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What does the ASP’s new deal with ZoSea mean for the future of pro surfing?

 So, ASP and the until recently unheard of ZoSea Media have agreed on a future “vision” for pro surfing. Fantastic. How about letting the rest of us in on it?

 What has been lost in the vague corporate double speak of the official announcement of ASP’s new deal with ZoSea Media is that pro surfing has, effectively, been sold lock, stock and barrel.

 “ASP has entered into an agreement to have all the tour rights and properties to be acquired by the new group ZoSea,” a source close to ASP told me today. “Not everyone was in agreement and the vote to accept the ZoSea deal was not unanimous, with some feeling the ASP could retain it’s own destiny and maintain control of the media rights and package them in such a way to control the tour.”

The clincher seemed to be that the major surf labels could simply not afford to continue to carry the burden of funding event production and webcasts. “I think everyone realized the status quo could not be maintained and with the current status of the brands, it was a foregone conclusion that something had to change,” our source said.  In essence, the pro tour was in real danger of simply falling over without the intervention of a cashed up third party.

With event costs rising to somewhere between US$2-3 million, the new deal offers brands a flat cost of $1 million to sponsor an event and,  thus, a saving of $1-2 million per event. In the current economic climate that was enough incentive to relinquish the pro tour control the surf industry has maintained for over a decade.

 It is not hard to understand why this was attractive. They are, after all, sporting goods and apparel companies that have been forced to become media production houses because of the absence of a viable media deal for the tour. Every time a new media deal has fallen over, the surf brands have had to step into the breach and take up the burden of producing webcasts at enormous cost. The idea of someone relieving them of that burden must have been appealing.

 “Simply put, the majority of the events found the deal attractive, as it guaranteed the minimums necessary to conduct the events and cover the media costs associated with web and TV production, thus reducing the cost for the brands to put the events on,” our source said.  

 ZoSea and most of its partners are an unknown quantity in surfing.  It has no on-line presence and its most obvious domain names have already been quickly snapped up by other parties. Its main surfing credentials come from Terry Hardy, Slater’s manager. ZoSea must have a business plan to recoup the considerable investment it will have to make to run and broadcast events, but because of the total absence of meaningful comment from ZoSea or ASP we are left to speculate.

They can recoup some costs from minor, supporting sponsors at each event, as the events have been doing for years, and on-sell broadcast rights, or adopt some type of pay-per-view model. Whatever happens, there is likely to be some considerable change to the way pro surfing is presented to the world. But these changes will not come into effect until 2014. “The devil is in the details and over the next two months that needs to be worked out,” our source said.

 A centralized production team should at least mean consistency in the quality of broadcasts and a regular commentary team. The surfers have been won over with promised increases in prize-money and a pension plan.

 One curious aspect of this whole saga is how furiously certain parties tried to hose down speculation around the deal only days before it was made public. A couple of days before ASP formally announced the detail, Kelly Slater openly scoffed at an anonymous email I’d received foreshadowing the deal.

 “Amazing that you fell for this with all its grammatical errors and such …  The letter is a pretty funny try by someone.  Probably one of your Twitter friends having a go at everyone,” he wrote.

 And yet, he must have known the anonymous email would be shown to be largely accurate only days later. As I say, curious. So far, Slater has failed to respond to my questions about this. He did reveal to the Australian newspaper that he had actively lobbied in support of his manager’s bid to control the pro tour. “Ultimately I did. But it’s in line with many things I’ve felt for a long time,” he told the Australian.

This is not to suggest that there is something sinister in Kelly supporting his manager’s bid to “own” pro surfing. I wouldn’t suggest they are going to stack the judging panel so KS can continue winning world titles until he is 50. Kelly has publicly pushed for an end to the surf industry’s control of the pro tour for years, even while being the highly paid figurehead for the largest surf industry presence, Quiksilver. What is also curious about the ASP’s new owners is that Terry Hardy’s most significant partner in the enterprise is Paul Speaker, a Quiksilver director. Curiouser and curiouser.

My advice to the ASP’s new owners would be to start some plain-talking dialogue with the surfing media and public to let them in on precisely what their “vision” is. There is already a significant cynicism and jadedness towards the pro tour out there in the surfing community and secret backroom machinations left unexplained will only increase this. It wouldn’t take a lot to sway the bulk of the surfing public to tune out from the tour and tune into, say, Kai Neville’s latest free online video launch or Taylor Steele’s Innersection as the most credible measure of surfing prowess.

The other issue that occurs to me is this: If ZoSea Media has bought ASP, what have they paid for it and to whom? As the ASP has always been owned 50% by the surfers and 50% by the events, can all the hundreds or even thousands of surfers who competed on the pro tour over the past 35 years, dedicated their lives and skills to growing it from nothing, expect a little cheque in the mail this week? Can Rabbit Bartholomew expect his mortgage to be paid off for him, or will Peter Townend discover a nice boost to his superannuation fund? I doubt it.

If the nothing else, the deal should serve to make a lie of the claim that the pro tour was ever 50% owned by the surfers.


FOOTNOTE: To Kelly’s credit he did get back to me with this yesterday: “I‘m excited to see what a real plan can do for the sporting side and future pros. I do feel lots of the details are in line with things that make more sense…a unified product, streamlined media rights with a proper outlet, basically the delivery of what’s happening being improved. Imagine any other sport letting sponsors do what they please with all it’s media content?! It’s ridiculous. It seems like this is the only chance at this happening since I’ve been a part of the sport … This actual deal sounds amazing for the ASP and I’m happy the sponsors had enough vision to vote in favor of it. I don’t know what they’d have done in the next 2 years otherwise. Hopefully we look back and think of what lucky and great timing it was to happen when it did.” 



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