cases and resulted in a disjointed affair far below the broadcast standards required of a world class sporting event in others.
You’ve never seen a setup of this heft before. ASP/Cestari
“It was a bunch of little fiefdoms that ended up in a world title at the end,” recalls Evan Slater, the current marketing manager at Hurley, who back then was editing US mag Surfing. Stirling Howland was in charge of three of these fiefdoms – the Billabong Pros in Tahiti and J-Bay (South Africa), and the Billabong Pipe Masters (Hawaii). The first event he ever put together was the 1998 Billabong Pro J–Bay, where the action was screened on a tiny one-inch player with a 56 kilobyte stream and the commentary was typed onto viewers’ screens. “(Surfers) were a blurry blob flying across your screen,” he says. But the ratings were spectacular; 100,000 at a time when the internet was still only just becoming an entity. The public’s interest in surfing was undeniable. It was just a matter of getting around the logistical challenges of running events in such far-out locations, while also providing a broadcast of competitive quality. “I’m surprised one of us isn’t dead from being electrocuted to tell you do the truth,” recalls Stirling of those early days. Setting up live broadcasts on a rickety wooden tower built into the reef at Tahiti brought with it some serious challenges. Like the time in 2005 a giant tropical storm smashed the broadcast structure at precisely the moment Kelly Slater racked up his famous perfect 20 out of 20 (he took off on one wave and drank a beer in the pit). The live broadcast was knocked out. Stirling, meanwhile, feverishly tried to get it back up again, operating an electrical switchboard in an inch of water. Despite that, his tenure saw the introduction of a series of revolutionary broadcasting techniques (as far as surfing was concerned, anyway) – among them; intro motion-graphics, slo-mo replays, live interviews and wireless cameras. He and a colleague also invented the ‘heat analyser.’ But rival companies could never be counted on to produce an event that aligned with the others, and so surf fans would often switch on to find a whole new set of voices, personalities and production methods, giving surfing’s showpiece an overwhelmingly amateur quality. The surfing was always on point but many felt presentation wasn’t doing it justice.
In round three of the Roxy Pro, Carissa Moore did the best surfing ever seen on the women’s world tour, or by any woman, ever. F’real. ASP/Kirstin
“It’s fine to reminisce about the days when, y’know, you kinda had a bit of a backyard production and so on and parts of that are fun and exciting but the reality is, it’s 2014 and if we wanna be taken seriously as a professional sporting league, we needed to change,” says World Tour veteran Ace Buchan.
The Quik Pro on the Gold Coast was the first event under the new ASP/ZoSea partnership – an agreement which saw a host of changes made to the structuring of surfing’s governing body. The most compelling of which, as far as surf fans go, was the prospect of an entirely new and uniform broadcasting method. The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I don’t really know what more you can do,” says reigning Women’s World Champion, Carissa Moore. “I thought it just flowed really well and all the commentators did a really good job.”
Steph Gilmore’s played a starring lead in the new ASP women’s blockbuster. ASP/Kirstin
One of the sticking points in the old ASP was their failure to properly nurture women’s surfing. A dwindling number of events, along with minimal coverage of the women’s title race, created tension among competitors and disinterest among surf fans. “In the past there had been trouble with the fact the women were given the sloppy seconds in wave choice,” says Carissa. With the inclusion of one of the world’s best lefts, Fiji’s Cloudbreak, and one of the world’s best rights, Hawaii’s Honolua Bay, the ASP have demonstrated their renewed interest in restoring the stature of women’s competitive surfing. “From what we saw at this first event and how they treated us and this big effort to bring back bigger and better venues, it just shows that they see the potential in the girls,” says Carissa. “And they can not only see that we are great surfers but that we can be great role models, and they’re giving us a platform where we can reach out and inspire a lot of people.”
It wasn’t without its detractors, however, with many pointing out the broadcast’s failure to reflect surfing’s international audience with its American-centric calling team and production values. But it’s also a format that’s familiar and accessible, says Stirling: “The thing is, you can take an American team to the world, but you can’t necessarily take an Australian team to the world. You’ve heard us talk. We sound like a bunch of fucken yobbos when you get too many of us in a room.”
Thank Kelly Slater for where surfing is today. ASP/Kirstin
Then there was the media rights debacle, which blew up on the eve of the event when attention was drawn to the fact that freelance photographers, filmers and writers – the very people who’d facilitated the growth of the ASP – would be required to sign away all ownership of any future content that generated from events. Bizarrely, and somehow unnoticed by most, those terms and conditions had been in place since the ASP’s inception, simply as a safeguard for usage in a harmfully-negative way. In any case, the wording of the terms was amended during the event to clarify this point.
Come the crescendo of the Quiksilver Pro, with Red Cam replays, blow-by-blow commentary and all-access angles capturing the emotion of competitive surfing like never before, it was clear the ASP/ZoSea arrangement had been a resounding a success. But, as daybreak dawned over what appears to be a golden era in professional surfing, there’s still a few storm clouds yet to be navigated. Namely some big, black tropical ones. “First event out of the gates with a lot of guys new to the system I thought they won their first round heat,” says Evan Slater. Though he also warns: “There’s a lot more variables when you get to Tahiti and Fiji.” – Jed Smith
Follow Jed on Twitter, here.
Mick Fanning, shiny new world champ, and the man whose trustworthy grin makes you really believe him when he says “ASP… It’s on,” in that ad. ASP/Kirstin
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