Why Do You Even Care About The WSL? - Stab Mag

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Why Do You Even Care About The WSL?

The stakes, why it makes us surf better, and freesurfing as healthy masturbation.

// Dec 15, 2020
Words by Taylor Paul
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Editor’s Note: Dave Prodan is in his 15th year of employment at the ASP / WSL, where he currently holds the title of Chief Strategy and Brand Officer. He also hosts a podcast called The Lineup with Dave Prodan. He’s smart, kind, and yes, biased. But we like his thoughts on professional surfing so we thought we’d pass him the mic. The floor is yours, Dave…

Chuck Palahniuk said, “Self improvement is masturbation.” I’m starting to think the same thing about web edits…and marketing in general. Which is hardly an original thought. Bill Hicks (RIP) was running the traps on that philosophy 30 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. GREAT surfing can exist almost anywhere and I will watch pretty much any edit that comes out. Put Ch11.tv behind a paywall? Shut up and take my money. Creed McTaggert and Toby Cregan? Inject it into my eyeballs. 

But…

If the edit and, to that extent, anything compensated surfistas are doing — training, social media posts, board refinements, boat trips, etc. — aren’t on the journey to (or from!) something with real stakes, then they’re not exactly playing with live ammunition, are they?

Don’t call it a crowd surf. Jeremy Flores, en route to a hometown victory at the Quiksilver Pro France, 2019. Photo: Laurent Masurel / WSL

They’re kind of just playing with themselves in the corner. As apt a description of masturbation as any. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Surfing can mean whatever you like — self love included. That’s what’s rad about it. 

But when we’re talking collectively about what’s important and, subsequently, where we spend  our money, time and energy, it inevitably lands in spaces that advance the act of surfing for us all. 

What legitimately evolves wave-riding approach, board and wetsuit design, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, ad nauseum? 

Competitive surfing is what makes us all — often imperfect in process, but undeniably — surf better.

When it’s boiled down, the stakes and the conditions and the performance in the live arena, with the best surfers in the world, are arguably the most potent drivers. Competitive surfing is what makes us all — often imperfect in process, but undeniably — surf better.

Does the Championship Tour need to exist?

No. Of course not. 

If Stephanie Gilmore weren’t wearing a jersey here, would we still be watching? (Yes. But only because it’s Steph.) Lip tickle toward the podium at the 2019 Corona Bali Protected. Photo: Damea Dorsey / WSL

Surfing endures regardless. All that’s required are waves and willing souls.

But as a surfer (agnostic of my employment…which will stretch belief for some), I’d rather it exist than not, and exist in the best possible form. Admittedly, there’s a ways to go to get there.

There were about 10 full-time people who worked at the then-ASP when I started in 2006 (not counting the skeleton admin teams we had in regions). There were about five of us when we were acquired in late 2012. There are considerably more now, and the business has evolved. 

If ever there was a man that absorbed and emanated the stakes of surf competition, it was Andy Irons. Photo: Grant Ellis / WSL

Before the acquisition, the five-to-10 of us worked for an ownership group that was represented by 50 percent CT surfers and 50 percent CT event licensees (often the same companies that sponsored the surfers…let that sink in for a moment) and we, the ASP, were responsible for providing and executing a governing framework for the men’s and women’s Championship Tour, Pro Junior, Qualifying Series, Longboard and the occasional Masters event. 

Today, we do all that plus oversee all the previously-disparate mechanisms of the sport (broadcasts, event infrastructure, sponsorship, marketing, etc.) and have added new parts of the business in the Big Wave Tour, Big Wave Awards, Kelly Slater Wave Company, WSL Pure, Red Bull Airborne, WSL Studios, etc. 

The pre-acquisition ownership structure sometimes gets shit for its supposed conflicts of interest (“shit” that was underpinned by the anti-establishment foundation of the surfing community bristling against corporate powers-that-be…we’re all supposed to be progressive non-conformists, remember?). However, this same structure was also one where a number of decisions were made simply because surfers controlled those companies.

Imagine convincing the owners at multi-million dollar (that was a big number once upon a time) companies that the path forward was to shift their events from “butts on the beach” retail extravaganzas to remote locales such as Grajagan and Teahupo’o. The change was not only cool as fuck, it also — intentionally or not — set surfing up ahead of the digital curve in establishing a webcast…out of survival, due to the new remoteness of the events. (Professional surfing was the first global sport to digitally webcast an event. Portugal in 1996 — all credit to the unappreciated genius that was former ASP CTO Mano Ziul.)

The change was not only cool as fuck, it also — intentionally or not — set surfing up ahead of the digital curve in establishing a webcast…due to the remoteness of the events.

The “Dream Tour” decision also crystallized the purpose of professional surfing within the surfing world…and within the broader sport and entertainment arenas.

Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew joined me on a recent episode of The Lineup. He was ASP President from 1999 – 2009 and once broke down the purpose of the IPS / ASP / WSL for me thusly:

“What we do here is get the best surfers we can find, put them in the best waves we can find, and that’s a formula to see some cool shit. That’s it.”

Stakes. The stakes of live performance against the best you can find. That distilled undercurrent is the same as anything else — boxing, hip hop, football, food, etc. When all the artificiality of money and marketing and imagery, social media, blah, blah, blah is stripped away, the best way to create something special is to get the most talented people in one place, and let them do their thing. 

And I think about this often. I repeat it to myself often. I share it often with others inside and outside the WSL, with varying degrees of impact.

“A formula to see some cool shit” seems like it should be the foundational concern for the platform of professional surfing — or any sport / entertainment company. Create the conditions for the world’s best surfing to exist and use that to drive progression and inspiration in and out of the water. Of course, this has to be balanced with sponsorship, P&Ls, global logistics, etc. 

It’s not a simple exercise, but that’s the gig.

The previous structure that existed when I started had to change for a lot of reasons (conflicts of interest being only one of them). And the change post-acquisition in the last seven years has been essential in a lot of ways — and the new owners are still surfers and make decisions that are still cool as fuck because they believe in surfing. Doesn’t mean it’s been perfect. 

I’m not a WSL apologist…even though I have, on occasion, ostensibly been employed to be one. The organization (all iterations of it — IPS, ASP, and WSL) has, on more than one occasion, unintentionally gotten in its own way. 

Kelly Slater, still addicted to the stakes of competition. Quiksilver Pro France 2010. Photo: Cestari / WSL

But without it…without something that puts the best people you can find in the best conditions you can find…we’re all doomed to stagnation, the absence of transcendent moments on the scale we long for and the visceral benefits we all enjoy as a result.

In 1991, Tom Carroll snapped under the lip at Pipeline and changed the way every surfer viewed performance in critical conditions.

In 1993, Lisa Andersen’s style and grace single-handedly rejuvenated the Roxy brand and built it into one of Quiksilver’s key drivers en route to the billion dollar mark.

In 1999, Mark Occhilupo’s public vulnerability and physical transformation ignited the public discourse on what it means to be human and what it means to be immortal (and how you can be both) around his long overdue World Title.

In the mid-aughties, Andy Irons did the previously-unthinkable in vanquishing the God-King Kelly Slater in the coliseum of the Dream Tour.

The 15 years that followed bore witness to Kelly Slater resurrecting himself en route to 55 CT wins and 11 World Titles (and counting?).

In 2014, then-21-year-old Gabriel Medina altered the course of global performance surfing in collecting South America’s first men’s title ever.

Stephanie Gilmore, after single-handed transforming women’s surfing in the ’00s, began to blur the gender performance line with mind-melting waves at places like Keramas and Surf Ranch in 2019.

The list goes on.

Those moments, big and small, that result from the best surfers in the best waves, make surfing more enjoyable for me. They make me surf better. And I think they do that for everyone, whether recognized or not. The platform propels us forward. It is the engine.

For every three-finned off-the-bottom you enjoy, you can thank Simon Anderson’s 1981 competitive performances at Bells and Pipe for advancing that helpful bit of design. 

Born in a dumpster, forged in competition. Dane Reynolds validates the Dumpster Diver, Trestles 2009. Photo: WSL

You can thank Dane Reynolds and the MTFA (don’t sleep on it) and Dumpster Diver in France and Trestles in 2009 for stabilizing high-performance non-banana design.

For all the acai smoothies that set you on the path to all sorts of diet wonders and advanced health in your advancing years, the tour traipsing through South America and bringing home the purple berry to cafes around the world had a hand in that. Kelly Slater’s physique at 48, spitting in the face of mortality is unquestionably driven by his desire to keep performing on the CT, and we can all dream a little bigger in our own lives because of it.

Virtually every freesurfer poster boy or girl that you follow on social media, cut their teeth and developed their fundamentals in pursuit of competing for a World Title, even if they never got close. Rasta doesn’t ride rad-looking surfboards half as well if he didn’t build a basis for surfing through competition (like when he beat Joel Parkinson at Queensland Junior Titles).

Even for our antihero darlings — our Danes and Noas and Jaleesas, the Creeds, and Enekos and pick your poison — need something they can rebel against. (“After all, what would the world be like without Captain Hook?”)

Would Stab High’s irreverence hit without a WSL event to compare it to? Curren Caples, invited because we could. Photo: Conrad

I can imagine that the STAB readership…hell, the WSL readership…at this point may be crying “foul”. And that’s OK. It’s OK to not buy that wholesale from me — Huey knows we’ve done enough to obfuscate the surfing world from this reality. Doesn’t make it any less true though.

On December 7, the women’s Championship Tour returned to Honolua Bay in Maui, kicking off the 2021 season. 

On December 8, the men’s Championship Tour began with the Billabong Pipe Masters.

The fields, both on the men’s and women’s sides, have arguably never had more talent in five decades of the sport than they do this upcoming season. Despite COVID-19 challenges, they’re being put in the best waves possible and they’ll push one another and the ever-evolving performance envelope in surfing.

And that’s a formula to see some cool shit. 

The more we — the WSL — can remember and honor that, the better off we’ll be.

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