Parallels in Sport

I came across this interview with 9X World Champion Surfer, Kelly Slater, during his dominating run through the 2008 Pro Surf Tour. There are alot of parallels that can be taken from the Pro Surf Tour and many of the endurance sports events, specifically triathlon. Slater’s comments about the increase in the cost of living, increase in cost of travel and the increase in just about every other aspect of life, except no increase in prize money at the majority of the events really rings familiar. It’s a pretty interesting read. Maybe we’re headed in the right direction, but I truly believe that sport needs heroes, and the events need to promote the heroes of the sport to help it continue to grow.


Questions: When you first came back on tour in 2002, you talked about one of your goals being to help change the ASP, as opposed to just winning titles. How do you feel about the progress that’s been made in the last 6 years?

Kelly Slater: I think there’s been some good progress made, in certain ways… The one thing I will say is it’s a little bit frustrating with the ASP, to be honest, because every 5 or 8 years it seems like there’s some monumental idea to change things. They moved ASP off to Australia, they were talking about getting bigger global umbrella sponsorships, there was all sorts of talk about things changing. They hired Brodie (Carr) and Rabbit, pumped a lot of new life into it, but I’m not sure if there’s a whole lot of tangible difference. At the end of the day there’s not more dollars in it. We’re still surfing with the same prize money as years ago. The price of living has gone way up, the cost of housing has doubled, and the amount of money guys are making hasn’t gone up.

When fans picture the ASP they think of a giant organization, like the NBA, but it’s more like a small company.

Yeah, when I talk to people who are out of touch with the ASP and pro surfing, just business people, they ask about how much we make, about the structure and organization of pro surfing. And it’s almost, on a global sports level, I don’t know if this is too harsh a word, but it’s almost embarrassing when it gets down to it. When people don’t know, they’ll say “Wow, I figured you were surfing for $100,000 first place minimum. Maybe half a million when you have to surf Teahupoo or Pipe.” The one thing about it, is it proves surfers don’t do what they do for money. They do it for the love of what they do. The reward for us is getting to surf those waves with only one other guy out. Spots like J-Bay, Pipe, G-land back in the day…That’s really more the payment for us, when we get classic conditions and it really is the dream tour. We get to have that experience of controlling those line-ups, probably the only time in your life with one other guy out. That’s more our payment right there.

I don’t know what the answer is to the question – why isn’t it bigger? Why isn’t the ASP a stronger business presence, why haven’t they been able to capitalize on marketing like the NBA or NFL? There’s something inherently missing in the professional side of it, and I don’t know if that finger should be pointed and blamed on administration, or if it’s just the nature of what we to. I can’t say it’s not a marketable thing, but it’s not based on marketing.

So much of it comes down to three major brands driving 90% percent of the tour.
There could definitely be a wall there, blocking everything else to be able to come in. There really haven’t been any outside companies able to penetrate that wall.

Right – I’m not an insider, but I imagine it doesn’t just have to do with a lack of interest from outside companies – it has to do with those major surf brands blocking them from coming in.
Yeah. And the way the tour is set up is pretty ass-backwards. The sponsors own all the media rights to their events. And the ASP does not. It takes a lot more infrastructure to set that up, but once you do you have so much more control and ability to do what you need to do with the tour. At each event you go to, you don’t know if you’re going to get a good webcast – Billabong is doing that one, Quik is doing that one, Rip Curl that one,.. all of a sudden you’re going, “Wow I hope this next one works good.” Some stops don’t have a dedicated web commentary. If the ASP owned the events themselves, and the money would just be brought in by sponsors, instead of having a whole independent crew for each event to run the webcast, you’d have a more standardized system.

I’m just saying, in a perfect world, if the ASP had the structure set up properly, where they owned all the events, they owned the rights to the events, etc, they were doing the webcast, they had dedicated commentators – you create a show, you create a product, and it stays that way. And I think that would be step a in the right direction.

I remember when I first started out, in the early nineties, and I was at an event, in a hotel room, really sick, and I was looking down at the contest site, and I was thinking, “Gosh how amatauerish is this entire thing?” The whole way it’s set up – I didn’t get the feeling I was at a worldwide professional event, I got the feeling we were at a local contest. I’ve always thought that ASP has a long way to go, even though we have what we call a Dream Tour. But ultimately the structure needs to be changed around. That would allow for a more standardized product, and I don’t think that would pasteurize or water it down too much.

The ASP should have a log of all the footage from all the events they own. I’m not sure where they stand now, but I know that there’s about 10 years of the tour that a guy named Allen Gibby owns the footage for, cause he worked for a company called Dynocom, or whoever, and they own all that footage for years and years of the tour. Can you imagine the NBA or NFL just saying “Oh, we don’t have ‘84 to ‘92 cause some guy owns it.” It’s crazy – you should be able to draw on that footage at any time.

Another issue is simply having 48 guys in each event. Well, if you’re talking about a real “world” tour, with guys’ careers on the line… maybe we should look back and see who’s the lowest ranked guy to win an event. Not wildcards, who’ve won quite a few, but the lowest tour seed. Start from there…

But to really answer your question I think there are far too many people on tour. When it really comes down to it, fortunately or unfortunately, there aren’t 48 guys that people are getting online to see. There’s far fewer than that. It just takes so much extra time, most swells are only two days – you can’t run through 48 guys and give everyone an equal, fair opportunity to surf their best. To really present to the public what the best surfing is, you’d probably need an hour long heat, maybe two two man heats out… I’m getting into the idea of having a totally different type of system for surfing altogether. I think the judging criteria, the number of heats, the people in it, I think all those things should be changed and that’s probably the only way to bring out real big revenue for prize money.

…Like I said before, I’m starting to think of ways for professional surfing to be presented a little bit differently. Does everyone have to surf against everyone, or can we start thinking about who people want to see surf against each other, and base events around that? I’m a just a little fed up with ASP, as are most of the guys on tour right now. We butted heads with them about a few things, when it really should be seen as our organization. It’s not unlike the people of a county getting upset at their government. There’s this “us against them” feel, when it’s actually supposed to be our government. We’re supposed to be all for them, but the pro surfers, a good percentage of them, view the ASP as limiting us, limiting what can be done in some way. So there’s a sense of frustration there when you talk to me.