16 Sep RIP ASP, ALL HAIL WORLD SURF LEAGUE
The Association of Surfing Professionals, or ASP, the pro tour’s governing body since 1983, is no more. Pro surfing is going through a major re-branding. It will henceforth be known as World Surf League. I shit you not.
I was informed of this momentous news in an earnest phone conversation with Graham Stapelberg, former ASP director and Billabong exec, the man now charged with the task of dealing with a sometimes errant surf media on behalf of pro surfing’s new masters.
ASP as a brand, it seems, required too much explanation and caused too much confusion. Potential sponsors thought Association of Surfing Professionals sounded like a surfers’ union and you can just imagine how unthrilled the corporates would feel about bankrolling that sort of Bolshy carry-on. It required lengthy explanations of what exactly ASP was and did. World Surf League is more succinct and self-explanatory, it is hoped. Three. Short. Sharp. Syllables. World. Surf. League. Australian readers would be familiar with how potent three word slogans have been for our conservative government: Stop The Boats. Read My Lips. No New Taxes. Three short words as corporate messaging is the new black.
This, of course, also continues the Americanisation of pro surfing to pander to its supposed biggest market, the same Americanisation that has brought us Pat Parnell and an almost all-Seppo commentary team. American sports fans are used to major league baseball, national football and hockey leagues. To Australian surfers World Surf League has echoes of the old boardriders club competition, the Quiksilver Surf League. To me, it sounds like a gang of surfing superheroes, you know, like the Justice League. You can just see Commissioner Keiren Perrow getting on the phone to summon all the gang – Kelly, John John, Gabs, Parko and Fanno – to come save civilization from its latest threat.
One unfortunate, unforeseen consequence of the new branding may be that the World Surf League, or WSL, will now go by the unglamourous nick name of Wassell (as in Hawaiian charger Dave Wassell) in the same way the West Australian Football League is now known as “the Waffle”, not the sexiest moniker to attach to your shiny new marketing strategy.
A little historical perspective. ASP has always billed itself as “since 1976” but this is a bit misleading. The pro tour began under the auspices of International Professional Surfing, or IPS, founded by Hawaiian contest promoter and ’68 world champ Fred Hemmings. His Hawaiian-centric view of pro surfing was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1983 by Aussie big wave charger Ian Cairns, getting to the end of his competitive career, frustrated by the lack of growth in pro surfing, and with the backing of Ocean Pacific surfwear. Cairns left with his dream of awakening the mainland US market in tatters after the infamous OP Pro riot of 1986, but ASP has endured for another 28 years, with a revolving door of senior management and a constricting reliance on the endemic surf industry brands. American media company ZoSea acquired ASP in 2012 and has since been engaged in the exacting task of trying to turn the pro tour into a profit-making enterprise.
Its current business model relies heavily on the largesse of US billionaire Dirk Ziff, who underwrites operations to the tune of an estimated $20 million a year. Internally, pressure must be mounting to see some return on this investment and Wassell is clearly part of a strategy to commercialise the tour, attract mainstream sponsors and audiences and get the balance sheet into the black. The surfers are reportedly right behind the rebranding but how it flies with the public and the market remains to be seen.
Wassell’s guiding architects, Terry Hardy and Paul Speaker, have always maintained that pay-per-view is not an option for pro surfing, that they want a “fan-centric” business model that places no obstacles in the way of people engaging with the tour. But as I watched the surreal spectacle of huge, perfect Teahupo’o beamed live into my computer recently, spellbound for hours by the skill, drama and beauty of elite athletes risking their lives in the most mesmerising arena, and as I contemplated all the time, trouble, expertise and expense that went into allowing me to watch one of the world’s great sporting spectacles from my kitchen table, I was struck by the thought: “Someone has to pay for all this.” Soon after, I was struck by the thought that perhaps I, and surfers like me, are the problem with pro surfing.
I have been a freeloader on pro surfing its entire life. I watch, read, comment and consume, enjoy its drama and spectacle, mock and heckle its awkward moments of cheesiness and drifts into irrelevance. And I barely contribute a nickel, rarely buy a surf branded product or act upon the urgings of its advertisers.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive about all this. A lot of people have a lot at stake here, not least the fabulous jetsetting lifestyles of your favourite surfing heroes, and the big surf brands which have become accustomed to the pro tour as a convenient marketing tool. It’s all too easy to carp from the sidelines when you have no skin in the game.
But if something doesn’t give soon, if big, obliging corporate sponsors don’t get on board, if Dirk Ziff’s largesse runs out, if in desperation pay-per-view is tried and fails, and if pro surfing were to effectively collapse, would we grieve? What might arise in its place? Whether such questions fill you with crushing dread or the most exquisite sadistic pleasure, suspend your hysteria for a while yet. World Surf League is here to try and save the pro surfing world. Boom. Crash. Pow.