God From The Machine
With new leadership and the ability to now create world-class waves, the World Surf League is reshaping competitive surfing as we know it
With new leadership and the ability to now create world-class waves, the World Surf League is reshaping competitive surfing as we know it
The August 1974 issue of SURFER magazine featured a satirical piece by Drew Kampion titled “How I Surfed And Won In The 1984 Olympics,” mocking the fast-approaching era of professional surfing. It opened like this:
“When the Olympic Games came to Hawaii in 1984, the Union of States, as has always been the custom, was allowed to name a new sport to the Program. Because of vast popular support in the Islands, and for many other reasons, the sport selected was Surfing.
“A huge Artificial Wave machine was constructed in a sleek concrete stadium; a Variable Reef and Wave Dissipator were added; Hawaii upped its promotion of Surfing. All competitive organizations within the organism of Surfing expressed delight with the elevation of the Sport to new heights of recognition and professionalism, albeit amateur professionalism. Many surfers, who had in their sights either World Contest goals or Pro Contest goals, raised their targets to the new apogee: Olympic Gold.”
That Kampion, over 40 years ago and a full year before professional surfing was even a thing, managed to so accurately satirize the state of professional surfing today was quite a feat of precognition. Wave pools, Olympics, right down to the collective hysteria their arrival has triggered. The future he so boldly predicted is here, and on a bleak November morning, across the road from a potato farm in Central California, we stood looking boldly into it—and it still looked like science fiction.
We were, of course, at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in Lemoore, where a handful of surf writers had been invited by the World Surf League (WSL), the wave pool’s owner, to ride the futuristic break. While the “wave system,” as the WSL refers to it, has been public knowledge for two years, few have actual seen it in person, and there’s still a veil of secrecy (and a big-ass fence) around the facility itself. During construction it was passed off to locals as a fish farm. The secrecy is, in part, the WSL’S way of doing things, but they’re being especially cautious about rolling the wave pool out too grandiosely, as they themselves are still coming to terms with this technological wonder and what it might mean for the future of their organization—and the future of surfing itself. The wave pool is taking surfing across the Rubicon, a fact not lost on the woman in charge of managing where it all goes from here.
“Have you ever known a time like this in surfing?” It took me a moment to realize this was a question and not a statement.
Sophie Goldschmidt is the CEO of the WSL, four months into the job with a formidable sports marketing CV and suddenly at the helm of a sport “at a huge tipping point,” as she describes it. She pauses for a second, thinking about tipping points and climate change connotations. “A positive tipping point, that is,” she clarifies.
Slater wasn’t there, thankfully. Surfing the pool was anxiety-inducing enough already. I think most of the writers on site had penned something mildly disparaging about the pool at some point, and we weren’t sure whether we’d been summoned to Lemoore to go surfing or to be ritually shamed in some way. Pool critics sit just above Flat Earthers, but Slater’s pool is a challenge to everything you know about surfing and every ideological pillar that holds it up, and I think Slater wanted us to experience it knowing full well it would blow our tiny minds and dispense with any preconceived notions we might have arrived with. Which is exactly what it did.
“So, what did you think?” It was Sophie, pointing her phone’s camera in my direction just after I’d gotten out of the water. “It’s Kelly, by the way.”
It was awkward standing there with Slater suddenly there—but not there at the same time—having to admit, “Man, you know, you were right.” Surfing it had been a trip. While you wait for the wave to appear there’s no sound and no movement. It then goes from sensory depravation to complete sensory overload at the press of a button. The machine whirs to life then drones as the cable drags the hydrofoil down the pool toward you. The wave appears as a small boat wake, which triples in size as it nears. Every cell in your body screams, “Don’t f--k this up!” as suddenly you’re up on a thin ribbon of magic water among the big industrialized landscape, none of which you’re even noticing. By the time you kick out 45 seconds later it all makes sense.
Sophie Goldschmidt is a breath of fresh air. The WSL operates largely behind closed doors. The billionaire owner and former CEO Dirk Ziff has never been interviewed about his involvement, yet here was Sophie candidly talking to journalists deep inside their secret installation. She’s also a stark contrast to the organization’s first CEO, Paul Speaker, a hard-ass dealmaker with little time for the surf press. His only visit to the SURFER office, shortly after the WSL had taken over the ASP in 2013, was described like “Godzilla walking through Tokyo” after the author of this piece had described the WSL takeover as “opportunistic” in the pages of the magazine.
No, there seems to be an air of détente about the day at Lemoore and indeed about Sophie’s whole management style. She’s relaxed. She asks questions. She listens. She actually grants SURFER a full interview, her first on the job, during which she repeats the mantra “inclusive” several times over. She is as good as her word in Lemoore, for today even the lowest of the low—surf writers—are being allowed into the pool (I think they changed the water afterward). These are strange days indeed.
I joked to Sophie that she was a bold signing for the top job, as she belonged to two of surfing’s most traditionally marginalized groups; she’s female and she’s English. She laughed (eventually) but in many ways the fact that she’s an outsider makes her perfect for the challenge of taking surfing beyond surfing. Sophie surfs occasionally, and her boyfriend of seven years is an Australian surfer, so she had an inkling of what she was getting into, although her time in the job has still been a cultural education. She’s treading carefully. When we arrived that morning, she welcomed us while noting that it was the anniversary of Andy Irons’ passing, and while acknowledging that she never met him, she believed the occasion should be noted.
(Right) When Kelly Slater unveiled his artificial wave, the surfing masses dropped their collective jaws and hailed the new, mechanized break as perfection incarnate. At the time, no one had any clue what the future held for Slater’s new invention. Now it may hold the key to the growth of professional surfing. Photo by GLASER
The long game for the WSL since they took over the Tour four years ago has been hard to frame—or determine if there even was a long game. They clearly pumped plenty of money into it, but resisted pulling it apart and putting it back together, which was an exercise it sorely needed. So why had Ziff thrown down on pro surfing? Was it merely an indulgent plaything? A tax write-off ? We could never ask him personally, so we had no idea. The economics of the Tour were so imperfect—it seemed to only lose money—that we believed it was simply a rich guy buying a league and some cool by association. But if this was the case, why weren’t there more Ziff sightings at contests?
The only time he’d been spotted at a Tour event was one morning in Fiji a few years back, surfing the playful left off Namotu Island. He paddled past on a longboard, indistinguishable from all the other middle-aged guys on longboards out there. It was only after he was spotted by a couple of the surfers in the contest that we realized it was the league’s mystery owner. Worth just shy of $5 billion, Ziff was actually the second-richest guy in the lineup that morning. Larry Page—google’s co-founder, worth $47 billion—was out there in a baggy neck-to-ankle stinger suit. Pro surfing has never been a viable business, more a black hole where marketing budgets go to die, so why were shrewd, big-money guys like Ziff involved? Surely they were holding an ace, but what the hell was it?
They played their ace on December 18, 2015 when the first clip of Slater’s wave pool dropped. There it was. They’d split the atom. Soon after, the WSL announced it had acquired the Kelly Slater Wave Co. and suddenly there was their business model. They had something to sell: perfect waves that could exist anywhere, an oceanic coastline no longer a prerequisite. Commercial opportunity would radiate out from these pools. They could sell pool licences, annual memberships, day passes, T-shirts and après-surf beers. They could sell surrounding real estate. They could sell pools as theme parks and training facilities. The WSL’S first commercial wave pool will soon break soil in Palm Beach, Florida, and the artificial surf arms race with other wave pool designers has begun. Whether they can all make it work economically when nature provides the competition free of charge is a matter for some conjecture, but studies draw straight lines between perfect waves and rapid economic growth, and now perfect waves could be dropped anywhere in the world. The Tour, the sport, would become the marketing.
For the WSL, the pool has become a PR goldmine. Gerry Lopez, the high priest of surfing soul, rode the first left in the pool and compared it to G-land. The pool holds a strange suggestive power over anyone who rides it and it cuts across all strata, surfing Lamas and cynical surf journalists alike. By inviting legends like Lopez, former world champs, the best Tour surfers, International Olympic Committee delegates and pretty much anyone of influence within Kelly’s circle of friends, they’ve not only gained widespread endorsement of the pool, but also created a huge pool of goodwill for the WSL.
As for the Tour itself, the WSL have finally begun seriously recalibrating it, and not a moment too soon. The big change this year is obviously the addition of the Lemoore pool to the Tour in September. It’ll be a fascinating exercise. For the first time ever, a Tour event nine months away has a guaranteed broadcast starting time and a guaranteed swell forecast. The only unknown at the moment is whether they will do away with the Tour’s standard man-on-man format and adopt a golf-style leaderboard—runs not heats—which Kelly has wanted for years. It’s not in the rulebook, but neither is the pool.
(Left) Like Slater’s wave, Cloudbreak is synonymous with perfection. Unfortunately, only one of them is on the World Tour schedule next year amid sweeping changes. Photo by MILLER
The Lemoore event might give us the first hint of whether pool surfing might head down a separate evolutionary path and become, for all intents and purposes, another sport entirely. Hyper-technical switchfoot surfing on short, double-ended boards on a uniform course will soon look more like aquatic snowboarding than surfing. If Olympic surfing at the 2020 Games in Tokyo does end up going down in a pool—and rumor has it that everything under the sun is being done to make it so—it might well mark the breakaway. From there, the idea of two tours—one in the ocean, one in the pools—holding each other in orbit isn’t without merit. But one thing at a time—let’s just get a single tour to work first.
And that brings us to 2019, when the whole deck gets reshuffled. From leaked reports, the Pipe Masters goes from finishing the Tour to starting it in February, Europe moves into spring and the whole thing wraps up in September. The big change is that the men’s and women’s world titles will be decided in a finals series held on boats in the remote Mentawai Islands. How many times have comment sections debated the Tour, with someone saying, “Make the Tour like a boat trip!” Well, here it is. The skinny is that it will be remote enough for exclusivity, which means it will almost certainly be the WSL’S first foray into pay-per-view broadcasting. What hasn’t yet leaked is whether event formats—inherited from the WSL’S predecessor, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), and designed by surfers, for surfers—will be mercifully pruned back to create a spectacle less likely to trigger narcolepsy in surf fans. The whole thing will be shorter, slicker and easier to watch.
Alongside these seismic shifts in the sport, the WSL itself has become unrecognizable from when they took over, and even more unrecognizable from the previous regime. The old ASP headquarters was located in a dilapidated shopping center in Coolangatta where muzak played and pensioners shuffled glacially on Zimmer frames. It felt like a set from “Napoleon Dynamite.” The office was often empty, especially when there were waves across the road in Rainbow Bay. The WSL is now based in Santa Monica, the office featuring walls made from aged mahogany wine barrels and vintage doors from the estate of Bob Hope. And while the ASP was hardly a destination employer, the WSL now employs 140 people full time, 100 of them in the Santa Monica office. Their executive hirings have almost exclusively come from other big sports with big three-letter acronyms—the NBA, NFL, UFC and WTA. Heavy hitters from the world of sports marketing and broadcasting are entering the surfing fray, while the WSL’S connection to big money has also brought in global consultancies, agencies and think tanks like Repucom and Teneo. The changes are personified by Dave Prodan, who once had the job title of “ASP Media Guy” and dressed exclusively in flannel shirts, but is now the WSL’S Senior Vice President of Global Brand Identity. I don’t even know what that means, but he’s no longer in flannels and the direction is clear: the WSL has a naked ambition to be a big three-letter sport itself.
There are broadly two kinds of surfers: those who want to share surfing with the world, and those who want to keep it for themselves.
It’s been that way since Dora was a boy and will be forever more; the mainstream and the counterculture locked in a cold war for moral control of surfing. Understanding this historical schizm has been part of Sophie Goldschmidt’s cultural education in the big job. “My perspective up until taking this role is that it was very inclusive and very accepting, so it’s only more recently as I’ve got closer to the heart of the culture that I’ve appreciated that isn’t always the case.”
The WSL wants to share surfing with everyone—to turn a profit, of course—but aren’t limiting themselves to the sport and the Tour. They also want to sell the broad church of the surfing lifestyle. It’s an all-ofsurfing play. “We have multiple priorities and objectives we’re focused on, but it’s bigger than just surfing,” says Goldschmidt. Check their Instagram feed. There are reposted big waves, travel imagery, surfing dogs, loggers, kids—hell, even Jamie O’brien and Poopies are on there. It’s the surfing experience aggregated and packaged up. “We’re going to be more ambitious about how we also transcend into lifestyle, how we capture the more casual fan and capture a broader audience, because that’s good for surfing,” says Goldschmidt. “We don’t want to become too mass, though, because then we lose our coolness and some of the appeal of what makes us who we are, but I think we have a long way to go before we have to worry about that. I think that lifestyle crossover is what makes us unique. I don’t think there’s any other sport that sits at the epicenter of where sport and lifestyle cross over like surfing does.”
Professional surfing has never been more professional, more marketable and more marketed—but less dangerous, culturally. Whenever that balance has swung in the past it’s been an invitation for the counterculture to rise, a counterculture that often defines itself by simply being the opposite of what pro surfing is. Ask Noa Deane or Bobby Martinez. That tension will always be there and hallelujah for that. Surfing needs white to have black, and as we speak there is a rebel tour already being rallied together, sounding out pretty much every black sheep who has walked away disillusioned from the Tour in the past decade (you can probably guess who they are). The irony here, of course, is that an early incarnation of the WSL was once itself a rebel tour.
The WSL, however, believe they can walk the fine line of building a mainstream sport out of surfing without creating a fatal disconnect with surfing lifers—“the core”—which they’re strongly conscious of. “Obviously I think we can do both, but you have to be very thoughtful and you can’t move too quickly and I think there are different strategies and different levers you can pull for different audiences,” says Goldschmidt. “Where lifestyle and sport cross over, it’s about finding that balance. It’s not like we’re going to go out and change everything. There are definitely things ripe for change and we’ll be testing some things and trying to evolve rather than revolutionize the sport, but there are some things we have to hold onto dearly and very tightly. We can absolutely do both and we will. We certainly don’t want to alienate our hardcore fans. All we ask is that people stay open-minded.”
Even with the wave pool dawn and the Olympics ushering in a glorious dynasty for professional surfing, there are still no guarantees it’s going to work. I’ll see your wave pool and raise you 40 years of boom and bust pro surfing. The WSL are still going to need some things to go right in order to future-proof the Tour.
They’ll need the pools to work, for one. The pools underwrite the whole thing. There’s no precedent here, so we’re flying blind as to what might happen. They’ll want to break a big Asian market somewhere with the pools as the Trojan Horse—maybe Japan in the short term, definitely China in the long game. Taking surfing to China and making it viable will be a cultural challenge not unlike colonizing Mars, but between the pools and, more importantly, the Olympics, who knows? In mature surfing nations, like the United States and Australia, maybe it’s the more, er, mature surfer who will be the savior here. Watching Lopez surf the wave and come in laughing like a kid validated the pool to an army of Baby Boomers, still in good-enough physical shape to continue surfing and looking down their nose at golf. Will Lemoore resemble “Cocoon” and will surf ranches become the country clubs of the future? If the scented-candle-and-orchid-filled bathrooms at Lemoore are anything to go by, they are looking at a high-end clientele. Cheaper, more accessible wave pools will appear—they already have thanks to Basqubased engineering company Wavegarden—but the economics will decide who, if anyone, wins. And if none of them do and the landscape is dotted with empty, contoured concrete wave pools, then investors could move their money into skateboarding.
The WSL will also need the surf industry to hang in there. The big surf brands remain in slow retreat from the Tour, and no matter how deep their pockets, the WSL can’t do the heavy lifting of financing the Tour alone.
Then they’ll need people to watch, which sounds like stating the obvious, but this is a desensitized viewing public who have seen so many surfing thresholds crossed in the past two decades that unless someone is breaking their back under a mutant lip or landing an air without a name, it’s hard to engage them. They’ve seen Mick Fanning attacked by a shark, for Christ’s sake. How do you follow that? This might become a real issue in the pool. One of the few redeeming features of traditional, ocean-based surf contests is that at least no two waves ever look the same. In the pool they are all the same, and while I’ll happily watch Steph Gilmore ride uniform 15-second tubes, the only other person I want to see in those tubes is me. They might need to consider some half-time entertainment to break it up. I wonder if Slater knows anyone?
More than anything the WSL will need more people to go surfing. The notion of a great, untapped, unsurfing audience—repucom’s famous 130 million “hand raisers,” the global figure the WSL’S consultants gave to a potential non-surfing viewership — remains just that, notional if not delusional. Meanwhile there’s a stagnation of real surfing numbers worldwide, along with a wild demographic shift in who they are. More teenage girls, more old dudes, less Millennials. Kids and Baby Boomers seem like low hanging fruit for a pro surfing fan base, while Millennials are much harder work. Winning them over requires cool, and no matter how many Ambassadors of Stoke they employ, the WSL will never be cool in a dissociated Millennial way.
(Left) High-performance surfers like Filipe Toledo have refined their maneuvers and pushed progression in the sport in ocean waves, which are inherently unpredictable. By allowing someone like Toledo to train in a more consistent setting, the level of performance surfing may reach entirely new heights. Photo by MILLER
But Sophie Goldschmidt remains buoyant, and she’s right. The WSL are the best chance pro surfing has ever had, and if it doesn’t happen now it never will. “If you’re standing still in this day and age, you’re moving backwards. It would be a shame and inexcusable if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities to really grow it and take it to new audiences and allow new people to experience it.”
If there is any doubt that Slater has brought us all here today, just read the closing chapter of his 2003 book, “Pipe Dreams.” His vision of Big Surfing goes way back: “Surfers have dreamed of creating the ultimate wave machine. The perfect setup would take surfing to every town in America and make the sport as mainstream as soccer. All my friends would be able to quit their jobs and work as resident pros.” Now his Tahitian friend, Raimana Van Bastolaer, is the resident pro at Lemoore. Slater is a sharer of surfing. A sharer of the stoke. All his friends are getting tubed in his pool and losing their minds. Stoke makes the world go round in Slater’s eyes, and it’s why he genuinely can’t understand why some people think the wave pool is a bad thing for surfing.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Slater, you can bet that he’s looking at the Lemoore wave right now and already thinking of improvements, of Lemoore 8.0, and where that will lead both the sport and culture of surfing next… and himself.
Kampion’s satirical piece is narrated by an anonymous surfer, the Olympic surfing gold medalist, a guy monomaniacally driven to succeed on a surfboard but driven also by higher callings. Does he remind you of anyone? According to the piece, after this surfer wins gold, he goes on to run for “World Secretary” with a goal of putting “every Human Being into the eye of the most perfect wave imaginable: Himself. And there, as a planet, we will find God.”