Stab Magazine | Matt Biolos: On Unicorns (Or, Disbelieving In The Non Surf Surf Fan)
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Matt Biolos: On Unicorns (Or, Disbelieving In The Non Surf Surf Fan)

Why surfing is the world’s largest judgmental sport and that’s just fine.
 

style // Dec 21, 2018
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 12 minutes

 Like most who read Stab, I enjoy watching Professional Surfing. It’s my sport of choice; even if I was no longer “in the game” of Pro Surfing, I think I would still follow it like most men in the USA follow Football.  

Professional Surfing is why I became a surfer in the first place, 36 long years ago.

From age 10 onward, I grew up spending most weekends, as well as long stints in the summers, on my parent’s modest boat. It was then, and still is to this day, nestled in Dana Point Harbor. The early years were primarily spent fishing, learning to freedive, sail small boats and just running around the docks. We’d spend weeks each summer in Avalon, or Two Harbors, over on Catalina Island. Life was simple and good.

In the early summer of 1982, my mother was sick of me lingering around the dock all the time, and bought my brother and I boogie boards.

“Go over to Doheny and catch some waves.”

So I did. Skateboarding through the harbor, oversized sponge in hand, into the Brave New World of wave riding. Doheny on a Boogie board is probably the slowest, lowest thrill level in the surfing world, but I was definitely stoked. Before long, I’m 13 and ready for more. My good friend, Paul Berton, just turned 16 and recently in possession of his driver license, didn’t mind dragging a chubby little smart-ass along.

All at once (and definitely too young) the world exploded for me. Free to roam in Paul’s 1970’s era Ford Mustang: All Ages punk rock gigs at infamous places like The Hollywood Palladium, Perkins Palace, and Fenders Ballroom. Check. Far flung skate spots only formerly seen in magazines. Check. Backcountry snowboarding along the sides of the local mountain roads. Check!

And so it was, with Boogie Boards piled in the rear hatchback, we ventured out to find better waves. That summer we got smashed at The Wedge (or Wedge, whatever you wanna call it). We got sucked into the pilings at HB pier, and tossed into the Newport Beach jetties. Poche, Hole in The Fence; we basically had a go at most of the closeout shore breaks in Orange County. 

 

For us, HB seemed like the place though. Main Street was still filled with independently owned surf shops, scary wonderful places like George’s Surf Center (which I swear to this day had the best smoothies I have ever tasted), the Infamous Chuck Dent’s, Rock n Fig (who at the time was the voice of OC Surfing on KROQ), Sunline/Electric Chair (where you could buy surfboards and Punk Rock records!). Jack’s was already there as well…like they seemingly always have been. You could order a custom wetsuit form Wilson Wetsuits, and they would make it on the spot. I got my first wetsuit vest there, for chilly South Side summer mornings.

It was the first big summer of the New Wave ’80’s. The shops were filled with brightly colored neon airbrushes and gigantic assorted logos, seemingly nose to tail. Everything was loud and in your face. It was awesome.

In 1982, OP was still THE brand. A guy name Tom Curren was in all the mags and shop windows, wearing the classic two tone cord shorts, with a white long sleeved tee shirt and big mirrored sunglasses. And at the peak of that summer, the OP Pro came to Huntington Beach.

We had to be there.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/Nf_YAcLBmU4

All I really remember is parking what seemed like miles away, walking down PCH from the Northside, and seeing more people in one place than I’d ever witnessed. Hundreds of girls with vertically-cut, bright bikinis and big, blown-dry, teased hair-dos. I unsuccessfully tried not to stare at them.

At the center of it all was the contest itself, on the Southside of the pier. Like it still is today, on a Sunday afternoon, The OP Pro (now The Vans US Open) is and was the biggest sideshow spectacle in surfing. We made sure to be frontrow.

Although I was merely a measly nubian kook, with a K-Mart bought Morey Boogie, I was on the water’s edge when Cheyne Horan pulled his 360 in the shore break, winning the first ever OP Pro. I didn’t know it of course, but my life changed forever in that moment, and I never rode that damn boogie board again.

The Professional Surfing experiment worked for me. I was caught, hook, line, and sinker. They created a fervent follower, customer, and consumer. I bought the mags, and tracked down the products within them.

Wave Tools surfboard, O’neill wetsuit; I begged mom for the various tee shirt and boardshort brands. It should have been easy to get me, as I was the definitive target: Thirteen-year-old, middle class, So-Cal white male.

The game was different then, though. Pro surfing wasn’t really selling “Pro Surfing” (well, the Bud Tour was, a few years later). Pro Surfing was a vehicle to sell product for the brands around it. 

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“Now, it does feels like Pro Surfing is here to sell “Pro Surfing,” and the World Surf League has done a fine job of just that, to a point. Like nearly every surfer I know, I’m a fan. Even were I not in the game of building boards for many of these athletes, I’d still follow along for entertainment and inspiration.” – Matt Biolos

Photography

Trevor King.

Now, it does feels like Pro Surfing is here to sell “Pro Surfing,” and the World Surf League has done a fine job of just that, to a point. Like nearly every surfer I know, I’m a fan. Even were I not in the game of building boards for many of these athletes, I’d still follow along for entertainment and inspiration.

I’m a surfer and I enjoy seeing the passion I’ve chosen to pursue pushed to the pinnacle of live performance. It keeps me motivated in my personal, life-long, pedestrian progress as a surfer.

I have every reason to believe there’s a global following of hundreds of thousands of other surfers who feel the same, based simply off of conversations I’ve had had around the greater surfing world.

It can be easily said that the WSL, with its slickly produced (albeit hopelessly conservative), professionally hosted, replay rampant, and multiple angled broadcast approach is the single most unifying entity in the surfing world today.

And God bless them for it.

Surfers are a diverse, well-spread, sizable tribe, blanketing nearly every inhabitable, surf-able coastal region (and with the looming proliferation of wave pools, non-coastal as well). We ride different style boards, are loyal to different brands, surf different spots (at different skill levels) speak different languages, wear different clothes, work a vast variety of jobs for wildly varied levels of income (in dozens of currencies).

Wherever I travel, when surfers are present, the conversation at some point transitions to the World Tour. We cheer on different athletes and watch the broadcasts in different languages, but we are all fans of the same game.

The WSL takes a lot of media heat, but the fact is that its webcasts are the most common thread running through our global tribe’s existence. Wherever you go as a surfer, on all five continents, you can strike up a compelling conversation with another fan, and debate details of the 50 or so athletes and dozen event locations around the world.

Who ripped, who got ripped on, and who got ripped off.

Speaking of ripped off or getting ripped on, a little more candidness in the post heats interviews, please! Even in gentrified, billion-dollar sports—Baseball, Basketball and Football (not even mentioning Hockey)—the participants regularly show far more emotion, express candid opinions, get physical with, taunt, and and even fight one another.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/EmJi_oc7t10

Right or wrong, there’s tension, and it’s not nearly as suppressed as it is on the World Tour. Like a Major League Baseball manager stomping out of the dugout towards the umpires, we want to see Filipe storm the judges’ tower. We loved it when Kolohe, finally (and eloquently), showed his teeth during a post-heat interview at Lemoore; we miss Freddy P, and even Bobby.

The WSL needs to let the athletes breathe a little.

needs

Photography

Trevor King

However, these webcasts have curated season-long drama and suspense. Following events via live feed, highlight reels, heats on demand, and Instagram posts, it’s easy to become enthralled. Although I personally refrain, Fantasy Surfer seems a fantastic tool to further engage both the fervent and would-be casual fans. Many of my friends, and non-surfer’s wives are engaged in Fantasy Surfer, as well. Back-end stories bringing the athletes and locations to life, and have steadily drawn more surfers than ever to follow along.

The key word is “Surfers.” Surfers are following along. And here’s what worries me: The WSL seems to be intent on chasing what some surf journalists call the Surf Fan Unicorn: Non surfing, surf fans.

It’s a tall, and risky order. As someone who lived through the “Great (Surf Industry) Recession”, I’ve seen what rampant growth with un-sustainable marketing and operating expenses (in hopes of capturing a non-surfing customer) can do to a business. What it did to all our brands less than a decade ago has left most companies still reeling.

 

The WSL, as a brand and a business, might want to take caution and, like our teachers told us, “study history, so as not to repeat it”.

Even the deepest pockets will tighten up after too many years with little to no profits. Whether a starry-eyed toddler on Christmas morning, or a Billionaire and his surf fan wife, the sustained high of a new toy can wear off before long, especially if it’s a money pit.

Then what? Sell it back to the surfers? At least then it can be called an Association of Surfing Professionals. I liked the term ASP. It seemed fitting for an individualist endeavor, and gave the feeling that the athletes themselves were behind it. Like nearly every other individual sport I could research, Golf (PGA), Tennis (ATP), Boxing (WBA) Track and Field (IAAF), even Auto racing (NHRA) Surfing used to be an “Association” of Surfing Professionals” – An individual, not team, sport.

Now it’s a League. Like one big happy team.

Oh well, the name means little, so long as the show is good.

The problem with chasing growth beyond the Core is the high cost of doing so, and the risk of degradation of the current product getting there.

The WSL announcers, while all capable, passionate professionals (and personal friends of mine) often speak as if targeting un-educated viewers. Purposely talking below the surf IQ of 95% of the audience. Sure, my 9-year-old son, or some first year surfer in Waco or China can benefit from the rudimentary explanations of what’s going on in the water; most repeat viewers and fans have heard the same thing 1,000 times over.

Even after 40+ years of following Baseball, when I watch an MLB game, the technical announcer always seems to bring some insight beyond what I am picking up on, myself. That’s their job. Having Ross Williams in the booth during the Triple Crown this season has brought moments of that, and we need more.

The same goes for boring, boilerplate, post-heat interviews.

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Rosy is sweet, cute as a button, and absolutely rips in her own right, but I’m always waiting for her to really challenge someone on front of that plexiglass logo screen.

Is there some puritan censorship mandate behind the sandy curtain, strong-arming the announcers to tip-toe and tap dance around the egos and emotions of the surfers and their entourages?

There’s much more drama than what’s being said.

For example: In regards to the recent Big Wave Tour event, at Jaws, I’ve heard first-hand accounts of two-wave hold downs, surfers pinned face first to the reef, 30′ underwater, with their floatation vests fully deployed! Guys surfacing, coughing up blood and foaming at the mouth.

That’s Drama! No wonder they called off the event. For the life of me, I did not hear anything like that on the web cast.

Why not?

Meanwhile, The WSL is getting pop shots taken at them for putting the event on hold, because we don’t know the real story.

More risk and more edge with the coverage, with higher level, more intricate and critical summations of the surfing would go a long way. Same goes for more candid, gritty interviews. Less sugar. More spice.

Strider tries to rock the boat, but in general there’s an overbearing, Disney-esque, squeaky clean, white wash over the entire show. Like spit-shining a used car, or wrapping a package up to sell it off.

Surfing is a way of life that thrives on the outskirts of society. By its own nature, surfing forces you to sit with your back turned on the vanilla-fied world, for hours. Ignoring everything, for a few momentary thrills.

Outside of wave pools, it may be the most competitive endeavor left in the modern world. It’s surly, the only activity where one needs to compete, just to participate! The last bastion of Survival of the Fittest.

The sport of surfing should reflect that as well.

It’s a private party that requires years to earn an invite, to understand and appreciate. Coating it in saccharine in order to grow a latent audience is a recipe for losing your Core base.

We learned this in the apparel industry.

There’s also one defining caveat that the WSL should take into consideration when looking to open the party to the masses: Beyond Surfing, there is no significant precedence of any “judged” sport becoming consistently followed on a global scale. In fact, I’d submit the case that the WSL is already the world’s most popular professional sport where winners and losers are decided by the subjective opinion of Judges. Historically, judges deciding winners has always been an achilles heel to any sport hoping for consistent, mainstream success.

There’s many reasons, of course, the worst of which is rigged results (which I don’t feel there’s ever been a problem with, in surfing). Let’s look at them:

Skateboarding: Even with a very young median age and a short number of years most participants remain engaged, as an activity and lifestyle, it surely outnumbers surfing, maybe 10x over.

Unfortunately, as a competitive sport, there’s far less organization, and such a quick turn over of competitive talent, it’s rarely built an ongoing tour or momentum. Coupled with the fact that there’s so many niche genre’s and sub-skills—vert ramps, street, street course, bowls and pools, you name it—with different stars in each field, choosing a “World Champion Skateboarder” is a pipe dream.

Sure, The Dew Tour and X-Games are capable of drawing a larger fan base and big viewership numbers, but there’s no truly organized, ongoing, financially stable, global tour, with consistent athletes making a living from simply being on the tour.

Snowboarding: Even with the added benefit of a being a popular Olympic sport, and a once-per-year, winter X-Games party, there’s not much else in the name of a consistent, thriving World Tour. Like Skateboarding, the sub-skills are so spread apart: Halfpipe, slope-style, Big air, even Boarder-cross, with very few athletes crossing over into multiple genres at a high level. That’s without even mentioning the Backcounrty scene.

It’s literally impossible to claim “World Champion Snowboarder.” I’ve spoken with two of the most well-known, well-versed, visible snowboarders of the last decade, and both confirmed there’s nothing anywhere near the organized, globally held and watched, World Tour of the WSL.

Furthermore, the events that there are—excepting the Olympics and, to some degree, X-Games—tend to be only followed by young, fervent followers. Most Snowboarders are normal people, who snowboard a few times a year. It doesn’t define who they are, and how they think, like Surfers tend to be.

And no one is making a sustainable living off a tour. The most prolific tour today is actually The Freeride World Tour, a splinter faction of big mountain extreme riders that features almost no household names. Most guys work real jobs to do the tour.

Another problem in both these sports is their violent and abusive nature. One top pro recently told me “how can we build any momentum, when most of our best talent is battered, broken and done by 25 years old. Once mainstream fans know who someone is, he’s already past his prime.”

Figure skating? Gymnastics? Competitive Diving? Most of these athletes live at home, train, and compete in complete obscurity all year, to qualify for “Nationals”—where the best athletes in countries like the USA, China, etc. can perform in small indoor arenas, in front of mostly friends and family, so they can then qualify for the once per year, “World Championships” which might get a random Sunday afternoon slot on NBC or CBS.

And all in hopes of making it to the Holy Grail: The Olympics, where once every four years, the entire word instantly becomes fans, although we have no fucking idea what the judges are judging.

At that point, a few lucky girls and boys reach immortality, and a lifelong job of getting gigs hosting future Olympic broadcasts.

Am I missing something?

Boxing is sort of a mixed bag. If the guys do a shitty job, and no one gets knocked out, then it goes to the judges, who seemingly add up the amount of punches landed, and chose a winner. 

I for one have watched pay-per-view fights since Muhammad Ali was throwing down, and still can’t comprehend the judging. That said, the sport has all but destroyed itself and its following due to rampant rigged fights and controversy, while at least 99 out of 100 MMA fights seem to end in a choke out, tap out, or knock out …or whatever they call it.

To comprehend the complexity of judged sports, it almost requires prior participation.

Most every very kid in America can toss and catch a football, shoot a few hoops, has played a few games of baseball. We can all put on a glove and play catch. I have never played ice hockey, and for the life of me, I can’t fucking follow it on TV, either. I don’t think I’ve watched a complete game since the Miracle on Ice.

So in reality, The WSL have already won. Congratulations!

The WCT is already the world’s most popular, successful judgmental sport. Period.

The athletes, announcers and management staff are all well-paid. The locations are, save Lemoore, dreamy. The broadcast is slick, consistent and (until Facebook got involved) reliable.

I hope they actually realize what they have, and nurture it. Treat us fervent fans properly. Pander to us. Don’t water it down and serve up benign vanilla soft serve, just to grow non endemic viewers.

Why screw it up? Why go for the Unicorns?

For the good of the surfers, the loyal fans, and small businessmen like myself, I for one would love to believe the WSL is run as a sustainable, stable, profitable business, built around the current level of fans, and hoping for slow and steady growth. Wave pool proliferation will build the fanbase, a lot. Once someone participates in something, and realize the difficulty, they can then enjoy watching others do it, and somewhat understand the complexity of judging.

I don’t honestly believe there are many of those Non-Surfing Surf Fan Unicorns to be had. Even in burgeoning countries, like China, it takes a while for entry-level participants to develop the level of comprehension to appreciate the subtleties of Professional Surfing.

If they want to dummy it down for them, have them hire their own damn announcers.

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