At a recent surf contest, a very talented and well-known surfer lost in the quarterfinals. Dejected, he sat on the scaffolding, about 20 feet from the judges and started Tweeting about the low tide, the number of judges, and the overall professionalism of the event.
This surfer has a great legacy of bringing airs to the forefront of competitive surfing. His resume of wins attest to his ability get the job done. He may have had some legitimate points, but he never approached the contest director or the judges. He hadn't discussed the tide swings before his heat either. And they were right there. How ironic that in the information age, people don't know how to communicate face to face?
If you've followed professional surfing these last few years, you know there's been a few blowups -- a few public melt-downs and freak-outs. Some have taken to social media and have become Internet sensations like grumpy cats or the "Wapow, Get Pitted" surfer kid on Youtube.
Sometimes it's a case of just reaching a frustrated boiling point. Surf performance, like our other action sports brethren, is a hard thing to quantify. As far as judging formats go, from the smallest amateur event in Oregon to the finals of the Quik Pro France, there will always be a certain level of subjectivity. Ocean conditions create the most variable playing field in all of sports. And as well trained as judges are, it will never be cut and dry like the number of times a ball goes through a goal or who crosses the finish line first. That's why they call it "judging."
Plus, surfing has more competitive organizations than boxing. The ASP, ISA, SA, HAS, ASP NA, SSS, NSSA, ESA, WSA, ASF... it's like alphabet soup. How difficult is it to rise to the top when you're not even sure which events to surf? And thus, someone will always be angry.
These are problems that a new Surfing America program called 'Navigating Surf Contests' is looking to address.
"Education is the major goal of the course, so we can reduce the misunderstandings within the system," explains Erik Krammer of International Surf Services in Oceanside, Calif.
Krammer, a competitive surfer of 15 years and an ASP judge for 11, presented the Navigating Surf Contest clinic to 60 competitors, parents, and coaches at the Eastern Surfing Association's Eastern Surfing Championships in Nags Head, North Carolina in September. The point was to lay down a basic understanding of how it all works, in this foreign concept called a real life conversation.
"These problems are not just surfing related, but are becoming more common in all sports as the level goes higher and the age goes lower. Also the relation between athletes, parents, and sponsors in a difficult economy has added extra pressure to the system as it places more focus on the results for exposure and promotion leading to diminishing incentives and contracts," offers Krammer.
Take the Billabong Pipeline Masters in 2011. As usual, there were 48 surfers in that event, as opposed to the normal 36 surfers in all the other contests. The Pipe Masters allows extra wildcards, mostly local Hawaiian surfers. But while these wildcards get to compete, they don't get an equal cut of the purse. This goes back 10 years when the ASP voted to allow the extra wildcards. The purse gets reserved for the guys who made the tour and surfed all year. If a wildcard does make the late rounds, he can make some cash, but not what the elite tour guys will pocket. It would cost the sponsor another $78,000 to pay everyone equally -- money that just isn't there.
So when a few wildcards got their checks, they cried foul on social media. The next thing you know, Internet surf fans (who love a good conspiracy theory) started tying the light paychecks to an altercation involving a Billabong team rider. Message boards and Twitter lit up like the Fourth of July. It was a classic case of misunderstanding fueling online foolishness. Perhaps the wildcards' earnings could have been better communicated before the event?
There are more young surfers than ever working to reach the elite level of our sport. And at the same time, the industry is scaling back its support for those on the line of professional and amateur. There are simply fewer resources for a generation of kids who have known nothing but rapid growth of the industry and sport. Not everyone is going to make it.
"A lot of people were talking about the seminar this year at Easterns," said Outer Banks photographer Mickey McCarthy who shot the event for the ESA, "It's good for the next generation to know what it's going to take to succeed. It sounds like it was a real success."
But will this kind of "how to be come a pro surfer" lesson homogenize the sport? Imagine if all of surfing's heroes had come up the same exact path? How dull would it be everyone surfed, talked, dressed and lived the same exact life to get to the top?
"It is definitely technically oriented, but does not "lay out the map" on how to surf heats or free surf. It is more educational in the sense that it will help everyone understand the rules and what the judges are looking for, and what events they need to do to qualify for the next level. It will increase the level of surfing much quicker because there will not be so much time lost without knowing what is going on," explains Krammer.
Fair enough. The nuts and bolts of the course outlined judging criteria, interferences, heat format, tabulation, communication with the judges, and how to progress through the different levels of competition. Just explaining how the ISA works with the ASP is a start. Everyone got a 19-page outline, which Krammer used to base his discussion.
"The Easterns at the Outer Banks was our first stop for the seminar, and we are planning to return to the Southeast and Northeast as soon as possible. Now we are focusing on the West Coast and will be presenting five courses throughout Southern California during October to educate the competitors within the organizations of Surfing America Prime, NSSA, Scholastic Surf Series, and the WSA," said Krammer.